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Abstraction: the Inner Struggle

November 20, 2017

Brandon Long
Creative Director

“Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.” – Edgar Degas.

While he might not have been the most abstract painter, I think Degas nails the difficulty of abstraction with this quote.  To most that have never tried it, abstract painting simply looks like slinging paint – throwing it all around the studio like you don’t have a care in the world.  I’m sure some artists may follow that method and have wonderful results, but it’s far from the usual mode of operations. In my opinion, anyone can take that wild approach and get one beautiful painting.  The difficulty lies in creating another painting somewhat like it, but unique in its own right. 

Upon creating their first abstract painting, the amateur (or uninitiated in the arts) will imagine themselves to be as incredible (if not better than) any number of the greatest Abstract Expressionists in art history.  Sloppy paint – check.  Lots of color – check.  Covered the entire canvas – check.  They’ve got the bases covered and have no idea why they can’t put their work in MOMA and sell it for millions of dollars. 

Abstract painting (both the noun and the verb) are somewhat like wine tasting.  To kids in college, partying the night away, any wine is good wine.  Red, white, fruity, dry, Mad Dog 20/20, and Two-Buck Chuck.  It’s all the same.  It’s not until the palate is refined through further exploration into the finer tastes that one gets into the nuances of different notes, bouquet, and subtle hints that only a sommelier can identify.  The same goes for art.  Until one has been exposed to a variety of styles of the greats of Abstract Expressionism – they simply can’t tell the good from the bad.  They either like it or they don’t and can’t tell you why.

What makes abstract art difficult to produce lies in the fact that there is no “master” copy to base the work on.  If you are painting a still life, it is easy to look at the arrangement you have set up, compare it with your painting, and keep a pretty good handle on the direction you are going.  It’s easy to say, “That looks just like an orange next to a vase with a flower inside, but I think that my shadows are a bit off.”  Checking your progress is as easy as looking as your subject matter.

When creating abstract work, the paint becomes its own struggle, its own subject matter, and whether you are closer to success or failure lies completely within you.   I haven’t engaged in a lot of abstract painting lately, but I can clearly remember a few years back working on some large canvases, stepping back to see them better, propping them at the end of a long hall to get a long view, and wondering why there weren’t more colors to work from.  I’d see reds, blues, oranges, yellows, greens, purples – everything (and in between), and still felt like there were more colors waiting in the wings of some mysterious palette that didn’t exist.  Sometimes, I would spend days trying to get an interesting painting, only to find that my palette where I was mixing colors was closer to what I wanted to achieve than the painting I was struggling on. 

Do I need more colors?  Do I need to rework the composition?  Is there a focal point?  The answers don’t always come easy, if it all.  You can always ask the opinion of a trusted artist friend for advice, but they can only see where you’ve been with the painting, not where you’re planning to go next.  The entire direction of the work is inside your head, so it can be easy to lose track of your intended direction – if you even have one.  Sometimes the progress becomes reactionary.  You might add a line or brushstroke, which in turn influences the next, and so on.  The trick is often knowing when to stop before overworking the painting into a muddy mess.

If you’ve never tried abstract painting before, or maybe if you’re stuck in a rut, try these three tips to help you out:

  1.  Start simple.  Sometimes the most fun part of abstract painting –color- can also be the most daunting aspect.  By starting with a simple palette, perhaps going monochromatic, or even working in only black and white can help you get a good feel for composition.  The composition, the way the painting is put together on the canvas, is quite often the main factor that separates a great painting from a terrible one.  By stripping the palette down to essentials, you can focus on the arrangement.
  2. Use the biggest brush you can at all times.  Sometimes you’ll need a small brush for tighter sections of the painting, but using a bigger brush will ensure that you paint with the boldness needed to make your work look confident.  Confidence is vital when creating abstract work, and it’s hard to look doubtful or unsure when using a wide brush.
  3. Set a time limit.  Setting a time limit, whether it is thirty minutes or a week, should give you the hustle needed to make the necessary progress to complete the work.  It’s hard to wallow in “abstract angst” when precious seconds are ticking away.  While it may be necessary to spend quite a while to get a painting right, sometimes it can be better to simply move on if you get stuck.