Advice for a beginning abstract painter
August 7, 2013 4:20 PM   Subscribe

I seem to have taken up painting, somewhat accidentally, mostly through the cunning tactics of a very good therapist. I dabbled in art in high school but haven't really done much visual art since (though I have also recently taken up photography). A lot of abstract artists (especially female abstract expressionists like Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler) are the painters that move me the most, plus I don't really have a desire to make representational art. I am mostly painting for self-expression and self-satisfaction, but it'd be nice to also not be embarrassed to show other people my work.

I'm a writer by trade, so I feel I have a bit of an edge in being familiar with some of the basics of what the creative process is like; i just don't know yet how to apply all of them to the visual realm.

I will note that I've read through similar threads about art and starting painting, and, on their advice just signed up for and am going to buy a couple really big canvases to see what working in that scale does to my creativity. I'm also watching stuff on YouTube.

All that said, I still have a lot of questions:

-First, of course, book recommendations. On making art in general or books about abstract art in particular. I love good artist bios and am not sure where to start.

-Second, there is often a spiritual component to my work. I am a Wiccan, and sometimes I will make a painting from inside sacred space as both offering and prayer (as well as a way of conversing with a deity). I'm not sure why I bring it up but it might jog some ideas for someone.

-My therapist is great at coming up with questions to ask my work, really nonjudgmental questions that start a dialogue between me and it. For those of you who also ask questions of your work, what are some of your favorite questions to ask?

-To use writer-speak for a moment, I have a painting I did a first draft of that I would like to revise (essentially re-do on a larger, better quality surface). I'm happy with a lot of the concept and execution, but there's one element I can't get quite right. I'm trying to incorporate some image of beauty, but nothing I've made has felt right to me. To sort of follow up on the preceding question, how do I figure out what changes to make? Trial and error, of course, but are there methods that would help?

-What are some good ways to come up with ideas for abstract paintings? (I'm familiar with methods of making abstract paintings from photographs, painting the negative space from other images, looking for things in nature like patterns of tree bark, etc.) It seems like there are probably some great abstract images on certain science websites and the like, but I have yet to find any that really grab me.

-If you can answer this without getting into a discussion about what "real" art is or isn't, then please read on. :) Once I get to a point where a piece of my work is real art and not "just" self-expression, will I feel the difference? I imagine I will know that shift.

-Any other advice or even techniques (if I didn't mention, i'm working with acrylics) would be welcome.

Thank you!
posted by mermaidcafe to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Try the first 100 or so pages of Composing Pictures by Donald Graham. He talks in a very concise yet down to earth way, about what the surface of a picture is and what happens when we translate our impressions of life into two dimensions. It's dense but broken down into bite sized chunks and well illustrated.
posted by bonobothegreat at 4:49 PM on August 7, 2013

My personal test of whether I'm going in the right direction with a painting is, "Does this feel uplifting?" I like making abstract paintings that feel optimistic, like they are rising above the mundane.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 6:07 PM on August 7, 2013

To sort of follow up on the preceding question, how do I figure out what changes to make? Trial and error, of course, but are there methods that would help?

One that has helped me is taking a photo and messing around with it in Photoshop. You'll be far more willing to upend the whole piece if necessary and it's also just faster in terms of cycling through lots of options.

-What are some good ways to come up with ideas for abstract paintings?

The best abstract painters I know paint moments/experiences/memories. So one painting will be of his clearing spiders out of his garage, and another will be about that news article she read about a suicide which struck her enough to go visit the site and then she'll paint all of that into a piece.

Oh, and one somewhat abstract painter I know who's also great paints extremely conceptual pieces that are grounded in a ridiculously comprehensive understanding of optics and art history related to the subject of optics.

I think in both cases these artists paint what is important to them.

Once I get to a point where a piece of my work is real art and not "just" self-expression, will I feel the difference?

To me, the distinction you're making sounds like either sellability or personal satisfaction with the end product and not just the process. The former you have to actually get your work out there and sell it to achieve. The latter you definitely feel.

-Any other advice or even techniques

I personally do not get along with acrylics, but there are some neat products you can buy for acrylics that make me slightly more amenable to them. Unlocking formula is one of those. I also don't do abstract work so I'm less familiar with really good books just on that, but I can say that learning about the history of American abstract expressionism, modernism, and postmodernism really helped contextualize abstract art as a category for me.
posted by vegartanipla at 6:10 PM on August 7, 2013

On 1 & 2, I recommend the classics: Kandinsky and Mondrian. Of course they are male and very dead but it’s good stuff! Both artists were very interested in connections between spirituality and art. Kandinsky’s text is Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Here is writing by Mondrian. While neither were Wiccan, they were both interested in art, the divine, nature and balance. For a more feminist perspective on painting Mira Schor’s Wet is good, and does deal with abstraction as well as figurative work though it is more political than spiritual.

3. I’m not sure about asking questions but try working on more than one piece at once, putting work away, looking at it upside down and reflected in a mirror. Compare works to each other.

4. I used to teach a course called from figuration to abstraction. A few ideas: look through magazines – back issues of National Geographic, even old ones with dated colour and focus issues are great – and look through images for small sections that are amazing. I’d have students cut out small squares or rectangles in paper to do this. What you are doing is developing your sense of composition and colour. Figure out when something “looks good” to you, and then slowly work out why that is so. Take a favorite photograph – again, one with colour and space that speaks to you, and blur it. Paint the blur. Draw a lot as as well, especially blind contour drawings of complicated spaces. Let yourself get lost in the drawing and then use the drawings a source. Repaint works. Set up still lives with banal subjects. One of my favorites is brown paper bags on a coloured surface. Paint the colour in the bags. For the science books try hitting thrift stores and looking for biology textbooks.

5. It’s all real art. Just keep painting. Sometimes it’ll feel good and sometimes it won’t. Sometimes you’ll go back to something that didn’t feel right a year later and realize that it was actually something special. Just keep painting.

For acrylics consider buying some retarder medium if you find them drying too fast. Don't be afraid to use fingers, sponges, rags, knives and to scrape or pull. If you have sensitive skin or are worried about ingredients (check safety sheets) wear medical gloves or barrier cream. Incorporating other elements with acrylic is easy, some gel medium could be fun if you are into trying to experiment with mixed media. It's easy to mix sand, hay, and other textures into the paint. Keep a spray bottle nearby.
posted by Cuke at 7:03 PM on August 7, 2013 [6 favorites]

1. The book Composition by Arthur Wesley Dow is a masterpiece and in the public domain. You can download it or get a cheap Dover copy. Dow had equal appreciation for decorative and textile artworks as for "serious paintings," so there is much of value to anyone, regardless of style or tradition.

2. As for "Once I get to a point where a piece of my work is real art and not "just" self-expression, will I feel the difference?"

Warning, rant ensues:

Think about what you're asking with that question: When will the outpouring of my deepest feelings through the thoughtful application of visual media finally become REAL ART?

I believe you are asking this question because you are female. Many women (myself included) have internalized a lot of inferiority in the realm of the arts. We feel more of a need to justify what we want to make or express, or prove that it's worthwhile to "the world," as opposed to merely ourselves. The implication, of course, is that our mere selves and our mere inner lives and feelings are superficial, immature, unimportant, etc.

A man who makes "bad art" is at best called a bad artist, and at worst an egotistical jerk. But a woman who makes "bad art" invites that question asked of everyone who acts above his/her station: "Who does she think she is?" The real sin is not that the work was bad, but that she dared to even call it "real art."

You seem to say that your work doesn't feel real quite yet, but that may be less about the work you're doing, and more about other views you have about yourself and your worth. That might be something to talk about in your therapeutic process. I don't know much about Wicca, but I am under the impression that it is a revival religion with strong feminist and countercultural values. These values might also be helpful for you to transcend the impostor syndrome and fear of illegitimacy.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 7:15 PM on August 7, 2013 [8 favorites]

Daughter of an artist, who decided to pursue it when she was in her 30's, and started and ended as an abstract painter. She did not have the online resources available to you, and you've gotten some good advice about resources. With that said, some of the things she found helpful for working in abstract forms were studying color theory, and also having a good grasp of how to use negative and positive space (wetcanvas has some helpful stuff on both of those). Also, you don't say where you are, but if you live near a good museum or art center, they often have classes and exhibits that can be helpful in jump starting your efforts. She took good advantage of those when starting out, and it also enabled her to meet other people pursuing art, and they would help critique each others works.

A recent book (exhibit catalogue) that may be of interest is Inventing Abstraction.

Finally, he's a sculptor not a painter, but the documentary on Andy Goldsworthy, Rivers and Tides (youtube link) to me really captures the mind of an artist and his inspirations and how he then translates them into art.
posted by gudrun at 9:00 PM on August 7, 2013

IMO, which would be IMHO, but I lack H, you need to read Art and Fear. A personal favorite, it explores some of the issues you raise.

Re: real versus not real... it's all real. There is motivation and there is execution.

Part of the problem with art is that it's like "The Impostor Sydrome" in education. No matter what, discomfort is often present and doubt is, too.

If you aren't doing what you do for commercial reasons, (as is my case), the question of 'good' only really has one person in the audience. You'll either get better or you won't. You probably will, but that will depend, according to Bayles and Orland, on how much you do, mostly. Do a lot. See if you get better.

Don't expect to sell anything. Don't expect to get rich. Don't expect to be appreciated. Chances are, you won't do any of these. I have professional friends whose work is stellar, deep, highly crafted, and completely unknown. That is the way with most of the artists I know and that is not a tiny number. My craft friends roll in money, by comparison.

If you have a passion subject and it's tangible (like animals, humans, things) versus gaseous (like emotion, sound, concepts), studying the THING in realism will make a better abstract, in my opinion. What the hell are you going to abstract if you don't understand the thing fully? Just saying.

And as to your gender.... bullshit. Not all things in this world center around your sex. Such distractions don't add to the problem you face... which is how to imagine, how to convey, how to improve what you see and feel and think. Social realities can influence a number of things and can be fodder for your work, but this is all about YOU, one human, expressing something like birds do when they sing. Art is something we (most of us) do.

Good luck. Work hard!
posted by FauxScot at 5:02 AM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

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