Option 4: The unknown and the differently known: Project 1: Unknowing: Exercise 4.0: States of unkno

I decided to switch my technique around and start with the muted (though not as muted as in reality) earthy browns and greys and drip primary colours on top to obscure them. In real life visual liminality tends to be darkness and greys obscuring light and colour but there’s no reason abstraction should follow that pattern – and equally there’s the Indian festival of Holi that celebrates with a kind of dance where bright coloured pigments are thrown around which would obscure the drab reality of the everyday in a shock of primary colours.

I also decided to try masking areas so that my geometric shapes would be filled by drip paint, rather than brush paint. Again, a reversal of my last process.

60 x 60 cm with shapes masked out.

Next I mixed a simplified palette echoing Turner’s colours in ‘Snowstorm’.

Simplified palette echoing Turner’s ‘Snowstorm’

Then I marked up the canvas using my grey/brown (plus focus points) palette using a sponge for the grey/browns and a brush for the brighter more saturated colours. I tried to get larger blocks of colour than in my previous painting to add tonal contrasts and to use the white of the canvas rather than mix the colours. I am hoping my diluted paints will mix and blend the colours on the canvas. When I had roughly covered the canvas I removed the masking.

The next stage was to take primary colours, dilute them and drip/pour them to cover the canvas. As I don’t want the canvas to run I will check it’s flat with a spirit level.

Here’s the process…

And left overnight…

The colours are still very rich and the surface wet which must be because of the oils I added. The triangle is still visible as is some of the underpainting. However, it hasn’t got the sense of emerging that the last painting had.

I think this is because my underpainting has become fused with the surface, rather than being a veil between two states. But if you look at the painting long enough the triangle could seem as if it was hidden by the swirling mist of colour and about to emerge.

It is very interesting how the different mixes have reacted together; some have kept their ‘splash’ pattern (like the final lemon yellow splatters) while others have run across the surface. I could assume that the thinner the paint and the less oil the more it will run but I need to do more experimentation before I can be confident of this.

At the bottom there is a piece of masking that I forgot to remove now visible by the ridge… if I remove it it would flag the canvas as a ‘painting’ as the small white rectangle would leap from the canvas rather than allowing the viewer to lose themselves in the colours. This would be another way of asserting the artist’s presence apart from scratching though (unless I painted it in some way) it would cease to be liminal and become a statement about art.

From this exercise there are two paintings that work for me… and are equally, but very differently, aesthetically pleasing.

The first is the masked off underpainting using the Turner ‘Snowstorm’ palette. The masking tape isn’t in the palette but the creamy colour blends well with it. To reproduce this in paint I would have to paint the geometric shapes and let them dry.

The other is the ‘finished’ liminal painting.

I have been thinking whether I could paint into it, scratch the surface or remove the forgotten masking tape.

Having spent time looking at the painting I’ve noticed that there is a substantial amount of canvas showing between the saturated paint. After a time it looks like it’s coming forward and trying to emerge from the colours. This is a weird sort of reverse liminality where the indistinct background is trying to emerge through a colourful veil, whereas normally the ‘misty’ layer obscures the more saturated colours behind it.

Also, I checked the canvas against my earlier underpainting, and the underpainting has, in many areas, been dissolved by the paint dripped on top of it… and fused with the top layer.

It would be very different if I had let the background dry becaues the geometric masses of colour may have appeared like liminal objects. Also, it would be different again if I had painted my canvas say… raw sienna… and let that dry. And then painted my Turner palette… so rather than white any canvas revealed would have been sienna.

There are hundreds of variables, if not thousands, and much of abstraction is getting to know your materials.

I decided to remove the masking tape…

Much to my surprise the paint had seeped behind it so instead of revealing a bright white rectangle I’ve got a liminal one. This is the missing piece that suddenly makes the painting work.

The small rectangle is visible and somehow points the viewer to the triangle; it elevates this from a process based drip/pour painting (even though I put a lot of thought into the colours) to art. It now looks as if the neutral background is emerging/being consumed by the cloud of colour. It also introduces line and geometric shapes into an organic and otherwise chance driven painting… so conceptually mixes chance with control. This is liminal in its own right as it is on the border between reason (geometric shapes) and unreason (chance events).

Here’s a detail of the rectangle…

2nd liminal painting

My aim was is to produce something like this using what I’ve learned about materials.

Firstly I drew out some geometrical shapes and arranged them intuitively on the canvas, then I tweaked the relationships between the shapes, and between the shapes and the canvas, to make them mathematical. Next, I masked them off and painted the shapes using a hogs hair brush, and aligning the brushstrokes as a compositional element. I made the triangle permanent rose/white as a link to Turner’s palette in Snowstorm and the rest masking-tape colour, though this was more intense than Turner’s colours (which are all unsaturated) to flag it as a different visual/conceptual layer.

White canvas underpainted with raw sienna/white

When this has dried in about 10 days I will overpaint it with my Turner palette.

Snowstorm after Turner, oil on canvas, 60 x 60 cm,


How did colour operate in my paintings?

Colour operated in two ways.

Firstly, there was a differentiation in colour between high saturation and low saturation. The low saturation such as the greys and browns in Turner’s palette cover the picture plane and obscure my high saturation primary colour blocks. This mirrors visual liminality where a mist, fog or darkness causes the ‘visible’ to ‘disappear’. A liminal state between seeing and not seeing. Equally, I can shift this around and have low saturation colours emerging, or disappearing, through high saturation colours.

Secondly, two colour states could exist simultaneously (rather than one forming a veil in front of the other). So, I can have my high saturation tints existing alongside my low saturation grey and brown palette. This is more a conceptual liminality as there are two lucid states existing at the same time.

How far did I direct the process and how far did I allow chance?

Generally, I set up a process which I closely directed. For example my bold primary geometric shapes were carefully composed and painted. Then I had a semi controlled state that involved a high degree of chance such as when I dribbled and poured my paints. I could not easily control the splatter or how they mixed but I did control where and how I dribbled and poured. The different mixes of thinner and oil also introduced chance as I couldn’t predict how they would react on the canvas or mix with other colours.

When this ‘chance’ stage was complete I used the results to carefully work the canvas to produce an aesthetically pleasing image. However, as I wasn’t aiming for a preplanned result this also involved chance. For example, when I added the scratches at the end I took at least an hour looking before I finally decided to go ahead. The scratches themselves although controlled were also spontaneous, instantaneous and intuitive and I couldn’t predict what they would reveal or how they would affect the canvas, so they were both a controlled and a chance event.

What do I think my work to partly conceal the subject of my painting (or to overlay another kind of information) gives to the viewer?

It adds a layer of psychological intrigue. Our natural inclination is to look for meaning… so if there is a recognisable shape such as a boat or a square hidden behind a layer of paint the viewer will strain to see and decode it.

This can work both visually (as with a snowstorm obscuring a ship) or conceptually with two lucid states existing simultaneously (as with a dream and reality).

Interestingly this gives me a choice of whether my painting needs this mystery or would work better as a single state painting. This had not occurred to me in regard to abstract painting so has given me another tool to work with.

How might this exercise inform and develop my studio work?

I can now use liminality as a tool in my personal practice, something I had not considered with regard to abstract painting. Although I was already using chance this has shown me different ways of using chance such as combining it with choices. And finally it has pushed me into investigating my materials in new ways such as using rags, sponges and scratches, and has led me to discover the potential of different oil/thinner mixes.

Value and my practice

However, there is another lesson which relates to my practice which this exercise has also taught me. It has taught me how to value my work and my time.

Here I have two paintings which, if I saw them in a gallery, would be different but of equal aesthetic value… I know one involved many hours of work and the other two hours at most so should that affect how I value them in the marketplace?

Ignoring, for the moment, the reality that my paintings are currently selling for between £150-£300, let’s pretend these were both in a local gallery for £500 each.

How would I feel?

I would feel they were both correctly priced, which is a revelation and a huge shift in how I value myself.

I am conditioned to equate value with time so (traditionally) the longer I spend making something, the more I feel it is worth, but two things have changed.

Firstly, to the buyer, the time taken to make something is irrelevant; it is the usefulness that matters. And in as far as I can be objective these paintings are equally ‘useful’.

Secondly, after 2000 hours and about £10,000 I am more skilled than when I started. Skill and reputation have a value in the marketplace. A gardener with a great reputation (brand value) can charge more than somebody unknown… and a professional such as a teacher or a doctor are paid more for their skilled time (which they spent time and money to acquire) than a job with no skill that you can learn in 10 minutes. So I don’t think I should be valuing my time at minimum wage anymore because I have some skill and brand value (I have a small following in the village and online).

If I produce an artwork in half a day that sells for £150 in the village (and the buyer is really happy) I shouldn’t feel guilty because I haven’t spent 10 hours making it. It’s what I should be getting paid for my skill – that I have spent time and money acquiring. If I spend longer and get paid less – more like the minimum wage – then I am being underpaid.

I need to move away from valuing my work at how long I spend on it, so in the past if a work had taken 8 hours I would have said: 8 hours at £10 plus £30 materials makes my painting worth £110. Emotionally this ties me to feeling and behaving like an unskilled worker, and the insecurity and lack of status that goes with that. It makes art into a hobby and not a career.

I need to be trying to place my work in the market and looking objectively at what it compares with, its value to the consumer, and what I can realistically charge.

This has two benefits… firstly, I no longer feel guilty about being paid a skilled rate for my time… and secondly it changes my conception of myself from hobbyist to artist.

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