By Thom Wright 2020
One of the many paths towards abstract painting begins with watercolor and paper collage. In my first twenty years as a landscape watercolor painter, I had read about many other painters working this way, and I experimented with it as well. The salient requirement here is to make the added pieces of paper fit in with the watercolor 2-D composition as well as read as distinct colored and/or textured paper shapes. The amount of adding and blending the paper shapes with the painted shapes can take a beginning painting in many different directions and degrees of abstraction. My preference has been towards a 50/50 balance, letting the paper shapes and painted shapes read as both representational and abstract patterning.
My landscape watercolor/collage painting made in 1989 illustrates how this combination of collage and paint can merge into a consistent whole. I began the watercolor at a building site in downtown Huntington Beach, with a view towards Pacific Coast Highway and the beach, and Main Street on the right side of the lot. In this early stage of the development, the excavation was near completion, about three stories deep that would become underground parking for the future “Pierside Pavilion” building. Before I started painting, I had walked around the perimeter of the development site, and would find a lot of trash that I occasionally picked to use as possible collage papers. To me they also functioned as cultural artifacts of this location in a major state of transformation. In this exploratory approach towards semi-abstraction, I begin a pencil sketch on the paper, keeping in mind how the papers may work as collage.
In the bottom section of the finished painting, there are a piece of a red cigarette package, and a Jack-in-the-Box wrapper. They suggest temporary contractor structures and boxes. Along the left side and back side of the construction pit, there is a combination of vertical stripes of collage paper and painted stripes that portray the support girders of the dirt walls used in construction before the concrete walls are made. These collage papers are easily recognized as torn strips of candy wrappers and black asbestos paper. In the orange horizontal across the top edge of the pit, there are additional paper receipt strips that are then transparently painted also to portray the fencing around the perimeter of the site. Thus, the painting is a rendering of the site as well as bits and pieces of the site itself.
In my second watercolor and collage painting, shown above, the use of paper collage is more extensive. I was on a family trip to Europe at the time, and in Lisbon, Portugal. It was summer, very hot and bright during the day, but with sea breezes and cast shadows from city buildings. The scene shows a jazz duet group playing at an outdoor restaurant, where we enjoyed both the dinner and the music. To integrate the locally found trash papers of Lisbon into the painting, the watercolor is boldly drawn with brush marks. There are pieces of the gold lining paper from a cigarette package surrounding the two musicians that represent the emanating sounds of music. It is apparent that the collage papers are shaped and added to the painting at the beginning, followed then by the watercolor brushmarks that fill in the figures and spaces.
In the third mixed media and collage painting shown above, and finished today, an open abstract began with earth map fragments that were gesso transferred to the gessoed paper. The second step was to paint the grey and green background area that carves out the remaining map fragments and begins to suggest islands, continents and sailing vessels with engine smoke pouring out from their smoke stacks, and all parts surrounded by a green ocean. To further suggest it as a map, a grey crayon was used to draw isometric ocean-depth lines in the background. Thus, there is an ambiguity of smoke patterns with continents and islands.
At this point the painting was still rather drab and vague, so that the minute elements in the maps were not apparent and the positive/negative pieces were too distributed. I decided to extend the range of color and to embellish the ships and continents with more pieces of colored collage papers. In my colored papers inventory I found several pieces of brightly colored stripes, and cut sections of those into horizontal ship-hull shapes and vertical buildings. These increased the color and presence of those ships and play into the reds and blues of the continents and islands. Finally, I cut very small “flying flag” shapes of many colors, and glued those onto the continents and islands.
Knowing when to stop painting and collaging is another long learning trip, and at this point I decided that it was done. It still has the global mapping presence and the added mysterious narrative of the smoking ships and flags. The added bright collage pieces enhance the character and distinctive identity of the ships, yet has a foreboding suggestion of pollution generated by all of the shipping traffic. That led me to choose the title of a dark poem by the 19th/20th century Irish poet, W. B. Yeats, called “Sailing to Byzantium”. He was both a Romantic and a Modernist Poet, whose central contention was that the Irish imagination was not in any way incomplete, and could provide a gateway to a fuller, richer form of human imagination that was lost as a consequence of modernization and the Industrial Revolution. Contemporary artists today can still find inspiration in his work.