Part 4: Option 4: Project 3: Exercise 4.2: Mystery – Visual research/painting

While researching for Option 4: Project 3 I came across the work of Liu Wei and loved his spiritual connection withy the urban environment. Although his work is mostly abstract, and he’s looking at the built environment, his work seemed bucolic… or, at least, that was the sentiment.

His work was also mysterious using high tonal differences (which I’m taking for the abstract version of chiaroscuro) and obscured or veiled elements. It’s interesting that he used urban shapes, such as lines, for his veiling rather than organic curtains of colour.

I found an old oil painting that hadn’t worked, but had feel of sunshine and trees. Then after lots of experimentation came up with the idea of cutting very thin strips of masking tape over the painting.

I had to repeat this several times as only one of my rolls of masking tape was sticky enough, also as the canvas was bumpy which made it hard to stick to. I needed to get enough tension to lay the strips of masking tape parallel, but not so much that they pulled away from the canvas. I started by eye and adjusted by measuring as I went along, it was a learning curve as I worked on different canvases and found what worked and didn’t work.

Here’s a slideshow of the preparatory process:

Next I mixed my water soluble oil paint with quick drying medium (a substitute for linseed oil) and water to make a selection of thin and slightly thicker glazes.

Then, working in the moment and spending much longer looking than painting I glazed the paintings. I had in mind that I wanted horizontal and vertical strips of bright colour to match the urban environment… but I let the painting dictate to me what I should do next. It was a case of looking at the painting and waiting till a colour slowly came into my head. It wasn’t done by thinking my way out of it, but by being open to what the painting wanted.

Here’s the painting ready to have the strips removed:

Oil on canvas, 46 x 61 cm – glazed canvas ready to have the strips removed.

And here’s the final painting. I had to work quickly because the glazes were drying fast and I didn’t want the masking tape to get stuck to the surface of the painting.

Shanghai, Oil on canvas, 46 x 61 cm, 2021

More visual research into ‘Mystery’.

For my second canvas I want to go down the more organic route and use swathes of colour rather than line.

I watched a video on John Hoyland which I loved. [Arena – Six Days in September (s.d.) In: BBC At: (Accessed 21/04/2021).] He talked about art and his process as if I was talking about my own art.

He started by underpainting his canvas with a thin wash so I decided to start in the same place. He used watered down acrylic which he painted and splashed over his large (over 2m x 2m) canvas. He stood his canvas on old paint cans and constantly picked it up and turned it.

I am using watered down oil on a much smaller canvas (61 x 76 cm) which I hang off my easel… I like access to the bottom of the canvas as I paint the sides and paint can drip off the bottom. Also, I don’t like condemning my paintings to being put in a black frame, I’d much rather they flowed onto the wall.

I put hung my painting fairly low and was able to take it off the canvas and turn it, and rest it normally on the easel to dry. I also noticed that on his underpainting, even if nearly all of it was going to be painted out, he had geometric shapes so I put some of these in two.

This makes it sound like a thought process, but it wasn’t. I’d worked all that out beforehand and when I was painting ‘forgot’ it and worked in the moment, which is the same way I work as an actor.

Here’s the underpainting.

Underpainting, Oil on canvas, 46 x 76 cm

I think this is visually very interesting and part of me wants to leave it as it is, so I hope I don’t immediately repeat my mistake from Part 3 and because my ‘process’ is to start with an underpainting and paint over it I lose a good painting.

And here’s the next layer of glazes:

I’ve spent a few days looking at this and decided that it’s finished. I debated with myself about adding oil pastel top left which is (potentially) visually a bit dead, but it’s also a resting place and plays off nicely against the green on the right.

Also, several people I’ve shown it to (who immediately see a face with a mask and office workers) have said it works for them as that’s where the face is looking.

This raises two very important issues When I was painting this I wasn’t thinking anything, it wasn’t intentional. I was reacting (having a conversation) with the canvas. I stopped when the canvas was working, or at a point when anything else could be tinkering and I needed to be sure it was right before I added another mark. But when somebody views it (including myself) they immediately ‘read’ it like a comic strip. It is not a decorative pattern, it has meaning and imagery… though how this happens is a complete mystery to me.

As John Hoyland said, gestural marks on their own are not enough, the canvas itself has got to build up energy. I think this canvas does that and my urge to complete the visual conversation (by adding another layer or even one dab of tone) has to be balanced by how the canvas is working as a whole.


  1. Which type of mystery did you opt for?

I opted for visual mystery because I am an abstract painter.

But I also discovered that abstract painting, as different from pattern and decoration, has a narrative. Maybe it’s the narrative of the dialogue between artist and canvas? Or maybe the mind conjures visual (semantic) symbols from our subconscious? Or perhaps the brain is so wired that it finds meanings in any visual dialogue?

2. How far did the way you constructed the composition, the colours you used, your brushwork/paint handling or the installation of the work contribute to the mystery?

I want my painting to be able to hang anywhere and be a self contained autonomous image/object/being so did not want to use installation as part of its mystery. If I did this the installation would, in effect, become part of the artwork.

However, if I was making art to go on tour, like a touring theatre show, I would think about the installation because the installation would become part of the show.

The visual (and narrative?) mystery was greatly enhanced by my composition and paint handling. Each exercise adds to my technical vocabulary… so for this I learned how tonal contrast (not strictly chiaroscuro as I wasn’t defining mass with shadow) can create drama and meaning, and accentuating the feelings of mystery and tension.

Mystery is also created by leaving glimpses of the underpainting which has its own narrative, such as Cecily Brown’s lovers caught between gaps in the foliage. Related to this, a sort of the same but opposite, is a strong top layer blocking off an interesting section of background.

I am also learning new ways of paint handling such as turning my painting to use drips as a composition element (to direct movement and help create all over meaning instead of a ‘one way up’ painting), painting with water to cut into the paint, splashing on paint with my hand, and using a palette knife and brushes as physical tools instead of something to stroke paint onto a canvas. All these techniques help to develop a visual language that creates mystery.

Unlike figurative painting abstraction works better when when there are gaps that the mind can fill with invention, if you painted an abstract painting with the same finish as a Constable it wouldn’t work, and mystery is a good way of adding visual ambiguity.

3. How might this exercise inform or develop your studio work?

By highlighting the tonal construction alongside colour it has improved my work and opened up a new compositional element.

It has also focused my mind on how I can use my underpainting in the finished painting to create mystery, rather than something that I just paint over.

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