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Posts Tagged ‘abstraction’

13PattyRed3Horizontal

In 90 minutes.

Is it permissible to call a painting finished—fairly large, 24” x 30”—if it only takes you an hour and a half?  Yes.   Hail yes!

But this became an issue in class.  How can this be finished! It went so fast, didn’t even feel like work.

13PattyRed1This large painting was preceded by a smaller study, which took about NINE HOURS.  Here’s the study.  It seems stiffer, doesn’t it, but many compositional problems were worked out here.  By the time Patty, the artist/student, switched to the big canvas, she was so familiar with the basic dynamics that she could loosen up and play with all sorts of additional elements, like the vertical lines in the center.

As happens often, the work looks finished to me, but the artist has doubts.  The artist, of course, is closer to the work.

We often rotate a canvas in progress to get a better view of how shapes relate to one another.  In this case, both the study (which, btw, was originally planned as a finished painting, not a study) and the large, final painting were worked on in a vertical orientation. As we played the rotation game, the horizontal turned out to look better.   Let’s hear it for abstraction!

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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13PattyBlueGalapagosSome students in my painting class like to start with a photo taken during their travels.  Here’s one from the Galapagos.  Texture, shapes, lines, a bit of blue.  The photo itself looks pretty abstract already, but the ocean at bottom right gives it away as representational.

In order to help her disassociate the image from its literalness, Patty rotates the photo 90° counterclockwise.  She tapes it to the top of the easel, dips a 1” paint brush into some thinned sepia and draws the main lines on the photo onto her large fresh white canvas.   At this point, it’s safe 13PattyBlue1to say, she may still be thinking rather literally, her loyalty latched to the Galapagos photo.  The more paint she puts on the canvas, the more her loyalty will shift to the canvas and away from the photo.  The paint takes over.  Easy to say.  In fact, paint comes with all sorts of frustrations; it just does not do what the sunny, equatorial photo does.

The challenge is to let the paint take over.  One way to move in that direction is to reach for the big brush.  How about this one here, brand new and clean and THREE INCHES wide.

Take a deep liberating breath. Ooh, now we’re paintin’!

Patty’s painting is not finished, but I like it already.

13PattyBlue2

My students graciously put up with me when I consider their painting finished long before they themselves think it’s done.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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13BoyerLesRondes4flip

This does not work, does it!

It looks comical to me, like an attempt at an abstract painting based on oh-well-let’s-put-some-shapes-together.  Isn’t that what abstraction is, just shapes that don’t represent anything?  Soooo, wrooooong!  If it were a matter of throwing some shapes together, then this thing would be good.  Nice shapes, good colors. But so off, so mindless and heartless. The eye just does not want to move through this flipped version.

Now consider the original.  What a relief!  What an engaging composition!

13BoyerLesRondes4

(See previous post for clues to the genesis of the painting.)

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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13BoyerLesRondes1This painting (oil on canvas, 40” x 30”) took three class periods to complete, that’s about seven hours.  The artist started by putting down the colors he wanted to work with, reminiscent of the rich sepia and ochers of the Renaissance, he said. Rectilinear shapes fell into place, hinting at the Golden Section. This is not surprising when you have the Renaissance on your mind and one of the recent topics under discussion in the class had been just that, the Golden Section, its history and uses, briefly of course.

13BoyerLesRondes2The working method adopted by the artist, Bruce Boyer, was to sit back from the easel at a distance of about six to eight feet and look at the painting in progress. Then he would get up and quickly add something.  He had discovered, he said, that the painting tells you what to do.

The painting tells you what to do! 

 

Well, how hard can that be!?  Consider this: In the theater, actors will tell you that the hardest thing on stage is to listen.  So it is with painting.  Listen!  This takes tremendous 13BoyerLesRondes3concentration. My students often tell me that after three hours of this work, “I’m ready for a nap.”   It’s hard work.

I’m showing this painting in four stages and without commentary.  I invite you to study the process—the conversation.  Listen!

 

——————————————————————

Next , the completed work. Bravo!

13BoyerLesRondes4

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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Your brain loves a straight line.  It’s quick, leads you from one end to the other in an instant.  It divides one side from another and no ifs or buts about it.  Then the brain dusts off its hands, congratulates itself on a job well done and moves on to something else.

When you put a clean crisp line into your painting you tickle that part of the brain that wants to know what’s what and therefore your attention will go to that line and you will be pleased.

Let’s look at a recent painting by Ellen G.  Here on the right you see it in the almost-finished stage.  We get the sense that this is a construction (it was derived from a collage, measuring less than 2 inches) and that directs us to see is as an abstraction, an invitation to engage in interpretation, that necessary pastime of us moderns.  What am I looking at here, the eye says.  Well, I see a reddish trapezoid, a bit of green on the right, an L shaped yellow thing, a fuzzy dip (#3) into a lead gray rectangle and then, oh look, there this thing on the lower right that looks like a landscape(#1).  Thank you, artist!  You gave me something to identify and latch on to because it relates to the real world.  Once you see this picture within a picture, it will dominate your attention.  This hilly vista with a suggestion of something like telephone wires just came out like that. In the original collage it was a bit of torn paper.  No matter, here it’s incarnated as a landscape and it takes over and you keep going back to it.  The rest of the painting then will look irrelevant, if you can even get yourself to pay attention to the yellow and the red.

Now, look what happens when the edge at #2 is made absolutely clean and straight.  Your eye zooms to it.  The “landscape” at #1 still demands your attention, but now it has competition.  The clean line at #2 compels your eye up.  Then what?  There’s a synaptic jump and you land at #4.  What’s #4?  Nothing.  It’s pure shape and color.  It’s an angle, the intersection of two lines, not as compelling as a clean line would be, but, hey,   it’s red.  So there you are at this angle, which forms an arrow.  And where does the arrow lead? Down to #1.  So, the artist has us coming and going, moving through this painting and wanting to stay with it.  When this happens, your brain becomes mind and you love puzzlement. There you are, looking at this thing, feeling entranced.

What about the yellow-orange L shape?  That’s texture.  Texture engages you with its emotional power.  See next post.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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This is the third of four posts about the process that starts with a collage as a source of inspiration and ends with a painting.  The early steps of the process were outlined in the November 15 post, titled “Colliding with Collage.”  We’ve seen how Beatrice and Naomi adapted the process to make their paintings.  Now, let’s look at Elaine’s adventure.

From the several collages Elaine had made, she was most attracted to the red one.  She brought a 24 x 30 canvas to class.  The red paint she started to work with immediately appealed to her and was never changed throughout the painting process.  It remained a given to which the other color choices had to relate.  When all the elements from the collage were roughly painted in, we talked about the use of a horizon line as an orienting device.  There was no such line in the collage, but the painting seemed to call for a horizon.  It came about, not as a line, but as a differentiation in hue, the top being more orange than the red ground below.  While the elements in the collage referred to clouds, skyscrapers, and roads, once these were rendered in paint on canvas, they lost their literalness and seemed to demand their own painterly existence.  This became Elaine’s struggle, a challenge none of the other students had to face.

The first breakthrough came when the cluster of black vertical rectangles achieved a coherence and completion that set the visual language for the whole painting.  When a painting has found its language, the artist is more than half way there.  Now the painting has taken a stand; it’s become a partner in a dialogue.  From this point on, we’re merely solving problems.  Merely, ha.

The blue elements on the top easily adjusted to the pictorial language Elaine had found, but the other elements did not.  Yet, they were there, filled a lot of space, and had also taken up a lot of her time.  For those reasons it was difficult to give them up.  If they were eliminated, there would be a large “empty space,” a concept that sounds chilly and lazy.  As it turned out, however the “empty space” adds drama to the whole composition.  There is no such thing as empty space.  That space on the left directs the eye to the black vertical elements on the right.  The blue elements on the top direct us to the left.  Once the thin white lines at the bottom were added, we had a distinctive foreground because the white pops forward in our perception.  The result is that the eye circles through the composition.  While we have a strong sense of foreground-middleground-background and a feeling of deep space in a landscape, the painting does not pin us down in specific references to known reality.  The painting’s intellectual severity is counteracted by the tactile, emotional attraction of its texture.  When she painted over the diverse elements the painting had inherited from the collage, the artist did not obliterate them completely (which would have been easy), but left them “bleeding” through, an effect called pentimento, which adds emotional depth.  (Pentimento deserves a full discussion, planned for future posts.)

This painting underwent its most drastic development during the last class period.  It shows the most dramatic departure from the original collage of any of the students’ projects.  Elaine struggled for six hours in the previous classes and then, finally and suddenly, the painting came through with clarity and integrity.

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I have a box in my studio where clippings get tossed, from magazines I subscribe to and magazines that people give me because they know about that infamous box.  In general, when you’re an artist, people give you things, either in earnest or because they think it’s time to rib you about being an arteeeeest.  A friend once gave me a banged up aluminum kettle that he had found in his apartment building’s garbage because he thought I would want to draw it.  Another friend bought me a 25 cent painting at the Good Will store, something with an American flag and a coyote, you can’t imagine how awful, and I got the joke.  No matter, that infamous box is a treasure trove.

I scooped out a few handfuls and brought them to my landscape painting class.  Spread out on a long table, the pile of paper looks like a hopeless mess.  Of course.  So is the oil paint being mixed on a palette.  That’s exactly what the mess of paper on that table is, a palette.  But whereas painting requires mixing, cleaning, scraping, wiping—a truly messy process—collaging presents you with an ironically neat working process.  It’s all there.  You cut, rip, try this, try that—all in a rapid, intuitive thought process where color is instant and shape is in a quick cut or the ripping gesture of the wrist.  Because there’s no technical complexity, the imagination has a field day.  My students, all over-educated high-achievers, plunged in, bringing their usual energy and concentration to what to an outsider would have looked a bit silly.  Not silly, folks.  Collaging opens up possibilities not accessible by the habits of brush and turpentine.  Most students produced three collages in three hours, each more freed from literalness than the one before.  The liberation from the literal is at the heart of abstraction.  But abstraction is hard to get at if you clench your jaw and try to will yourself into it.  Doesn’t work, results in phony, flat, klutzy arrangements and we’ve seen plenty of that kind of stuff.  Abstraction, I’ve observed, happens when your love of color and shape sneaks up on you and boo! derails you out of your complacent loyalty to polite representation.  “I’ve never done anything like this before,” more than one student said, and  “I always hated collage before.  This is amazing.”

It was a productive day.

Some of these collages will be framed as independent works and some will serve as the point of departure for paintings.  The collage work was so engrossing that none of the students felt worried about how they were going to tackle the painting stage.

The process of transferring a collage to a canvas will be discussed in a future post.  After that, in yet another post we will see the paintings.

Collages shown here by Spike S., Elaine C., Beatrice K., Ivan T., and Naomi P.

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