It is irritating to me that in some situations (usually of course, ones that don’t directly involve or affect me), I can immediately get to the nub of the thing, to distill whatever it is quite clearly in my own mind
and to anyone else who’ll listen.
It’s an uncanny trait most of us possess, actually; to be able to know exactly what we’d do if we were in your/their situation. Getting out of our own way to have clarity for ourselves however, is something else entirely.
Abstraction and simplification with my art work is a constant rumination lately – I long to take what inspires and motivates me, and reduce it to it’s barest form…and then reconstruct in a way that is more personal to me, hinting at reality but full of feeling.
My current creative process
When I first started painting, I focused very much on painting from life. This worked well with simple forms (like an apple), but when I took myself off plein air painting, I found I was often overwhelmed with what was in front of me, enslaved by the detail, even if I started out loose.
Out of this I developed a process of painting in the afternoons after my lunchtime walks, and I’d paint from my memory of that walk. I’d take photos with my phone, so not large or great quality, and I use these back at home to establish composition and value, but that’s the extent of their use. I found my paintings to be more colourful, looser expressions of my local landscape.
Though I’m mostly happy with this process – a process I now realise lots of other artists use, to avoid become overwhelmed and tight with detail – sometimes it’s still not loose enough for me.
So, I began to think what other ways are there that I could abstract my landscape work. What other materials or objects could I use to construct a composition? I came up with three (mainly because I had them round the house):
- beach pebbles
- collage from magazine cuttings
- my photographs
I know this last one seems pointless (given what I wrote earlier in the post), but I have a ton, and if I could learn better how to use them in an abstracted way, it might bring surprises.
In this post I’m exploring my idea with the humble but beautiful pebble.
I gathered a pile of pebbles (usually they gather dust in my bathroom), some rough garden twine, and a view finder, oh and a white envelope I had to hand as my “canvas” and started arranging them. This is the best (yes really) of what I came up with:
The idea was, well, a few things. One, I was trying to use the definite shapes of the pebbles to suggest something that might pass for a landscape, and that those shapes add interest, particularly to the foreground, two, squinting helps, as always, three, see how I used the twine to make a path! and four , it amused me that I was using something from the landscape to create a landscape.
I did in fact construct several compositions, but they’re really not noteworthy. And…this is also the stage at which I began to feel a little bit foolish. I wondered if this was a little too contrived. After all, this wasn’t purely about enjoying a process as such – it was exploring a new way of getting to a slightly familiar place. Or, perhaps I wasn’t really open to this concept as I thought.
I did see the exploration through though. You can see in my sketchbook I have thumbnails of the different compositions I tried. I thought actually the size of the pebbles too small, so I grouped them into larger shapes, outlined in blue pen, then re-drew them below.
You can see from those large shapes there is something vaguely landscape emerging from the thumbnails. I couldn’t resist doing a couple of colour thumbnails at the bottom. From my notes I seem quite pleased with how things are turning out! Though I do question whether the approach felt authentic for me.
The thing about this process is that it isn’t, and I suppose can’t ever be, random and therefore abstract. I arranged the pebbles and twine. I had landscape in my head. Perhaps it was always going to turn out like that. So I’m undecided about the value of this approach, to me anyway. I also think I need to be clearer in my mind the difference between abstract and simplicity, as I’ve realised I use both words interchangeably and they’re not the same thing at all!
The next part of the process was to do a few small size colour studies of the same composition. Why I brought colour into it I don’t know – this was about simplifying landscape compositions. At this point though, I was having a ton of fun…
I used acrylics for this (not my usual medium). I used the same colours on each painting, aaaanndddd – I used not only a smaller brush to make lively marks, but it was a filbert! And I usually use a one size flat throughout, so that was a little experimentation I really loved.
And at the end of it?
The main headline from this little experiment is – where’s the inspiration? Arranging beach pebbles on the back of an envelope doesn’t inspire me as much as taking a walk then painting what I feel when I get home. Only I can’t quite manage to paint what I feel. Which is where this whole thing began.
I’m tempted to by pass the collage exploration and go straight to photographs, as I’ve learned from this that I prefer to feel an emotional connection with a place to paint….and yet, having said that….I really loved doing these little colour studies, and to me they are full of feeling and emotion. Do I need to stand back? Get out of my own way? After all, feelings come from within don’t they?