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

Liminal space: I am taking this to be the space inbetween what has been and what will be, an ambiguous or disorientating space. A space that has lost its past certainties but has not yet gained its new ones.

This could be physical space, a state of being, or the boundary between consciousness and unconsciousness.

Physical liminality:

I think Turner is a good example…

Turner, J. M. W. (1842) Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth. [Oil on canvas] At: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Snow_Storm:_Steam-Boat_off_a_Harbour%27s_Mouth&oldid=1000619190 (Accessed 02/03/2021).

The two states here are the clear vision of a steam boat off a harbour’s mouth and a blinding snowstorm (where all you can see is the snow storm). This painting is liminal because it sits between those two states.

The snow storm is a layer (or curtain) on top of the clear view with a hole in the middle to reveal the boat. It is very clever because the steam from the boat links the ‘window’ to the swirling storm… yet on closer examination the brown smoke is other than the grey-black storm. The waves are a mixture of the two layers.

In terms of painting the storm could be abstraction (it is all over without figure or ground) and the landscape (the boat, sea and blue sky) figuration. So this painting is a hybrid of the two styles.

Liminal state of being:

This could be a rite of passage (say from child to adult or an adult entering a religious order) where they no longer hold their pre ritual status – they have ceased to be a child – but have not yet begun the transition status to what they will become – adult… so are in a state of limbo.

This would be hard to paint. I think the approach would have to be some kind of expressionist painting.

Also, in being sequential rather than reversible (the snow storm clears and the boat is fully visible again) this liminal state holds nothing of the former or latter states of being. The best that could be attempted would be the point at where one state has almost faded but is still (just) ‘visible’.

However, I don’t think this liminal position is one that I could paint.

The liminal of the conscious/unconscious boundary:

The most common experiences of this boundary are falling asleep, waking up, ‘daydreaming’ and under the influence of drugs or extreme stress.

However, unconscious images can be very lucid and it is difficult to know what is ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ as we slip from one state to another.

In a painting it would be hard to differentiate the two states as both are lucid. This liminality is almost a contradiction because although we gradually realise we are dreaming and not in reality, the conscious/unconscious experiences themselves are both clear, so we experience both states as active.

Surreal painting captures this dual reality but because this exercise is talking about about shadows, occlusion and mist it is firmly fixed in visual liminality.

How can I approach this with my practice in mind?

I am working in abstraction which doesn’t have a figure and a ground, so it would be impossible to show a liminal state (between two figurative conditions such as blanket fog and a castle in sunshine) as the painting is not referential.

However, I could use the colour palette from a liminal painting such as Turner’s ‘Snow Storm’ and introduce a figure, such as a geometrical shape. This would give me a figure (the saturated geometric shape) and a ground (Turner’s colour palette).

The exercise suggests:

  1. Pouring – I will try this.

  2. Painting from the back – I don’t know what this means.

  3. Masking – I could mask with different objects at different stages.

  4. Rags – I can collect rags and use them to apply paint.

  5. Sponges – I have a set of small sponges and could try using them in different ways.

  6. Layering – If I work on two paintings simultaneously so the oil paint can dry, and maybe use oil on top of acrylic I can experiment with this.

  7. Scratching – I have tried this and liked the effect – and there are lots of tools I could scratch with.

  8. Lifting off – yes, I will try this.

  9. Wiping – similar to lifting off but I am assuming it means moving the paint with (a rag) rather than removing it.

  10. Brushes – Maybe I could try using my brushes in different ways.


Do I need to add a colour (like Turner’s famous red buoy?) to create a focal point or depth?

This will be interesting as I question just how much of a subject I have to erase before my painting can work as an abstract, and whether adding a counterpoint becomes a figure? Or is incorporated into the abstraction? Or makes the painting into a hybrid – something new – that is neither abstraction nor figuration?

Finishing the painting:

The instructions tell me to continue to question the balance of the painting until I reach a satisfying but still liminally threshold point.

It will be interesting to see where I consider the painting ‘finished’, especially as my method is to be in the moment and co-creator of the canvas alongside my materials.

When I think the artistic ‘dance’ has finished I will stop and assess the work as a viewer… though I don’t think I will be any more insightful, or have a privileged insight just because I put the marks on the canvas.

However, assessing the results will be useful and I can judge whether I think the painting is effective.

1st Painting:

The colour palette in Turner’s ‘Snow Storm’:

I printed out Turner’s painting and put some colours on my palette…

Then I colour mixed the most obvious colours. There was overlaying which produced many tones/colours so I went for the ‘colours’ that struck me most forcefully.

Apart from all the beautiful colours and subtle nuances of grey (which shift and change like the swell of the sea) studying the palette gave me insights into the composition. At first sight the painting is very liminal, but there’s a clear patch in the middle which is differentiated by saturated colours and the striking pure white scumbling.

My geometric shapes

I had to decide whether to put in a 3D or a 2D shape.

As I didn’t want to go down the route towards figuration, but use the exercise to explore my practice, I decided to opt for non figurative 2D geometric shapes. As a nod to Itten at the Bauer House – he had a test where he asked new students to correctly colour in a triangle, square and circle – I coloured them ‘correctly’ yellow, red and blue.

Dripping and pouring on my basic colour palette

I diluted my colour mixes with thinner, put my canvas outside on a plastic sheet, and dripped (from a pipette) and poured the colours (from a jug) on top of the still wet geometric shapes.

Three significant stages

Pouring and painting finished outside

Paint running as canvas picked up and brought inside

Painting laid flat drying inside

There is some very interesting liminality on this final painting. The blue circle (down and left from the red square) is barely visible with a faint line in the lighter colour and a hardly discernible blue haze; the yellow triangle top is visible by the lines of paint caught in the horizontal brushstrokes, the edge and maybe the merest hint of yellow; and the red square is clear though disappearing/losing its visual coherence under the paint… it has disappeared on the left, is part of the marbling in the centre, but because of the ‘hard’ line on the right is easily readable.

All three images are interesting though I like the final image best. I think this is because of the dynamic tension between three differential areas. There is the background spatter with white canvas, the mid distance marbling and red square, and the foreground ‘mist’. These layers give the painting depth and set up movement as the eye travels between them. The saturation of the square and yellow/blue above it contrasts with the large mass of unsaturated grey brown centre left, and the emerging/disappearing triangle creates a surprising amount of tension within the grey mass at the top left.

What I learned about dripping and pouring

  1. Oil paint is hard to thin… it doesn’t just dissolve if you swirl it around with thinner, small black masses of paint remain intact.

  2. The best way of thinning oil paint is to mix it to a creamy paste with your palette knife, transfer it to a container, then add thinner.

  3. Judging the thinness of your thinned paint is difficult – and the fluidity affects how it drips and pours, how it lies on the surface, how it spreads, how it mixes, and the different splatter patterns.

  4. Thinning each colour is time consuming and uses quite a lot of thinner, which isn’t cheap… so there is a monetary and time cost.

  5. Hogs hair painted brushstrokes with undiluted paint hold the thinned paint in unique ways and are liminally visible even when you can’t see the colour anymore. So you are separating the texture from the colour.

  6. I would never have thought of combining high visibility saturated geometric shapes with loose unsaturated ‘earth’ colours but it is remarkably effective.

  7. Emergence/liminality is another tool I can use in my abstract practice. This is surprising as I thought of liminality as a visual effect tied to figure/ground painting, as in figurative and semi abstract painting.

  8. Equally revelatory is the discovery that I can mix saturated and unsaturated colours in abstraction.

  9. I have also found that I can mix different methods of paint application: on this canvas I have conventional applied oil paint with a hogs hair brush, the marbling of thin dripped and poured paint, and the flowing mass of paint caused by tilting a wet canvas.

Next step

Looking at the instructions for this exercise I still have a range of techniques to explore.

  1. Rags – I can collect rags and use them to apply paint.

  2. Sponges – I have a set of small sponges and could try using them in different ways.

  3. Layering – If I work on two paintings simultaneously so the oil paint can dry, and maybe use oil on top of acrylic I can experiment with this.

  4. Scratching – I have tried this and liked the effect – and there are lots of tools I could scratch with.

  5. Lifting off – I will try this with a rag or palette knife.

  6. Wiping – similar to lifting off but I am assuming it means moving the paint with (a rag) rather than removing it.

  7. Brushes – Maybe I could try using my brushes in different ways.

The problem is that I like this canvas, so do I work through the other techniques to see their effect and create something radically different? That would show me some of the possibilities and I could then attempt another canvas. Or do I leave this and start the process again with the intention of combining all the techniques mentioned?

I need to know how these techniques work on a canvas. I can then use some or all of them, and change the order, and begin to use them as compositional tools. For instance I could let the geometric shapes dry before putting on the thinned paint… or I could start with the thinned paint… I could move the thinned paint with rags… the possibilities are almost endless.

Painting left 60 hours to dry

The shapes have emerged from the ‘mist’ and have left some unexpected and interesting effects…

Next I remixed all the colours from my colour palette

Then I worked through my ‘instructions’

This was so I could see the effects of adding paint in different ways. My actions were quick and intuitive.

Canvas put on an easel. I used brushes to add raw sienna/white, yellow ochre/white, hint of permanent rose in white and pure titanium white

I added colour with a brush by spreading, dabbing and wiping but the brushstrokes looked like they were in a different visual language to the sponge marks and looked out of place. So I abandoned my brushes and added my ‘highlight’ colours with a sponge.

However, they didn’t blend with the gestural marks I had already made so I extended them by sweeping my sponge across the canvas. This was an improvement but the gestural marks didn’t blend with the background and looked like they were in different visual keys.

I then had the idea of dabbing the edges of my big sponge marks with a cloth/paper towel to take away the ‘lines’ and ‘mix’ them together/into the drips/splatters/runs. This was a big improvement but the overall canvas had too little tonal differential, and not enough colour interest; so I added some raw sienna and white, black, white, light blue, and white with a hint of permanent rose in the tonally flat areas.

However, I now remembered that I hadn’t put in the scratching, so I added some circles, squares and triangles that mirrored and doubled my original coloured shapes.

I then stopped stop as I’d been through all my techniques.

I have been living with this canvas for several days and it is much more effective on the wall than in a photograph as the subtle colours and textures really pop and you are pulled into the painting at the same time as the scratching pushes you away and makes you look at it as an artistic construction.

However, having said that, I posted it on instagram and asked for peer feedback and it has the most likes of any painting I have posted. Which is very interesting and I need to fully process, and try and understand why this painting is working.

What I learned

  1. Not all techniques mix but some mix unexpectedly well. For instance brushstrokes over sponge work didn’t work but dripping and pouring over primary painted geometric shapes was successful.

  2. For my next painting I am going to plan my process. This doesn’t mean I know beforehand every move but I will have a system of working, and within that system there will be a high degree of chance that I can react to/work with.

  3. Having taken the palette from Turner was good as the colours were aesthetically beautiful and blended very well. However, at some level I had his painting in my head and was trying to ‘copy’ it. This was distracting and stopped me being free in my painting.

  4. I will make up my own palette for my next painting.

  5. Composition… I’m discovering that making an abstract painting is like writing a song. I’m making something that is non referential, non iconic, non indexical and has to work in terms of its own symbolic rules. And each painting will be different, just as each symphony is different.

  6. My abstract paintings don’t have a figure and a ground, a subject or a narrative and have to rely on visual interest to succeed. They need contrast, dynamics, tension, movement, stillness… and to make sense as a symbolic whole.

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