A great way of freeing up your hidden talents is to develop abstracts or totally different scenes from photographs. Even if you think abstraction is not for you, this simple act of ‘playing’ can have a profound effect on the way you approach your paintings. I remember many years ago watching Esther Rantzen on That’s Life! employing primates to create ‘works of art’ that were subsequently displayed in a top gallery – to rave reviews from art critics. I think this demonstrates that pleasing, colourful abstract images can be created with just a little direction. However, by approaching abstraction with more bearing, it’s possible not only to produce some pleasing images but also to improve your skills and understanding in the use of colour, drawing and composition. And, of course, it will fire off that all important imagination that sometimes eludes us.
Exercise 1, Easy steps to abstraction
This exercise is useful to help appreciate tonal balance and composition. I apply the same theory when sketching and working out ideas for other paintings. Often, a few minutes spent on a small sketch can resolve a number of problems and also, possibly, inspire us to take a new direction with our work. Far better to uncover your mistakes in the first 15 minutes rather than just before you depart for the framers!
1 Take any photograph as your starting point, or study mine. I find it’s useful to work with an image about A4 size. Colour is not essential, so your photograph could be enlarged on a photocopier.
2 Next, make two L-shaped pieces of card, approximately six inches long on each side by one-and-a half inches wide. A cut-up old mount will do.
Reference image of Little Longstone in Dorset
1 Create a small window with the card and explore the surface of the photograph, looking for a relationship of tones (lights and darks). Experiment with the shape of the window. The photograph below shows my chosen section on the main image for exercises 1 and 2.
Detail for exercises one and two
My resulting sketch, which is a copy of what I saw through the window
1 Put aside the photograph and scrutinise your sketch. I felt that the dark tones and the light tones were too balanced so I introduced more dark to make it the dominant tone, but still with no idea where I was going.
2 At this point, it’s possible to go completely abstract, or try to pull something representational out of the sketch. This stage can be frustrating as often, when put on the spot, your brain refuses to see anything in your abstract marks! Try turning the sketch upside down or asking a friend what they see in it.
3 I saw a converging road to what appears to be the outline of a church on the right. To the left, I made out a telephone box and the head and shoulders of a figure. A large tree bisects the whole scene. With this as a direction, I completed my finished sketch. This process took about 15 minutes.
1 Next, scale up the sketch onto a painting surface, being careful to maintain the same shapes and format of the original work. Render the darkest tones in black ink as this will help to break up areas of the image for colour application.
1 Choose your colours. I selected acrylic primary colours:
- Cerulean blue
- Indian yellow
- Crimson White
Hanging out the washing, acrylic and black ink, (18x40.5cm)
Abstract Exercise 2, Working with line
Abstract shapes are slightly different as they can include parts of objects present in the image and give you more flexibility in your approach. You could decide which are the lightest tones in the image and outline those. You could choose areas of the image that seem to be a single colour, or choose shapes created by overlapped objects. As a rule, the shapes you create should not be recognisable. Creating a series of abstract shapes helps to draw what you see, rather than what you think you see.
Exploring my original photograph, I deliberately chose an area that contained recognisable objects. I made a square shape and rotated it diagonally to the image, partly isolating the cottages at the end of the road. This time, I chose to outline some of the dark abstract shapes. This method can be subjective and often produces a different result each time you try it.
1 We can diversify from this point with colour. Again, I painted with primary colour only. All the enclosed areas that were originally dark were filled in with a light colour. I chose Indian yellow.
2 The yellow is surrounded by a darker colour and I selected the nearest primary on the colour wheel: red. At this stage, I see what appear to be islands floating in a red sea. My eye keeps going to the two small islands bottom centre and I make one my focal point.
3 As the painting is currently red/yellow, a small application of blue into one of the islands makes a complementary and cools the scene down a little.
4 The picture still lacks tonal contrast so I add an outline of varying width with black ink. The painting now has a slightly Aboriginal feel to it.
5 To complete the work, I add wavy yellow lines and blue and red converging dots into the central island, which seem to point to the blue island.
This final picture shows a different approach. Using the same drawing as for the previous painting, I painted a broad line of blue that followed the outline of the enclosed shapes. I now made rules for myself:
- As I painted on the outside of the blue, I changed the colour to its neighbour on the colour wheel and made the brushstroke twice as broad.
- If it was an internal shape, the brush line was to be half the width and a neighbouring colour but going in the other direction around the wheel.
The largest internal shape had multiple layers of colour, which I finished with a dense application of purple. This looks like a black dot and draws the eye. I instinctively decided on an orientation for the painting, which felt comfortable to me.
Less Control More Imagination
All these works were created using fluid acrylics and flat brushes in quite a controlled way, with the acrylic giving some flexibility for correction if i suddenly decided to change direction. Sometimes I introduce techniques that can tip the dice towards a happy accident during the development of the painting.
Norfolk Landscape (above) was created from the type of tonal sketch described at the beginning of the article. When I had finished the sketch, my brain refused to see anything in it other than a series of shapes and patterns. I decided to apply strokes of primary colours with a palette knife onto the painting surface. Knives introduce a lack of control that can produce interesting results. After a short time, I felt i could see marshland, textures and grasses, with a distant line of trees. I continued on this theme to create the finished painting. So, don't worry, sometimes when you're distracted by other things, the creative juices start flowing!