A great way to breathe new life into representational figure paintings is to focus on seeing the figures and their environments with the eyes of an abstract artist. With figure painting it’s especially easy to get all caught up in rendering details and descriptive elements, making it easy to loose sight of the big picture and forget that (excluding the genres of portrait and illustration) a fine art painting – even the ones that feature a figure or figures as its subject – is above all a visual art form with its own visual language – and that language is based on the visual elements: shape, value, color, line, texture and pattern along with the visual principles that govern them.
My reference photo for Avalon – my husband snapped this photo of me on our visit to Catalina Island, CA.
I have no interest in being a portrait painter. I am simply a painter trying to discover more and more creative and imaginative ways to express my vision and personal voice in my paintings. The figure is just my current jumping off place to achieve those intentions. Previously, interiors and city scenes were my chosen jumping off places. So, before I ever started working with the figure, I already had an established working process: I use the elements of shape and value to structure my paintings, and I use the elements of color, line, texture and pattern to embellish my paintings.
A preliminary study for Avalon; distilling the subject down to simple, flat, and stylized shapes.
The key to combining or marrying realistic subject matter with abstraction is to see that subject matter through the lens of abstraction – or as an abstract artist would see it. In their book Encounter with Art, Reid Hastie and Christian Schmidt liken the process of abstraction to the distillation process that takes place in the production of a perfume – saying, “It takes a lot of original material to obtain a product which bears little physical resemblance to the source material. The result is also more intense than the original raw materials. In the process of abstraction in art an abundance of visual experience is compressed into the product. The physical end product has a different look about it from its original sources, giving the observer a more intensified visual experience.”
A preliminary study for Avalon; distilling values down to a pattern of one dark and four light shapes.
The process of abstracting a subject begins with seeing a subject first and foremost as plastic – as a group of shapes that can be changed, manipulated, distorted, stylized, and embellished in unlimited ways – the only limit is the artist’s imagination. This concept also holds true for the rest of the visual elements as well. Value and color can be totally freed from representational duties as can the elements of line, texture, and pattern.
A preliminary study for Avalon; experimenting with ideas for embellishing my painting with line, texture and pattern.
Crossing that line that separates representation from abstraction presents exciting new ways to see and experience the figure. Paying equal attention to figure and abstract qualities in a painting allows the artist’s imagination to soar, allowing his personal voice to enter the picture – literally!
“The soul of autumn is introspection, maturity, and transformation. This is the time of the year when we find ourselves examining the past, discovering our unfolding maturity and realizing that change is the champion of freedom.” John Ashbrook
I am grateful and thankful to have so many wonderful things in my life that bring me joy; family, friends, home, studio, and my love of art and everything art has to offer. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that after so many years I’m still a curious and enthusiastic artist who loves to learn and experiment with new ways to express myself in my paintings.
I’m also grateful to my students – you inspire me to be a better teacher! And a heartfelt thanks goes out to you, my loyal and encouraging readers who have supported my blogging efforts for the past ten years!
Again – Happy Thanksgiving from my studio to yours! I hope that you’re surrounded by love and joy on this special day.
I’m excited to announce that registration is now open for the two workshops I will be teaching in 2019! Both workshops are titled “Adding the You Factor to Paintings 2.”
If you want to increase your confidence in expressing your personal voice in your paintings, this workshop is for you. Each day we will look at concepts, tools, and techniques that will encourage students to create and rely on a personal rather than rule-based approach to composition, color, and the formal elements. Our workshop goal is to use subject matter as a jumping off place to create imaginative and personally expressive paintings.
“O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, how can we know the dancer from the dance?” William Butler Yeats
Claude Monet, Water Lilies
Over lunch recently, a dear friend and art buddy and I reminisced about some of our early workshop experiences. We chuckled as we remembered one of the very first workshops we attended taught by a watercolor instructor who was V E R Y popular. In preparation for the workshop, I worked and worked for weeks to understand and learn as many of the artist’s ideas and techniques as I could, reading everything I could find documented about the artist in books and magazines. During the workshop I took pages and pages of notes and I took step-by-step photos of every one of her demonstrations. This fabulous artist had figured out a fabulous way to paint her fabulous subject matter and that was exactly what I/we all wanted. I was so enamored by this artist’s techniques that I remember saying to myself, “If I could learn how to paint like her, I would feel like I had died and gone to heaven.” I was sure that if I could master her ideas and techniques I would become the artist I so passionately wanted to become. I came home from the workshop and worked for months on mastering her fabulous subject matter and her fabulous techniques for painting them. And, finally I achieved my goal! I had painted a fabulous painting that looked exactly like hers. In fact, it so closely resembled hers that I remember thinking that if I put her name on the painting everyone in the world would totally believe she had painted it. And that’s when it began to dawn on me that while I had achieved my goal of painting exactly like my favorite artist, I hadn’t really achieved anything that had anything to do with the artist inside of me.
I had reached the destination I set out for, but I was on the wrong path! And, I had to travel down a few more wrong paths over the years until I finally got it. And when I did, I realized that I had to begin a new journey, and I had to begin this new journey at the beginning – at the place of my not knowing. Beginning at the beginning, I set out on path to discover my own fabulous subject matter, my own fabulous ideas, thoughts and opinions about art, and and my own fabulous techniques for painting them.
My conversation with my friend began with my questioning how and why we teachers teach art. As a workshop instructor, I have a dilemma. I have formed my own ideas, thoughts, and opinions about art, and I have developed some techniques for painting the subjects I love to paint. Many students in my workshops are there to learn about those ideas, thoughts, opinions, and techniques. That is what I have to share – my own journey as an artist. But how do I TEACH that the creative journey begins not with secondhand ideas, thoughts, opinions, and techniques, but with honest feelings and authentic responses?
In his book, No More Secondhand Art, Peter London addresses this idea and my conundrum very effectively: “Of course technique is important; so are principles of design. But you already know this. You also know what it takes to acquire these traits; long, hard work. Do you want to draw like Rembrandt or Degas? Simple! Just draw ten hours a day, six days a week for forty years. That’s how they did it. Ready for that? How did Monet paint those densely woven symphonies of strokes of light, weaving that luminescent Japanese bridge over the swarming lily pond? First he excavated a huge hole, then diverted a river to fill the hole, planted it with lily pads, then built a Japanese bridge over the whole thing, all at vast expense. Then he bought a boat, made a floating studio out of it and for twelve hours a day, for over twenty years, he paddled around that pond, and painted and painted until his eyes glazed over. If you want to make stuff that has Monet’s charm….have Monet’s passion, devotion, largess, sacrifice.
The techniques of Monet or Degas can be copied; their principles of design are not obscure, they can be learned. If you want them for yourself, you can have them – for a price. And the price is dearer than you may think. Not only will you have to put in at least as much time as they did in developing these same skills, all your living days, but the real price you will have paid is that you will have succeeded in becoming them, and will have missed becoming you.
Monet’s technique and principles of design are Monet. They were created by him so that he could portray what he alone was seeing and thinking and feeling. These are not simply techniques or principles of design. They are conceptions of the world. Monet had to create his own repertoire of techniques and principles of design because he could not portray through the prevailing means what he alone was seeing and feeling. You can’t have his technique or apply his principles of design without becoming him. Better to raise the questions Monet did than to mimic his responses. What are his questions, the task he set himself? They are remarkably similar to the questions any artist, any creative person, any awake person asks. “What is that damn thing out there? What does an idea look like? How can I give form to a feeling? How does this whole mess fit together? How can I speak about the thing no longer there? The thing not here yet? Why am I moved like this by mere daylight, by nightfall? Is there a truth here, or merely beauty? Does this line have integrity, or is it guile? What have I made up, what have I observed? Of all the things I can do, what shall I do, what should I do? Will I ever get it right?”
Your particular techniques and your principles of design will be derived from your struggle with these questions. Monet did it. Rembrandt did it. So did Bellini, Breughel, Bosch, Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Byron, Bartok, Berlioz, Bernstein, Brubeck, Basie, Balanchine, Beckett, Bergman, Beckmann, Berryman, Borges, Bellows, Baldwin. You get the picture.
All creative journeys begin with a challenge to introspection, to fathom not only “what’s out there”, but “what’s in here.” They are invitations to original response.”
They are also invitations to dance your own dance, sing your own songs, write your own stories, and paint your own paintings. And through them the world will know who you are.