Abstract Painting Classes

January – May 2017

Abstract Classes

I had the chance to join in weekly abstract classes here on the island. There was a core group of three students who attended regularly, with others jumping in for various weeks depending on their stays in Lanzarote. This in itself is interesting as abstract painting is so subjective, it was fascinating to witness how different the students’ interpretations of similar themes were to one another. Two of the other students had been attending the classes for a couple of months before me and had come to grips with certain aspects, whereas I was a total novice. My only foray into this genre was a couple of projects in the Practice of Painting course, however, these were very basic.

Initially, we looked at various abstract artists’ work in books to see what sort of things appealed to us. I was drawn to colour, especially red, and more loosely worked paintings. Some of the many artists we looked at over the weeks were Frank Stella, Sonia Delaunay, David Hockney, Frank Marc and Vasily Kandinsky.

Action shots taken and kindly allowed to be reproduced her by photographer and tutor Betty Rawson.

Mindlessness

I was so out of my comfort zone it was almost frightening – I had to forget everything I relied on – observation, sketching, planning – and let my mind go. I found I didn’t trust my colour sense anymore and, to be honest, began to think I never had any! Our first lesson was drawing random shapes and adding colour. I really struggled, I didn’t know what I was doing – I didn’t have an end result in my mind to work towards… but there was no going back!

The next week promised to be more fun. Our initial class of five dropped to four, our two experienced students and another novice and myself. We had been warned that we would be outside in a field so to come prepared . This was January in Lanzarote, so although warm enough, it was windy and we had previously had some rain so trainers, jeans, fleeces and aprons/coveralls were the order of the day. We advanced, armed with rolls of paper, brushes, pots of water, water-soluble paints and canvases, everything had to be weighed down with stones and insects had to be discouraged from landed in the paint.

We began with a long roll of paper between two and just splashed, dribbled, splattered and daubed to our hearts content for the first hour. We then set up our canvases and with a little more thought, began to make our paintings.

Field work for abstract course - experimental mark making and beginning my first canvas

Field work for abstract course – experimental mark making and beginning my first canvas

The painting on the canvas above was worked on over a few sessions…

Third session on the Squares and Circles canvas

Third session on the Squares and Circles canvas

A bit more work was done on this, along with some glazing with a dilute PVA substitute tinted with various colours.

Squares and Circles - maybe finished, maybe overworked - still not sure which way up I prefer it. Interesting start though.

Squares and Circles – maybe finished, maybe overworked – still not sure which way up I prefer it. Interesting start though.

Time to move on – we had another experimental session with a small piece of work made with sticking coloured shapes. Some shapes were cut from paper we’d painted and some from patterned paper and magazines. Again, I floundered – my fellow student below was doing so well as her colour sense was developing beautifully – in the beginning, it always took me until 20 minutes before the end of the class for me to “get it”.

Cutting, colouring and sticking shapes onto small card to make small abstracts as reference for a painting.

Cutting, colouring and sticking shapes onto small card to make small abstracts as reference for a painting.

Following our planning and experimental stage we took reference from this to begin our next painting…

I called this Wash Day in the end as it reminded me of clothes being blown about on washing line.

I called this Wash Day in the end as it reminded me of clothes being blown about on washing line.

We always had a little critique at the end of a session and regarding the above, we all thought that the dark shape in the middle was trying to dominate. This, however, was not necessarily a bad thing as a little challenge in an image can work – we nicknamed this challenge the “Party Pooper” as it’s trying to suck the joy out of the rest of the painting.

The weather was lovely so another outside session for us today. We started with a warm up by using brushes on the end of sticks and made marks paint on paper. The sticks were heavy and it was more like sword fighting at times. In fact my brush broke and had to be taped back together at one point. It certainly loosened us up for our canvas though.

Extended brush painting, outside. This was fun and bordered on dangerous at times but a good warm up exercise!

Extended brush painting, outside. This was fun and bordered on dangerous at times but a good warm up exercise!

Using the garden around us as inspiration, not to mention the fabulous view of the mountain in the distance, we began our main event canvas. This was worked on for a few weeks worth of classes and has a little more to be done for improvement. Many methods of mark making were employed in it, from wiggling a paint laden brush in a semi-uncontrolled way across the entire canvas, to drips and runs being blown and guided by turning the canvas this way and that. It has been glazed with dilute PVA with an orange tint several times. The shape and size of the canvas gave the painting a little more scope for experimentation.

This has had many interpretations in the class, what started out as a garden/bougainvillea inspired piece of work has become darker with wicked forest, to horses galloping across it carrying knights...

This has had many interpretations in the class, what started out as a garden/Bougainvillea inspired piece of work has become darker with wicked forest, to horses galloping across it carrying knights…

I was going to give this another heading, however, it still does come under Mindlessness.  In this week’s class, we were to bring a piece of music that made us feel something. We had a pretty full class for this one, five of us at our work stations with ear phones listening to different music and just painting – making marks that we felt came from our music. Nobody knew what the other was listening to. We worked on our canvases for most of the class and at the end, we looked at each other’s work, listening to the music that inspired it. It was fascinating as we were in a larger class than usual, yet we were completely absorbed in our own world of music and paint.

I titled this after the music I was listening to - Titanium. The track I chose was Titanium by David Guetta featuring Sia.

I titled this after the music I was listening to – Titanium. The track I chose was Titanium by David Guetta featuring Sia.

I felt that it was about overcoming outside negative influences, being independent and pushing yourself upwards and onwards – never giving up.

The range of music was vast, from my dance track, to a gentle classic piece, to an African uplifting beat and vocal, to an oriental and mystical composition. We could all see the influences from each in our paintings, although we would never have guessed what they were.

Themes and Where to Start

This week we were down to two of us – I think everyone else knew how tough this would be! Our challenge – whether we chose to accept it or not, was to make a self-portrait – not only abstract but in 3-D. Back to square one then! After looking at each other blankly for a few minutes, we started looking through magazines, patterned papers and other bits and pieces for images, textures, colours that appealed to us and that may be descriptive of us. Even this was really difficult for me. I started cutting and ripping things out and gathered a pile of samples of stuff! We made a base, which we could either paint or cover in other papers. We then began building our self-portrait. This was really tricky, the only things I could fixate on were colours I liked and chocolate! Anyway, this is what I came up with – not very impressive I know…

3-D Self Portrait - is what it's meant to be, but even though I made it and it's about me - I don't get it!

3-D Self Portrait – is what it’s meant to be, but even though I made it and it’s about me – I don’t get it!

This week, I was allowed some comfort back. We were allowed to draw a still life!!! My turn to be happy and for my lovely classmates to groan :0)

Betty had set up a still life of an orchid, with a starfish, a lantern and a few knickknacks. It was actually quite complicated as we had a few minutes to draw it from one angle, and then move around to capture others. Fairly straightforward, but the first few were to be without lifting the pencil, charcoal, pastel or whatever from the paper. (Even more groans from the back – my revenge was complete!)

The last drawing was to be done without looking at the paper – and just to make sure – we had to use white oil pastel! Once this was done, we took our white on white drawings to the table and, using watercolour paint, we were to put down whichever colours we liked, wherever we liked on the drawing. The point being that the paint would be repelled by the oil pastel wherever it met. Unfortunately, I got carried away and decided I wanted a wet in wet effect. The paper was dampened with water and paint added. It seemed that the extra water didn’t allow the oil pastel to resist the paint so well, so my first attempt was a fail…

Overly dampened paper with watercolour on oil pastel

Overly dampened paper with watercolour on oil pastel

 

So, much to the consternation of my fellow classmate, who had done the same, we had to redraw in white oil pastel and start again.

This time, I ensured that the pastel was thicker, although I couldn’t look at it, and did not pre-dampen the paper.

Watercolour was added randomly at first and the resist from the oil pastel was much more successful. I then swapped to a finer brush and traced some of the lines left from the resist. This was very therapeutic and satisfying, and illustrated how something representational could be used to create an abstract work.

 

 

Still Life Orchid in white oil pastel to resist watercolour

Still Life Orchid in white oil pastel to resist watercolour (with a surprise dolphin!)

More drawing this week! We had a plate of peppers plus some other edible items that I can not remember – and as they were abstracted, the drawings don’t help!!

Our method of beginning an abstract painting this time, was to draw the shapes we saw, no particular detail and no tone, just shapes. We made three large thumbnails on a piece of paper and working in shades of black, white and grey, roughly filled in shapes that we had drawn or added.

Monotone shapes drawn from still life - peppers etc

Monotone shapes drawn from still life – peppers etc

I felt that no one of my drawings was what I wanted, so amalgamated all three into something more pleasing to me as below:

Amalgamation of thumbnail sketches

Amalgamation of thumbnail sketches

The drawing was transferred onto some gesso coated hardboard 62 x 45 cm and then painted in acrylic, again with shades of black, white and grey. This is not yet finished but I’m looking forward to working on it again.

Large painting from thumbnail sketch

Large painting from thumbnail sketch

In our final lesson of the term, our last method of starting an abstract painting was to use colour. We had to think of an occasion or event that had a big impact on our lives. With that in mind, we had to relate that to a colour. We then mixed some tones of that colour and made a swatch of those tones on a piece of paper. When we had done that, we needed a contrast colour with mixed tones to add to the paper as below:

My swatch of emotive colour tones with its contrasting colour tones.

My swatch of emotive colour tones with its contrasting colour tones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately, I had not brought a canvas with me, so had to use a spare one of Betty’s which was only 20cm square. Although, I probably wouldn’t have finished anything bigger in one session. The event that had a dramatic impact on me was related to water. Specifically, my first experience of a water slide into a pool when I was about ten years old. Prior to this, I was a complete “water baby”, and couldn’t wait to have a go. Not really knowing what to expect, I got in line with everyone else and was soon skidding down towards the water. The complete, all-encompassing wave of water that engulfed me, took me completely by surprise and I barely managed to surface and recover. I still like swimming but have a fear of being out of my depth and overly choppy water, be it in a pool or sea.

Water Shock

Water Shock

That’s all for this term but I am looking forward to the next one.

What I’ve taken away from this is that, I need to let go of the controlled way of working sometimes and go with what I feel rather than what I see in front of me. Art is an emotive and subjective form of expression and if it’s not created with feeling then I can not expect it to be viewed with feeling.

 

Exercise: Abstract Painting from Man-made Form

16 & 17/02/16

Exercise: Abstract Painting from Man-made Form, 

With the same degree of close scrutiny and analysis, study a man-made object. Focus close in on one part of it and try out different viewpoints… until you have an abstract composition that you can develop and enlarge into a painting.

Casting my eye around the room, I found a few contenders and I was drawn to the stapler. However, I began to get embroiled in the angles and perspective in my initial drawing before remembering this is to be an abstract painting. I accept that this drawing is a little off but it is sufficient for my objective. As this man-made object is a little more complex, I again, drew compositional frames around sections, but this time I cropped photographs around them to see them away from the entire object:

 

 

Being much happier with the omission of black and sticking to primary and secondary colours, I continued with an A3 painting in acrylic pigment. I painted the image the same way round as the coloured pencil study. However, again, once I’d removed the masking tape edges and brought it away from the board, I turned it this way and that, and finally found it more pleasing upside down. This is because it made more spatial sense to me. The large, dark shape on the diagonal in the foreground seemed close and in focus, whereas the yellow at the top receded giving the entire painting depth. I am also pleased I included the squares as they give a horizontal foil to the diagonals. I had to add a little white to the yellow as it was a transparent colour, and also to the purple as it was too dark initially, and maybe, the orange could have been a little brighter. On the whole, though, I think it works and has a good balance.

One thing I really have taken away from these abstract exercises, is that I felt much more creativity in working this way. I have always been a “draw or paint what’s in front of me” painter, which I was beginning to find boring and unimaginative. This has been, in my opinion, my main point for improvement and I feel I may be making some progress.

Final painting Acrylic on paper A3

Final painting
Acrylic on paper
A3

 

Exercise: Abstraction from Study of Natural Forms

15 & 16/02/16

Exercise: Abstraction from Study of Natural Forms

In this exercise you can abstract by looking very closely at a familiar natural form and expanding what you see in an arrangement of lines, shapes and colours. 

Again, it’s raining cats and dogs outside so fell back on my box of objects that may be useful for still life work. I have collected leaves, stones, fir cones the usual stuff and more unusually, dried bodies of hornets, flies and my prize possession, a small rat’s skull found whilst gardening. You never know when they will be useful.

 

After careful consideration I went with the rat skull. The process I followed is below:

 

I painted the entire image as per the study i.e. on its side from the original drawing. However, on completion, although I liked the landscape bias, turning back to the representational orientation made more sense to me. As Frank Auerbach said in the film at his recent exhibition, finding an expression in objects is a useful tool. I am a novice in abstract art, both viewing, understanding and most definitely in making it, I’ve found I need to find one thing to make sense and then everything else follows.

I am pleased with the outcome of this exercise, particularly as it’s a completely new experience for me. I like the colours and tones and the overall effect works for me. Even my husband, who when I tried to explain the process asked if I’d overdone my cold medication, liked the finished image and said I should do a really large version. Maybe I will, when the pressure is off.

RAT! Final painting in acrylic on paper 30x30cm

RAT!
Final painting in acrylic on paper
30x30cm

 

Richard Diebenkorn – Royal Academy of Arts

05/06/15

Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993)

I just caught this exhibition before it was due to close on the following Sunday – I had wanted to attend the OCA study visit but was away at the time. I am so glad I made the effort to visit under my own steam as this is, probably, an unlikely to be repeated opportunity.

I have to confess that I had not been aware of this artist until his exhibition was publicised through the OCA and on Facebook groups to which I belong. I also admit that I know little or virtually nothing about abstract art other than I like a piece of work or I don’t, it speaks to me or it doesn’t and if it does, it usually has the colour red in it. There, a total philistine! I remember many an occasion at the tea-table (we had tea in those days, not dinner!), with my mum and dad watching the news when some art work was causing a storm at the Tate Modern – prime example was the “pile of bricks”, or even a Picasso or two. Its fascinating what you absorb when you’re young from those around you. My mum was as proud as anything with my school art works, I remember catching her trotting round to my neighbour’s one afternoon after school, with a painting I’d done for my O Level course work to show it off to her. Both parents were very supportive of my endeavours, with dad taking me off to town and buying me all the materials I would need for my art lessons – a small fortune in those days. However, back to the tea-table where everyone said “Look at that! A five year old could do that!” – including me! So, there I was in front of quite a lot of abstract work at this exhibition and all these memories came tumbling over me – quite emotional! Is that what abstract art is about – making you feel not just see, or is that all art???

Anyway, my first thought was, I thought that there would be more – I had decided to go round quickly first and then go back to those works I particularly liked.  However, after discovering it was only three rooms, I went round again slowly looking at everything carefully, and then again. My second main thought? I wish there was more!

Richard Diebenkorn at the Royal Academy

Richard Diebenkorn at the Royal Academy

I have to admit, I am true to my roots, in that I particularly loved the representative work, the life drawings, the figures, they all had so much energy, I enjoyed the workings over and over. I thought the still life in interiors were great (maybe because that is where I’m up to in my course – the negative shapes that built the structure and the patterns that weren’t ignored but celebrated as an excuse for more colour).  I was drawn to the “Ashtray and Doors” 1962, such a simple, almost throw away subject but it was beautiful and had narrative (no smoking ban in those days!).

In my humble opinion, I came away thinking that Richard Diebenkorn was a master in composition and colour, my example would be “Cityscape #1” 1963.  It has pattern, light and shapes that are recognisable yet don’t have to be – it makes sense to me, the flattened perspective works and still somehow manages to represent distance.  The seemingly cross over work, abstract-representative-abstract, is accepted by my brain, I’m getting a few steps closer! Looking at those of the Ocean Park series that were displayed, I did struggle, I warm to curves rather than angles and straight lines. However, I was drawn to the Ocean Park #27 painting for some time – there was more to it than geometric shapes, I liked the under painting and reworked lines and shapes – I felt absorbed but am not sure why.

Works I returned to for second or third viewings:

  • All the monochromatic life and figure drawings, I could see the struggle and observation in every mark.
  • Cityscape #1
  • Ashtray and Doors
  • Interior with View of Buildings – a large work that took a little “looking at”, so I did, for what felt like at least 10 minutes!
  • Girl on a Terrace – mesmerising and a little uncomfortable in composition (not as in disturbing but as in making you work to see it).
  • I even went back to the Disintegrating Pig!!