Part 2: Personal Practice: Practical – 2nd two paintings.

Colour pattern canvas

Starting ideas… I want my colours solid and flat so I will dilute my oil paint with a mixture of thinner and fast drying medium. This means I will have a constant that I can adjust easily, rather than every mix be unique.

I made up a bottle of 50% fast drying medium and 50% thinner to dilute the paint and increase the flow.

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The small diamonds are cadmium red the big ones permanent rose. I was working by trial and error get the flow right, and you also have to get the right brush.

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I then made up a dropper bottle of thinner and another of stand oil as the fast drying medium made my paint dry like acrylic and quickly become sticky. This was much more fluid and wetter than the fast drying/thinner mix, it stayed workable and covered the canvas evenly.

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Next I started painting the middle. However the edge was wet so maybe it’s better to start with the middle first.

In my book (Foster, H. et al. (2011) Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism. (s.l.): Thames & Hudson.) I have just read the section on 1918, it covered different kinds of symbols which I found fascinating and very useful for my practice.

  1. Iconic – symbols that look like what they refer to. So a painting showing a brown trunk and green leaves to represent a tree is iconic because it uses symbols that look like the referent. Most of traditional Western painting was iconic.

  2. Symbolic – the marks bear no resemblance to the object referred to. So written language is symbolic because ‘dog’ bears no relationship to the animal. ‘Dog’ is given meaning by a rule based system (language) which is constant. In certain word orders those letters will always refer to a… well… a dog!

  3. Indexical – This is the trace left by an object and is not constant so each mark is unique. It is not part of a rule based system – and is accidental and unskilled. If I put a firework on a canvas and set it alight the marks it leaves (a record of its explosion, will be indexical). It was first used to refer to the images captured by photography… the captured light trace of a unique moment.

This started me thinking about my abstract painting.

My last painting (geometric abstract) was symbolic because all the shapes were mathematically related, and I used the rules of colour too. So, I was using a mathematical and a visual language… it is a pure symbolic painting using known languages.

This painting is carefully composed, so not accidental… it’s skillful in as far as I am using all my knowledge. It’s not iconic or even grounded, that is I am not trying to paint anything known to me such as an emotion, event or an idea. This would suggest to me that it’s symbolic. However, I am not using any established rule based language that I know of… not even one that I have invented (and is know only to me).

If I think of abstracts created by masters such as Gillian Ayres, then their abstracts are universally recognised as great art, meaningful, and aesthetically beautiful… (as different from pleasing decoration or a mess of shapes and colours). So they must be using some kind of universal nonverbal rule based language – primal and subconscious – that is intuitively recognised by everybody.

So, I am going to say that my painting below is symbolic.

I built this up over several days till it was ready to add my dots.

And here is the finished painting… It doesn’t matter which way you hang it… so I twizzled it around in iPhoto and chose this one.


On one level I am pleased with this because it is aesthetically pleasing and has its own internal language. It has movement, depth and an all over interest and exists within the plane of the canvas. As such it is an aesthetic abstract which is what I set out to paint.

I did not ‘plan’ the painting, each element (be that shape/tone/or colour) dictated the next step and I spent more time looking than painting. The ‘thinking’ was not led by thoughts (there was no word driven analysis) and shapes or colours suggest themselves as I went along. So, it is not iconic or referential (or grounded) in any way.

However, there are different painting styles on the canvas which do not necessarily gel. Some of it is painted roughly with hogs hair to make scratchy free form shapes, others are thinned and painted like watercolour… other parts use tube paint with small soft brushes… and all these give different textures. Some parts have oil added and are shiny, others don’t and are more matt.

And the shapes are a mixture of styles from organic to geometric.

As a first attempt I’m pleased, but it looks like I’ve got a head full of ideas (and techniques) and am throwing everything at it… which is probably not far from the truth. My hope is that as my personal practice develops I’ll be able to ride the beast that is art, and not be led this way and that like a novice rider on a headstrong horse.

What I learned

  1. Brushes are very important.

  2. Texture changes the colour and feel of the paint.

  3. Every colour changes depending on the colours near it.

  4. I need to be working on several paintings at once so that I can let areas dry and paint up to/or over them.

  5. Transparency/opaqueness is a very important quality.

  6. A trick when painting wet on wet is to leave a tiny strip of canvas so your colours don’t touch… I went to a Modigliani exhibition and he did this… I suspect he was painting quickly and didn’t have time for the paint to dry. On figurative paintings this can be very effective but on abstracts it looks like a whiteline.

  7. Raw oil paint can be touch dry in 2 to 5 days, thinned paint 2 days, thinned with fast dry medium it’s nearly dery the next day… and if you use linseed oil will take weeks to dry.

  8. When painting abstracts I don’t know what’s in my head and what comes out is often surprising.

  9. Painting over colours is fine but it’s much better to leave a white space as this energises the colour, especially if it’s transparent… and if (say) you are painting green over red the red will show through and turn the green brown unless you paint impasto – which you might not want to do.

2nd painting: Stain and different surfaces

I bought some untreated linen canvas and cut it into three (roughly) 73 x 73 cm pieces, enough to stretch over a 60 x 60 support. Then I stripped off the canvas from an old painting. When I have finished I will pick one of my paintings and stretch it over my frame – I’ll research how to do it on the internet. I have also got some old smaller frames at 41 x 51 cm, so I could stretch my canvas over those too.

I’m going to make three paintings using shellac ink and oil paint on three different surfaces: 1) Stained untreated canvas 2) Primed with acrylic primer (rough and absorbent) 3) Primed with gesso, smoother and less absorbent.

It was too windy to paint outside outside so I found a space on the floor…

What I learned

  1. The new plastic pouches are better as you don’t get any wastage, there are no bits, no ‘skin’, and you can easily squeeze it out. Putting the brush in the pot can be awkward.

  2. 300 ml Acrylic Gesso cost £12.90 plus its proportion of the delivery charge. It covered one coat on enough canvas for a 60 x 60 x 4 cm stretched canvas. I would need at least 2 coats, if not three (£26 – £39), plus the frame (£15?)… plus the fabric (£9.00)… so the ready primed canvases @ £15-£20 are very good value as it could cost you £60-£65 to make your own canvas… plus your time priming and stretching it… so unless there’s another reason to gesso the canvas yourself I will buy them ready made.

  3. To prime raw canvases you need a big studio setup with lots of floor space.

  4. I’d never really thought about the fabric I paint on… but using the Fine Linen (which obviously has a very different tooth to the cotton canvases I’m used to) has made me think about surface. It’s like building a road with the foundation (fabric) and surface (primer)… and it’s going to hugely affect how the paint goes onto the canvas. You drive differently on different roads and I will need to paint differently on different canvases.

  5. You can sand your canvas to make it smooth and/or seal it to make it less absorbent.

  6. Given the cost of Gesso/primer the quality of the finish on bought canvases is going to vary. An expensive canvas will (one hopes) use a better constructed frame, better quality fabric and superior quality gesso.

I had no Acrylic Gesso left so will use that canvas as it is (with one coat), and finish my tin of primer on the first canvas. I will then have three very different surfaces to work on.

The second coat went on much quicker and used much less primer.

2nd coat going on easily and makingtn first coat look almost grey. I can see why commercial canvases advertise three coats.

And. beautiful pattern left of the plastic when I took off the canvas to dry. You can just see the grid pattern (which I’ve red was a essential component of early abstraction) of the paving through the plastic.

Next I laid out my three canvases, squirted them with water, and dripped on shellac ink…

When I’d finished squirting in the ink I photographed the canvases while still wet and cropped them square in photoshop to show them how they would look when I’ve stretched over. asquare frame.

Thoughts before adding my oil paint

You need space… I moved all my furniture to the side and had just enough room to lay out the canvases and (carefully) drip water on them.

It’s indexical painting because it is the record of chance drips and how they soaked in/mixed/ran on the canvas. If you became very skillful you could alter the height of the drips… choose the colours… prepare the canvas with water and so gain some control so it might become symbolic.

You could also use the chance introduced by indexical painting as a starting point for a more conventionally composed canvas as I am going to do when I add oil paint.

I’ve just watched a video on stretching a canvas, which is doable but too expensive for a one off as I would have to but a stapler and a canvas stretcher. So, I’m not going to stretch my canvases. If I ever get a big studio and start using large canvases it’s something I could look at, but by then I could probably afford to buy the canvases anyway.

I had some paint left on my palette from my first painting so rubbed it into one of my ink canvases. I chose the double gessoed linen as the colours were stronger.

Double gessoed fine linen canvas with water, shellac in and oil paint cropped to a square to show how it might look on a frame.

Here are my three canvases dry…

Here is the dry version of my canvas with shellac ink and oil paint:

I really like the energy in the gestures, the looseness and the composition.

It’s a technique I think you get better at the more you do… the danger is in overworking and muddying the colours… and of course your choice of colours is vital… and which painting mediums you use and how.

In these two paintings I think I’ve found the two extremes of my practice, now I’ve just got to explore both and see where I end up.

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