To introduce myself to viewers as an “abstract expressionist” painter, the goal of this post is to walk through a number of stages of development of a selected painting in order to present my painting process and some of my thinking and decision making at each stage. This series consists of acrylic and ink on watercolor paper, canvas and panel. I chose one painting now on view in my “In Balance with Nature” series, where I documented four stages, from initial design to completion.
I almost never start with a white blank surface, because it is somewhat confrontational and has no suggestions as to local variations. So after I primer this panel with white gesso, I first add a thin wash of a mixture of yellow and burnt sienna, then add a random wash of thin India ink, and then a transparent thin wash of white paint. I am just breaking up the space and removing the blank white surface. It reminds me of the early Rennaissance Italian painters process for painting frescos, where they initially make a charcoal drawing on large paper, then transfer the drawing to the wet fresco surface.
Next, I spend some hours doodling with pencil in my artist notebook, making small thumbnail sketches, with many alterations as I go. This thinking refers back to previous paintings in the series, and is experimental, trying out design variations. If I am lucky, it may only take a couple of hours. Once I am satisfied, I transfer the linear drawing onto the canvas, making the black lines as shown here. The bottom shapes of triangles and quadrilaterals are derived from my recent earlier paintings, representing a group of trees. Trees for me have become my primary inspiration for many of my paintings for the past five years. They are my symbols of nature undergoing stress from climate change, its increased forest fires, and effects of human generated pollution to their environment.
Notice too in this early stage that there is a hierarchy of rectangular shapes and lines. I try to create spaces and shapes that are in contrast to each other, to heighten an abstract drama and to simplify the organization of lights and darks.
In the stage 2 of my painting shown above, I have added mostly thin and transparent washes of acrylic colors. There is also the thick, black vertical line that begins the major division of spaces. The vertical format for this painting was chosen as part of the initial design. At this stage, I try variations of colors, and look for rhythms of repeated shapes and colors. In addition, there are suggestions of line movements among the shapes and within the open spaces. Notice too how the color shapes are relating to the random staining variations in the initial drawing. To some artists, this stage may seem tight and obvious and without taking chances. For me, I have tried to make bolder gestures early, but too often find that things get skewed, off balance and require further editing. In fact, that is generally the case in my process too, but my chances of success usually are better in a progressive development of change. It’s sort of like “start with something you know, then get creative as you go”.
In my stage 3 of this painting, I commit to more colors and richer constrasts of colors within and among the three regions of the painting. For the tree shapes at the bottom, I prefer warm colors that suggest not the expected greenery of trees, but the thermal shifts of trees in distress becoming warmer. The red-orange and light blue at the top suggests a sky landscape for a forest scene. Beneath the upper red-orange are dark spots that I had splashed as a organic gesture. Notice that as colors increase the contrast, the geometry of the painting is set. Only the large lower-left rectangle is still unpainted and open to the painting process by preserving the random under-painting variations.
In stage 4 of the painting shown above I have developed the large unpainted rectangle with light colors, light at the top, transitioning to a light yellow in the center, and darker values of a green gray at the bottom. Nothing is solid or simple, but allows for more brushmarks with some relationships maintained to the under-painting’s value patches. In a way it gives me an approach that resembles how realistic landscape paintings are made, but that usually follow observation rather than random patterns that I have preserved. In the bottom green-gray area there are also a mix of linear brushmarks that provide additional rhythms to the tree shapes. Also, some of the earlier shape/color decisions are altered to adjust to these new additions. This lower rectangle becomes integral as on of the large spaces of the composition.
In stage 4 shown above there are many small adjustments to all parts of the painting. The black vertical is repainted and darker, the bottom right area tries a new pattern of vertical colors extending down the right side, and some of the lines are lightened, darkened and varied. This stage also takes a lot time of stepping back and looking at what’s working and not working.
Finally, the finished painting shown above required more adjustments and decisions to clarify and intensify the result. In particular, the upper band with the single red-orange shape is now changed to three horizontal bands. The dark ink spots disappear, not relating to the total painting. And in the large light rectangle the small lines are accentuated with color brushmarks. The blue vertical on the right is intensified to hold up against all the warm colored shapes. Part of this thinking is personal preference and part is an itch that needs scratching. All in all, there is a dynamic balance achieved with many parts relating to the whole and to each other. And that’s my process.