By a happy coincidence I read the Spring 2021 Tate ETC. Issue 51 magazine while waiting for my partner to have her Covid jab. I mention this because it echos those accidents of creation we can incorporate into our work… cracks and splodges that ignite our imaginations and can change the direction of a piece.
This was a crack in time where I had an hour and read a magazine I had around but hadn’t looked at… I’d glanced at it and dismissed it… but when I was forced to spend an hour in its company I made some important discoveries for the new direction of my practice.
There was a short article by Francis Morris called ‘We were Captivated’ on page 32 and 33 on visiting Yayoi Kusama’s studio in 2012, and a longer piece called, ‘This Man Turner, he learnt a lot from me’ where the editor Simon Grant talked to Christopher Rothko and Kate Rothko about their father’s admiration for J.M.W.Turner, pages 54-57.
Kusama’s work used saturated colours in a sort of pop art meets aboriginal art, full of shapes and patterns and dots. And if not exactly what I am aiming for, as I also like ambiguity and liminality, sufficiently close to Matisse’s aesthetic blindness, where the canvas is a screaming cacophony of shapes and primary colours that allows no rest in a Pollock all over type of way, and which I find utterly compelling.
Of her working methods it says: “She sat down to an empty canvas primed by her team, and beside her were jars of liquid colour. She picked up the brush, and, after a pause and with a short intake of breath, began to paint. She worked fast and with absolute attention in what seemed like an almost automatic process.”
This is my favourite way of working as it is focussed, in the moment, and highly creative. And releases me to ‘fly’ on the canvas as I am not trying to copy something ‘out there’ in an iconic or mimetic way, or render a feeling, idea or experience in abstract form. Her work is all shapes and colours that produces art not design or pattern. I find some of Matisse’s work functions in a similar way.
This may offer an explanation as to why I like to contextualise art, and find the academic and reading elements as important as a traditional sketchbook in my artistic development, because when I work I am expressing (albeit without thinking and without words) the sum of my understanding about art. What I express is a combination both of what I do practically and what I understand internally.
About her mirrored work it says: “… prompting powerful and intensely personal emotional responses which can seem otherworldly or transcendental. This ability to transport the viewer to the very epicentre of her obsessional and mysterious imagination is what makes Kusama’s art so endlessly captivating.”
This is the other side of my art. The flip side to a sea of primary colours fighting for attention in a riot of living, is a quiet contemplation of the eternal. They may seem contradictory but I am drawn to both extremes.
The Rothko interview is more conceptual and I have made a list of phrases that ring true for my more reflective art.
“… direct communication with the emotions of the viewer… that sense of inner light that comes from the paintings… ‘indistinctness’… duality of our physical being and our questioning spirit…. (Rothko’s paintings) are not paintings about nothing… They are in fact posing questions, and have their own contents that invite a response…. the experiential quality of art: that art is not about showing a particular thing, but it is something that has to be experienced… paying out human experience and human emotion in his paintings, that they were not static… engage the audience in the same way that an actor might want to engage an audience, or even the playwright… internal and emotional landscapes…”
I connect with everything in the interview, especially the quote about relating as an actor… as I am a professional actor… and would also like to write. Painting is for me partly like acting on canvas, and also about ‘writing’ a complete canvas, even if this is done without conscious thought or words and the finished piece is felt rather than intellectualised.
So, the new direction in my personal practice, to fully embrace aesthetic abstraction is still very scary, but I have some guidance and think I just have to dive in. And, as my tutor said, learn to trust myself and get to know my materials.
I varnished a cheap 46 x 61cm canvas…
When it was dried I laid out some sheeting on my studio floor, put my varnished canvas on some little chocks of wood and then went through the following process:
Poured water over the canvas (this pooled so I tried spreading it out so that all the canvas was wet… this was a little better but it still collected rather than being an even film.) However, I decided this would be interesting as I could see how the ink spread in the different amounts of water.
I opened my ‘Winsor and Newton’ Shellac inks – found a medium sized watercolour brush – dipped it in and splattered ink on the canvas. I didn’t like the effect, it had distinct spots on the dry canvas and was so diluted on the watery canvas as to be unreadable.
I tried repeatedly splattering ink in the pools of water, which produced a much more painterly mark and gave me the idea that I would try dripping ink on the canvas.
Dripping ink onto the canvas. I found this much more effective as it had enough colour to be readable and made patterns and rivulets in the water. Altering the height changed the impact and spread of the drops, and I could also be quite accurate on positioning. This meant I could use ‘dripping’ as a flexible painting tool. I continued with my colours and ‘painted’ the canvas until I had an aesthetically pleasing image. There was marbling of different colours in the semi-dry areas and, eddies of colour in the wetter parts, and rivulets of color chasing down the little streams of water.
To get hits of colour I tried pouring ink. It was difficult to control the volume but still quite accurate on positioning. The effects were appealing as the stronger colour gave contrast and spread into surrounding areas in unpredictable ways.
Next I added powdered marble dust by getting a pich from my pot and scattering it on the surface like salt. I did this fairly evenly over the whole of the canvas. My idea is the it would give the surface texture and combine with the wet areas. It took the sharpness out of the colour and muted the colours as if they had fallen into a fog.
To add some sparkle I sprinkled on silver dust over the whole of the canvas, but this time tried to put more in some areas than others. It was difficult to tell if it was working as in the wet ink it looked grey rather than sparkly.
I decided the canvas didn’t have enough contrast so added some drops of black ink. This was partially dry so didn’t spread and made hard black marks on the canvas which looked incongruous.
To try and solve the problem I dripped water on top of the black ink but this had little effect and just made the canvas wet, and all the lovely marbling and rivulets were washed away… so I decided to stop.
I was rushing (a mistake) and knocked my canvas off the wooden chocks a couple of times. A whoosh of water swept over the painting and further greyed/blended the different elements.
Here is the wet painting…
And after it had dried overnight…
Like playing a musical instrument you have to learn what your materials can do in real life by playing with them and seeing what happens.
Dripping or pouring can be as much a mark making tool as a brush.
The state of your materials matters… for instance I should never have used my old black ink. If a material is changed (such as semi dry) then all its properties and the way it reacts will change.
There is a huge difference between the wet painting and the dry painting which introduces chance. Unlike oil painting where the canvas dries as it is wet.
An interlude: I’m reading Foster, H. et al. (2011) Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism. (s.l.): Thames & Hudson. every day (it’s my current art book) and as luck would have it today’s chapter ‘1913’ (pages 118-124) was all about the start of abstraction.
Two things struck me very forcibly, they were dealing with the same problems I’m facing… and asking similar questions. So, whereas I’m ‘just’ a second year student they were professional artists who were part of an international community. It felt a bit like joining a gang, if only from the outside… and means I can benefit from their work.
Also, going back to when abstraction was first starting gives me a much better understanding of the underlying principles.
Here are my notes:
It was a truly international club of artists (mainly) outside the French avant garde, who were culturally more open to the metaphysical imperatives that made abstraction less alien They were not too invested in objects or the visual play of figures and signs.
Their fears were/are my fears… that my abstraction will be decorative and meaningless… design… low art… applied art… pragmatic and aleatory… where they want their work to be transcendental and high art.
Having seen the fear helps because then you can overcome it. When I work with chance as in the painting above it’s part of a process not rule based, process (in an ideal situation) like a jazz musician. It is not rule based process, mechanical, and the result of chance. It’s much more like jazz where the chance is used as part of the composition. Chance is an element in the same way as colour, brush strokes or the surface of your canvas… it’s how you incorporate it and what you do with it that makes art.
Two types of abstract art… I’d been struggling with this and they put it so simply; it’s also good to know that the founders of abstract art came up against exactly the same thing.
They identified two types of abstract art that were held in suspension at the same time, in a kind of living paradox.
Idealist – direct to the spirit… disengagement from the world… spiritual… I would add indeterminate and liminal. Rothko might be a good example.
Materiality – paint on the canvas – all about physicality. I would add… bright bold… often patterned… emphasise the picture plane as an object.
Both communicate directly to the viewer without words, but one is spiritual and the other physical.
I thought it was odd that I could connect with both and wanted to produce abstract paintings that worked in totally different ways, but now I know it’s completely normal.
Next step with my painting
I am going to sand out the black spots and then work into it oil paint.
I used the finest grade sandpaper I had and gently rubbed by hand. Where the spots were on top of marble dust they disappeared immediately and produced lots of dust which I brushed away with a paintbrush. However, where the black ink had reached the canvas it was indelible and I didn’t want to damage the cotton so I stopped.
Next I diluted oil paint till it was watery and dripped it on the canvas with the palette knife, spread it out and worked it in with a paint brush. I repeated with a selection of tube colours.
This was beginning to be more interesting but it needed a little edge so I scratched into it to add line to the tonal colours.
I quite liked the effect, especially how the watery oil paint was layering on itself and interacting with the coloured ink, and could have left it here but decided I wasn’t feeling quite brave enough so I added some stronger colours to cover the scratches.
This was working and I probably should have stopped here but I didn’t like the brush marks so decided to sponge them out.
The effect of the sponge was to take out the brush marks but also slightly de-saturate the colours so that I felt the painting needed an injection of energy. I decided the best way to do this was to work in some colours straight from the tube.
However, this was also a decision that I’d made before I started the painting and was almost something I’d pre-instructed myself to do.
This was nearly there… I looked at it on my computer to check the composition and decided the top left hand corner was a bit dead so added a tiny bit of blue to jazz it up.
Here are the three paintings from the process that would all have made a finished painting. They all have strengths and weaknesses.
Looking at all three it is hard to decide which is most effective. I think it’s probably the early one in the process, the one with the scratches. I think this is because it has more internal interest and there’s a dynamic tension between the scratched lines and the cloud like colours. That said, there are patches of the final painting that are working very well in terms of setting up movement, rhythm, harmony and depth while also existing solely on the picture plane. It connects with me in a non narrative/mimetic/figurative/thought/words way and takes me to a moment. My aim is to hold and communicate with the viewer without words, like a dance suspended in time.
Be open to change… on the one hand I am playing with my materials so need to try lots of different things, but on the other I need to be led by the canvas not what I’d pre-planned to do.
Marble dust gives a lovely texture to the canvas but I think I should apply it differentially. For this painting I scattered it evenly which makes it a ‘surface’ rather than a painting tool… just as I paint different colours in different parts of the canvas I could have some parts with thick marble dust and some without any.
Marble dust creates a lovely bumpy texture when it is scattered onto wet paint (in this case shellac ink and water) so when it is dry you can scumble over the top of it.
Marble dust is easy to sand away.
Marble dust can also be mixed with paint but this makes it a bulking agent and is a different usage to dropping it into shellac.
Shellac and silver powder dry completely differently to when they are wet. They lighten several tones and the silver powder goes from a grey sea like colour to a sparkly colour.
The silver powder is activated by strong light as in low light it doesn’t sparkle.
Shellac works well with water to give some interesting effects but there is a lot to learn about how much water to add to the canvas and how to drip and pour the ink, which can be used effectively as a painting tool.
I feel like I am beginning to find my voice in aesthetic abstraction/aesthetic blindness as it excites me.
I am interested both in the spirituality of abstraction as well as its materiality.
I am most physically connected to the world with music or dance, or the sensuality of colours – the materiality of paint on canvas – but this is also when I am most disengaged from the world intellectually. My Rothko moment occurs inside the physicality of a Matisse. I am trying to paint both sides of abstraction simultaneously. The nearest I can come to explaining it is by an analogy to carrier and pigment… the pigment is like the ‘material’ and the carrier the ‘spiritual’; when we layer on the paint all we see is the colour but the carrier is equally important.
However, I now need to learn what my materials can do and find the right tools, for instance, the height of a drip can be as effective a tool as a paintbrush… and my materials could be almost anything.
It’s exciting, but also (on many levels) like learning to paint from scratch.
The mist of how to move forward when I want to work in abstraction but most of my degree so far has been looking at various forms of representation is beginning to clear, led mainly by Foster, H. et al. (2011) Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism. (s.l.): Thames & Hudson. I’m reading the chapters set during the first World war which is looking at the theories surrounding the start of abstraction and its different iterations. This is giving me a theoretical basis to develop my work.
With this in mind I am going to start four paintings all connected to experimentation rather than a finished work.
Flat blocks of colour on a canvas marked out with masking tape, and then I’ll paint in the white canvas.
A ‘colour pattern canvas’ loosely based on Yayoi Kusama – throwing together Matisse cut outs and his heavily patterned aesthetically blind paintings with aboriginal painting and a soup son of Hockney.
A muddy version of the above loosely based on Gillian Ayres.
A single colour canvas but built up from multiple glazes.
I am going to use oil paint because acrylics feel cold and watery, have the aesthetic appeal of a plastic bag, and remind me of a cross between primary school poster paint and a factory. In contrast oil paint makes me feel joyful with its rich sensuous buttery texture and deep glossy finish. Emotionally the difference is between painting with dishwater and sunshine. This is not technically fair as acrylic is just another medium along with oil and watercolour… and anything else you can put on a canvas… and there are lots of reasons why it would be easier to use acrylic, such as their quick drying time. However, I am the one doing the painting and I need to paint with a medium that excites me.
Flat block painting
I marked out the canvas with masking tape. All the shapes have geometrical or mathematical relationships as I am trying to use an internal language to the painting. However, this is slightly off as I didn’t allow for the 2.5 cm, of the masking tape so I will either have to change the dimensions of the horizontal strips (which will throw off the big strips) or keep the dimensions of the wide bands and paint in the thin strips where the masking tape went (which will add an element I hadn’t planned)… I haven’t decided what to do yet.
The initial placing was intuitive and as I built up the composition I added the mathematical relationships between different elements.
Here is the marking out:
Next I painted in the three main of the shapes… I chose the colours intuitively starting with the yellow ochre in the bottom right… this suggested the french ultramarine who invited my permanent rose.
This has already thrown up lots of questions which I could investigate on a spare canvas or in my sketchbooks. For now I am going to finish this, but these are some of the variables:
Do I want solid even flat blocks of colour that look like they have been spray painted on, or do I want to show the painters presence with some kind of brushstroke.
My yellow ochre painted straight from the tube and made a flat block of colour. The french ultramarine was stiff so I used a small brush, but the colour was patchy, the surface textured (in a bad way) and it all looked like a mistake. So I tipped on some stand oil and worked it over the surface. This made it glossy, evened out the surface and overall gave it a much more interesting effect. I diluted the permanent rose with a little fast drying medium to see what would happen and if it dries quickly. This increased the flow but but left brush marks which looked unintentional. I tried different size brushes and eventually managed to get a flat colour.
This is a new canvas to me and I think the surface might be quite absorbent. I’m beginning to realise how important my surface is… rough or smooth and absorbent or non-absorbent. These differences all affect how my paint goes on the canvas.
All my tube paints have slightly different consistencies – they may have slightly oxidised in the tube? The amount of flow I need is critical (depending on what I want to achieve) but there are different ways of increasing flow (depending on what I add and in what proportion) and each one changes how the paint goes on the canvas.
There are lots of different ways to make this painting:
The big shapes are solid.
The big shapes are paintery.
The big shapes are glazed over the strips which show through.
The horizontal strips go on top of the blocks of colour.
The masking tape is 2.5 cm wide… do I use it as. a strip in its own right? Or just use one edge?
How fluid do I want my paint?
Of course, all this concerns texture, internal ‘semantics’ and composition… There is also the choice of colours which could take up a whole sketch book in its own right.
I took the tape off the big shapes:
As I had calculated the mathematical relationships of the shapes and horizontal strips (without the width of the masking tape) I decided to keep the strips as they are and add in the thin masking tape strips as an extra element.
This is a cheap canvas and just to reiterate my tutor’s comments about the surface I noticed how the primer had soaked in the oil and dulled the paint, you can see the shiny paint sitting on the non absorbent masking tape (this was taken after drying overnight).
If I wanted to improve the canvas I could give it a coat of varnish which would act as a sealant. My better quality Jackson art canvas didn’t have this problem and the colours still looked shiny and fresh.
I painted the wide horizontal stripes.
The fresh violet paint is still glossy while the other paint has dried toi a dull matt finish overnight.
With a 50/50 fast drying medium to thinner the paints were almost touch dry within an hour, this meant they were acting more like acrylics than oils.
The thinned paints are much more translucent and the brush marks show.
Where I painted the edges first and overpainted the paint was thicker.
The paint was blotchy and I didn’t have an even wash of colour (The washes for the sky on my figurative paintings were smooth – even with a colour change and dried shiny. They also stayed workable all day.)
I could try just thinner if I wanted a loose, but not too thin paint. It dries darker but as long as I’ve mixed enough paint that’s not a problem. And it’s touch dry in a couple of days so I just have to be a little bit patient.
I could try different mixes of fast drying medium for lower layers if I’m going to overpaint… maybe 75% thinner to 25% fast drying medium.
For the top layers I could mix stand oil and thinner… I want to avoid the thick varnish like quality of the fast drying medium, and I like the extended workability of oil.
Good brushes (if you’re painting something that needs transferring to the canvas with a brush) are vital. Every brush is unique in it the pattern it makes on the canvas (over and above your gestural qualities).
Having released myself from the mimetic task of copying shapes and local colours to imitate reality (or be grounded or referential in any way) I can focus on my materials and their properties… painting becomes more like writing, dancing or singing where you’re creating meaning from the relationship of elements within a closed system. The piece can comment on the world around it, and it should connect with the viewer, but it is an independent meaning system like a person or a book.
I finished paintying the blocks and removed the stripes:
Next I had to paint in the stripes.
My first decision was whether to carry the thin stripes across the canvas using three colours, or treat them as shapes and use seven colours. After much looking I decided to paint them all a different colour, this would allow me to have a conversion between the colours on the canvas… like adding another instrument into a musical ensemble.
Next, I had to decide on the colours. This was intuitive. I started with the lemon yellow… paused and then added the phthalo green (blue shade)… mix lemon yellow/cadmium yellow deep hue… french ultramarine and titanium white… cadmium red… grey… and finally black.
I like the visual conversations the canvas is setting up such as the dynamic between the continuity of the thick stripes and the discontinuity of the thin ones… it breaks am pattern and creates a dynamic tension. There is also a four sided striped shape at the side of the big blue shape which comes forward, challenges the tilt of the blue shape, and also the expectation that they will be stripes. The thin black stripe anchors the painting, but hopefully doesn’t become a foreground?
The big orange strip appears more red on the far right so gives it a colour gradation that doesn’t exist in reality. And the short grey stripe changes colour as you look at it depending whether you’re looking near the green or the orange above and below it… the green turns the grey red, the orange turns it blue. The small yellow ochre square in the bottom right is really important as it’s the only earth colour. The orange has turned it green, but more importantly it energises the rest of the painting because it’s in a different register. Even though it’s a tiny square it references all the natural not saturated colours in the real world outside the planar canvas and contextualises this as a constructed painting, and yet is part of the canvas at the same time.
So, I think it is beginning to work as a non referential abstract painting – an aesthetic object that exists in its own right.
I mixed more thinner than stand oil and found the paint was more workable.
Each colour seemed to have different mixing qualities.
The transparency/opacity effected how smooth the layer was as transparent paint showed up the brushstrokes.
Strangely, I don’t think this painting would have worked as well on a square canvas… maybe because the rectangular canvas sets up expectations that are different to a square canvas and programmes us to read a narrative into the painting?
Next time I would work on my colour mixing and application to make sure my colour blocks were solid.