Overview of progress on my Personal practice and plan for next 50 hours:
1) Progress on Personal practice
Existential shift to abstraction
This 50 hours of personal practice has seen a significant step forward in defining my voice.
I now know I want to specialise in abstraction. This has been helped by my current art book Foster, H. et al. (2011) Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism. (s.l.): Thames & Hudson as I have been reading about the origins of abstraction in the early 20th century, and many of the problems facing the early abstractionists are the same ones I have been grappling with.
My biggest block has been psychological.
I started my degree thinking painting was about representative art and all art was in some way referential, even if heavily modified by symbolism, abstraction or expressionism. However, in Level 2 I have been steadily moving away from this and towards abstraction. This accelerated when I started Exploring Media and I could not see any point – emotional or conceptual – in ‘copying’ the ‘out there’ when photographs capture the ‘real’ world so well.
I decided during Studio Practice that I was not a political artist and did not want to use my art for political change, and was not a satirist or a conceptual artist. So, the questions were, what was art for? And why was I making art?
My answer is that art is a way of connecting with people and affirming a global humanity. On that level it is political because it is saying we are not alone, I can connect with you, you can connect with me, and we are all equally valuable and human. I am painting to connect with people, give them pleasure and make a living.
At some deep psychological level I still felt painting was about trees in a field with a house, some people… and maybe a cow. Skill was drawing accurately and matching local colour. Over the last 50 hours I have finally abandoned figurative painting and moved to ‘the other side’; this was not an intellectual decision but a deep emotional change. Painting for me is now all about the flat planar surface on the canvas and the relationships within it, there are no words or thoughts because I am not making something I have conceived, or referring to anything physical or non physical out there in the ‘real’ world. The canvas is an object in its own right, almost like a living thing, and everything on the canvas relates to everything else… it is an entity in its own right.
This change is both a huge release, finally letting go of figuration, and a new challenge.
The release is in the artistic freedom brought by not copying something external, not trying to paint a sunset, summon a memory, or capture an event or concept on canvas. As an artist I can be 100% in the moment and focussed on the canvas. This suits both my personality and professional experience as an actor as what you do when you act is turn yourself off, listen to the other actors, and react in the moment. When painting I can listen to the canvas, and react to what it needs.
The challenge is to learn a whole new set of skills. The task in my sketchbook becomes about getting to know my materials (which can now include almost anything) and tools (which could be anything from how fluid and how high I drip paint to choosing a conventional brush). I need to build confidence in what my materials can do, and learn a new visual language.
As an example take my attempt at using symbolism in my graphic abstraction.
All the shapes and gaps have a mathematical relationship, but these relationships are almost infinite so finding the best ‘composition’ is an open ended task. Even in this ‘simple’ composition there are untold variables, and how do I know which variable work ‘best’ when I am not looking outside to match it to an object, idea or experience? My answer is that the painting tells me, it’s difficult to quantify but some combinations work better than others, just like some notes on the piano go together better than others. And in the same way as music you have phrases, riffs on phrases, movements… and the piece as a whole.
Of course, the shapes are not monochrome, and even if they were you have black outlines which change the colour of white inside into subtle greys… and you have to choose the thickness of your line and which black to use, which would affect the internal ‘monochromes’. However, I am using colour… and tried to find a relationship between all my colours… which is like composing music with two instruments… one instrument is my shapes and the other the colours.
But, the colours not only change colour depending on where they are… for instance the grey strip turns red at the top, blue at the bottom and slightly orange at the side… they affect how your eye moves around the canvas… and interact with the shapes.
So, even in a seemingly simple geometric abstract you have multiple choices. It feels like trying to write Shakespeare (or even a coherent letter) when you’ve only just begun learning English.
At level 1 we learned a visual language for traditional painting such as aerial perspective, linear perspective and blue shift along with drawing skills that would allow us to accurately capture objects in space. Although material skills are useful, many of the skills are specific to figurative painting.
So, I have to learn a new set of skills relevant to a self contained flat surface (as different from a referential one)… which materials work together… how… and what are the limits of materiality.
Crossing the border from figuration to abstraction has been an existential step for me as it redefines what painting is, from something that is turning outwards and describing ‘other’ (concrete like a landscape or abstract like an emotion or memory) and so is, however remotely, iconic; to something that turns in on itself and exists only on the picture plane and is symbolic or indexical.
Bookending the limits of my abstraction
I think I also managed to bookend the two extremes of my voice from very loose gestural work, through geometric abstraction, to tight aesthetically blinding abstraction. See below:
Aesthetically blinding abstraction
Each of these has their own joys and challenges.
I love the looseness of gestural abstraction and its power to connect with my subconscious.
The appeal is inexplicable, it’s intuitive and emotional. The colours ‘sing’ and gestures make me feel like I’m dancing.
Here is a definition of gestural abstraction on ‘IDEELART – the online gallery for contemporary abstract art’.
The phrase gestural abstraction refers to a way of making art. It is a process, not a movement. With an abstract gestural painting, the point is not what gets painted. The point is how it gets painted. Rather than applying paint to a surface in a controlled, premeditated way, gestural painters apply paint intuitively, physically, by dripping, pouring, splattering, wiping, dumping, spraying, or whatever. The type of paint does not matter, nor does it matter what else besides paint ends up on the surface. What matters are physicality, honesty, intuition and deep personal expression. Abstract gestural painters explore their deepest emotions, their primal realities, and they express that part of themselves during the physical act of painting. The painting itself is a relic of the action; it is a recording of the gestures made; it is the aesthetic remnant of something earnest, intuitive, idiosyncratic and free.
The article continues through the origins of gestural abstraction, the pioneers, such as Pollock, and onto contemporary work where it says, ‘… its aesthetic appeal will always remain strong, because of the inherent emotional depth and power it communicates for both artists and viewers alike.’
The appeal for me is the total freedom of this way of working and the beautiful, raw, evocative images it creates. The challenges are:
I have no way of judging my output so it is difficult to know if I am producing worthwhile work. With conventional art I have a lifetime of experience, my degree training, and many paintings to compare it to
I still need to lose my conditioning that something that is made quickly has less value than something that takes a long time. Intellectually I know this is true, but I need to ‘feel’ it to be true.
Because these paintings tend to be quicker to make but cost the same in materials I need to sell them.
There is no set training that I know of (such as life drawing for figurative painting) to improve my skills in abstraction as the process is intuitive and the sum of what I am, so how do I get better?
The middle of my range is geometric abstraction…
I have basic maths (A level) skills and some understanding of colour theory which means I can work within a rules based (symbolic) system. The appeal is the cool clarity of the image that infiltrates its way into my psyche, and is captivating but emotionless at the same time… almost ascetic.
Filling the canvas with shapes and colours that suggest themselves as I go along produces the other end of my abstract output. This is tightly painted but explosively colourful.
Aesthetically blinding abstraction
I love the energy and joy of this, it makes me feel happy.
Ironically, I have no control over the image as one mark suggests another, so I’ve no idea what I’m painting when I start, or even as I’m painting. It’s not until I finish the painting and step away, and become a viewer, that I can see what the painting is. However, each mark is carefully considered and placed on the canvas… so it is both tight (in execution) and loose (in shape and colour) at the same time. It’s almost an extreme of geometric abstraction because everything in the canvas relates to everything else and the work has an internal logic which has no reference to anything outside the picture plane. Though viewers can, of course, read anything they want into it and introduce organic references if that’s what they ‘see’.
My challenge for part three of my Personal Practice is to improve my skills and try and find where my home is in this new world of abstract painting… maybe that I have two homes? A main residence and a holiday home? At the moment I think it’s too early to specialise and I should experiment across my whole range of abstract painting.
2) Plan for the next 50 hours
This is difficult as I am sure my plan will change when I get input from my tutor, have finished the first half of Option 4 which I’m doing next, and as I go along and new ideas suggest themselves.
However I need a basic plan to get me started.
Because my painting is non referential, I am not painting the ‘out there’ but the ‘in here’, it is in some way the total of everything that I am and have experienced. My gestural painting is weighted more to my personality and experience and my symbolic paintings more to study, knowledge and exposure to other artists. However, both are fed by understanding and research, so I think I should timetable in 10 hours research into abstract artists, both contemporary and historic.
That leaves me 40 hours… which I think I should split between gestural abstraction and symbolic work (geometric and aesthetic blindness). The practical work will include both making paintings and experimenting with materials.
So my basic plan is:
10 hours research on abstract artists.
20 hours on gestural abstraction – experimentation using rags… brushes… dripping and pouring for example… and mixed media… and to produce 2 (or more) finished canvases.
20 hours on symbolic abstraction – 10 hours on geometric abstraction and 10 hours on ‘aesthetic blindness’… to include experimentation and at least one finished canvas for each kind of symbolic abstraction.