I’d forgotten how hard it was when I was first learning how to paint with watercolor: achieving the effect I wanted with a medium that is very hard to control. Now I know how to get the effect I want, but not what the effect is that I want. The truth is that I don’t yet understand what constitutes a successful abstract painting, so I’m not sure what I’m aiming for.
Frank O’Cain (who teaches my abstract watercolor class at the Art Students League) talks about repeating color in different places, but not in the same weight. About bringing things forward and backward. About linking and overlapping shapes, rather than having separate blobs of color. About how the negative space is critical. About preserving some of the white of the paper and/or adding white gouache to “deconstruct” part of the painting. About having more of the detail and focus be in the upper part of the painting.
Having seen a few of his demos, I sorta kinda get what he is saying. I just don’t know how to do it. Looking at the really complicated still life set up in the studio at the League and hearing his advice to not paint the whole thing but rather pick and chose the things you like and that together make a good composition … well, I guess I’m still not sure what makes a good abstract composition.
My first tendency is to paint what I see — realistically — which is definitely not helpful but nonetheless very hard to resist. In fact, it seems much easier to simply paint an abstract with no reference to anything real in front of me. Just putting colors down on paper, spraying it, tilting it, letting the colors move and run, splattering it, intensifying here, softening there … But that feels a little too easy. And when I’m done, although I know if I like it, I don’t know how to improve it the next time, what would make it better.
The gallery at the League, currently showing the Merit Scholarship Winners, includes a wonderful, brightly colorful, abstract landscape. It’s clearly recognizably a landscape, but it’s also undeniably an abstract.
Maybe that’s an easier place for me to start: take a landscape that I’ve already painted and try to simplify it, reduce it to its basic shapes and colors, abstract it.
To be continued …