Three essays on abstract art
what is abstraction?
Abstract painting is a step in to the world of pure perception. It is a move beyond symbols and story. Since the beginning, painting represented the world and its people as a story on a wall. More recently, Picasso, who semi-abstracted the formative, still used story, Van Gogh turned abstracted wheat fields into emotional tales and so when confronted by an artwork without story, we are perplexed.
There is no need for befuddlement, it is really quite simple. For the absolute abstract artist there is no Starry Night, no La Reve, the tale is the work, for the object before you is all there is, a back-story is not needed. The creator has been preoccupied with colour, movement, shape, no more, no symbolism. That in itself is a huge amount to deal with.
Many abstract artists have spent years tentatively veering from the observed subject, exploring an elusive something. It is not that we were bored with the formative, it is just that we sought to express the extraordinary universe of the colours we mixed to create that man’s lip, that bird feather, that wave striking the beach. But it was an elusive search.
We studied cubism, post expressionism, we admired Turner, Van Goth, Mondrian, Rothko, Bridget Riley, but we floundered as we sought to express ourselves without a story to help. This is a huge leap, for humanity has always told stories. I grew up alongside a noble Kenyan tribe whose lives had hardly changed for millennia and each evening around the fire they told stories about their world.
To say nothing is a giant step. You are asking the viewer to connect their brain to the pigments, the shapes, the energy.
Note, not their mind where we think and enjoy stories, but our brain where we perceive. Without thinking about subject matter, the canvas with its rawness holds us in the present moment.
My particular intention has been to feel in my body and brain what happens when transparent colours are layered in various combinations. I sought colours which look alive, yet are subtle and which work together to create a subtle electricity generated by the difference between one hue and the next. To provide a sensual contemplation that might lift the mood as the interaction of these bands, lines and shapes produce movement, sending dynamic messages to the brain.
These areas of calm or vibrant energy play one with the other, triggering a mental pause, a potent zone, an emotional swish which opens the attention. Going with these moments, letting expectation flit away, allowing instinct to overtake thought, suspends all desire to understand. Simply be with the picture, let the arrangement resonate in the eye and the emotions triggered.
You are in the moment. In a real sense, the abstract painting is a meditation which you can enter time and again as you stand with it. Each painting, I like to think, is a dew drop of mindfulness.
Moving beyond formative work is an enormous challenge for the artist, for there are no guidelines, you stand upon an arête, alone in the void, trusting creativity will flow through your fingers. You have left the world where a face, a seagull or a line of trees will inspire a formative image, neither can you learn from the masters. Here, in this suspended space, you must rely on instinct.
And that is scary for it has often been said it takes twenty to a hundred attempts to get an abstract that works. Imagine that. Toss the rest in to the bin. I don’t. I horde them and try to understand what went wrong. The great water-colourist John Blockley once told me to keep mistakes and learn from them. John’s iconic work, now widely copied, was the best of watercolour painting. When I was painting a barn not far from his home, John grabbed my flat splay brush, “Can I have a go, I love this implement!” He took an empty sheet, but I stopped him, “John, work on my painting,.” With a nervous smile, he took over for awhile, copying the semi-abstract marks which had begun to deconstruct the barn. I’ve kept that half complete image as a wonderful memento.
Painting an abstract is to leave the path between observed reality and the sparks within one’s imagination. It starts with deforming your formative works, abstracting by breaking and smudging and extending the line of colour around that gull or human figure. Gradually, over the years, you become more and more interested in the abstract.
But the leap to true abstract painting is tough. You enter a totally different world. Your subject is colour and shape without the help of the natural world or objects your eye perceives. This is an intellectual, as well as a perceptive challenge. It begins the second you touch the vast and empty canvas. The marks you make generate their own tensions and relate only to each other, not to a scene beyond. They become your directors, your mind must listen to them. You are literally in the void. As you let your fingers create, you are totally in the moment.
This mindfulness is essential if you are to let the colours and their hues speak and relate, if you are to allow the type of shapes you have decided to use interact with one another. You fall in love with the process to generate an image with feeling. It has to come from the deep self, which is a meditation in itself. You are in touch with your sensual self, closely watching your inner reactions, weighing up each new act against those you’ve laid down, sensing, rather than thinking. It is intoxicating. Time and the room around you slip away, the canvas has become your universe.
The style I am currently involved with is precise. This does not mean it is not spontaneous, it is just that the spontaneity is contained, played with over a long, gentle, reflective period. I find such intensity exhausting, exacting; after some hours I must put the image aside, let it rest with itself. I return the next day and for several days in a row. I sketch new approaches, then abandon these. I turn to another creation. Then go back to the first when I’m ready. In this rotational manner, I work gradually developing several related images over many weeks. But then so did John Blockley. His studio abounded in half done work, most of which one day became a finished item.
At the end, the rational mind needs to wake up again and work with the instinctual so that the image has a completeness. You just know when it is right. I haven’t even started to talk about colour, but then maybe the next blog could explore that.
Colour, for me, is the key. I will set down the base and work on layers of inter-related hues and tones which create a mood that resonates inside me. There is no formula, just a reaction. As I work, I find excitement mounting, subtle, but definitely there when hues interact and create a charge. The ‘snake effect’, let’s call it. The mind is driven to find patterns - the rope in the long grass needs to look like a snake so that we can jump out the way. Better than being bitten by an adder. It is that ancient instinctual reaction which is triggered when we look at a work of art and our ability to let go of thought and to allow the image to ‘take’ us, defines the quality of our experience.
That ability is vital when confronted by an abstract, for there is no lexicon to tell us what we are looking at. One has to engage without preconception. Indeed, the abstract painter aims to reach beyond expectation to a raw awareness where judgement is suspended and experience dominates. It is a child-like envelopment, hence those who can ‘let go’, love abstract art. The specific mix of colours can be a surprise, the melding of tones soothing, or the interplay across the spectrum a challenge.
As the shades shift, one pinky blue tint or a buff green against a mauve, the artist’s eye is stimulated, the brain is warmed. The artist senses what the next colour could be and tests it out, then applies this new layer of complexity. An abstract painting, in my view, cannot be described in words. It is about the resultant art, not a description of it. If an onlooker sees something in it, then that is fine, we each interpret the world around us in our own way. For the abstract artist, it is a raw experience, words, references, they don’t exist.
You the painter sense a contrasting or complementary colour would create this, or perhaps that, sensation. You try it out several ways and decide to explore this, leaving that to rest for another day’s exploration. As I work, I discover that colour, and this is highly personal, is not divided into warm and cool, hot and cold. Like words, that distracts. A dull blue can be vitally warm against a stringent yellow. A vibrant pink coupled with a shy red can generate a tenderness that leaves your brain content. A splash of khaki green running across reds and pinks and browns…. Oops. No! But it works, Who knows why. I don’t care. I have left such ‘rules’ behind.
Hopefully the relaxed onlooker can go with these gut feelings. It is exploration of the wild, a trek across imaginative seas which makes you feel alive as you look, as you work. Each small achievement flies out, strikes your ‘heart’. Then, four days later you the creator looks at what you had loved and realise it was all just a flight of fancy; you start again, working with colours which appeal that day. Gradually, bit by bit, you arrive at a place where you can progress towards an outcome which leads to a result.
I began my new series well over a year ago to give a little shot of joy to a dying friend. It helped that I too am unwell. Playing with colour, sensing what each hue did to me, what the shape combinations and interacting colour vibrations did to my senses, was essential. I hope it gave dear P a little something. Later, wishing to help beleaguered NHS staff during the worst of the pandemic, I made posters with simple de-stressing exercises beside my work. I have been told they are indeed joyful, helpful. That is why my new series is called ‘Beyond the Blue’.