By Thom Wright Apr 2021
A new painting in my “In Balance with Nature” series has taken my attention these past 8 days, and all because of a unique set of circumstances that inspired this work. First, last month I ordered from Nova Color Paints, 3 pints of acrylic paint in newly available colors: Arylide Yellow (transparent cool yellow, even lighter than Hansa Yellow Light), Raw Titanium White (opaque, slightly light reddish grey), and Indanthrone Blue (dark-dark steel blue, partly transparent). Then my daughter brought home an old, large, for-free painting from her friend (36” x 48”), which had a gyclee landscape painting-photo on cheap, thin canvas, and mounted on a thin fiber-board. There also was a big 6” width black frame (48” x 60”), with a nicely carved, scalloped wood trim, and with dark gold flecks in the black paint in random spots. Do I want to invest my time in this, I thought? But, these are the circumstances of my latest painting.
That’s a big painting to do, I thought, and I don’t want to paint on a cheap, giclee canvas, so I gessoed that out and flipped the fiber-board over to glue on a nice piece of new, heavy cotton-duc canvas, 48” x 36”. However, by gluing the raw canvas onto the fiber board, it then dried and shrank in the long dimension by ½” at each end. But this tightening also compensated for the slight, negative bow in the large fiber-board caused by the glicee canvas on the opposite side. So, I cut two more ½” x 36” strips of canvas and glued those on those 2 open edges. Finally, after 2 days of work already, the canvas was flat and I was ready to start painting.
During all this work on the canvas, I was also thinking about that big, black frame, and what the painting composition should be about. I am not used to beginning a painting with a black frame in mind. I wanted to continue in my abstract, painting series, but needed a new, vertical, format and composition (48” ht x 36” wd). I changed the hanging wire on the back of the frame from a horizontal to a vertical orientation. Then I decided on a large, yellow rectangle at the bottom, and multiple horizontal bands of blues, whites and other colors at the upper area. Somewhere in there would also be black to go with the frame.
All that new, gessoed canvas was too uniform and with an all-over canvas-texture that needed something to modulate the surface. I usually resort to applying an acrylic texture to the initial canvas, or letting the added texture play a part in the initial design done with a charcoal pencil. (I can’t face a blank canvas at the start of a painting.) Consequently, I smeared on some “light-weight texture acrylic in the gessoed surface. Then I begin a more detailed layout of the design in charcoal pencil, followed by some light washes of India Ink, and maybe some dark tones distribution. Because there is no “scene” in front of me to begin the painting, I choose to work from the general divisions of space towards the specific elements of the inner shapes, and then towards the specifics colors, tints, and tones of the shapes and spaces. Shown below is my initial design layout. The effects on the painting from the added texture marks is evident.
Because this painting is #57 in my abstract series, I am pretty acquainted with many successful compositional approaches. However, I did not want to repeat myself, especially with these new constraints of size and black framing. These are the circumstances of a fresh, new design, I thought. However, a new design has to be modified over and over before it evolves into something new. That takes more time and paint and patience, but I was resolved to give it a try. So making a new composition requires some patience and willingness to face the trials and new mistakes in the painting process. It is rather easy to change the painting at any stage; all it takes is perseverance to go on with it to its conclusion. Shown below is Stage 2 of this painting. Notice that I am introducing my new paint colors, Arylide Yellow and Indanthrone Blue. And the forms at the bottom are my essential elements of abstract trees used throughout this series. The big diagonals are repeated dynamic lines used in earlier paintings, and they function to tie the top and bottom sections together, as well as add dynamic diagonals. It does not look like much yet, but then the painter knows he or she is in new, unknown territory, and there is still hope to accomplish a finished painting. And the bottom yellow rectangle is too dark and slightly green, but that can wait to be resolved. And I am taking photos of these intermediate steps to show you and me where I am in the process.
One important thing I learned back in 1996 in an advanced painting class at Orange Coast College with my favorite painting instructor, Clark Walding, was that we all learn from the masters, that nobody ignores all that great art, and that experience is the best teacher, even in new situations. In my current series of “In Balance with Nature”, I definitely am influenced by the California painter, Richard Diebenkorn, who created new, geometric abstracts in his “Ocean Park” series of landscape paintings done during the 1970’s and 80’s in Venice, California. His artistic influences were Henri Matisse and earlier American Abstract Expressionist painters. We all build on our rich heritage of art.
At this stage of the painting, I could tell that the upper and lower sections of the painting were not compatible, were not talking to each other, and that something had to change. In particular, the bottom triangle shapes did not relate to the rectangular shapes in the upper section. Although I continued as in my earlier paintings to add harmonious colors to the triangles, it just magnified the mismatch of these two large sections of the painting. After another night’s pause, I started again and tried to simplify the triangles, and remove their colors, which I had never tried to do before. Somehow, there is a learned behavior of paying attention to the problems, and starting fresh again the next day to try something else. That something else usually comes from the accumulation of learning to paint abstracts. Accordingly, I whited out the colors of the bottom triangles and began again to simplify, restoring the basic Arylide Yellow tones to the triangles. In addition, I began a more playful revision of the linear shapes at the bottom section, specifically relating to more horizontal shapes rather than vertical oriented triangles. It did not take long to appreciate how the top and bottom sections came together with similar horizontal shapes. And the removal of most of the color in the triangles allowed them to be more linear gestures than my previous references to trees. Abstract visual forces can work as horizontal shapes and make an addition of horizontal forces to the vertical oriented triangles that I had previously used.
During the last two days of painting, both the upper bands and the lower yellow rectangle changed in many ways. I was appreciating the horizontal shape movements and emphasizing them, and simplifying the lower triangles into more linear gestures in a brighter, solid yellow space. Notice how the upper blue sections of the painting have dominantly horizontal shapes and energies, and that these are now repeated in the lower yellow rectangle. It seems almost obvious now that this solution to the visual forces relied on horizontal movements. Shown below is the finished painting.
The finished painting has more elements going on than I have described, and they usually are spotted as an itch to scratch and make it right. For example, on my last day of painting when I placed the painting in its big, black frame, there were problems revealed at the top “pink” band, that it was shadowed by the frame scalloping and needed to be brightened, and that the bottom white band was mostly hidden behind the frame and needed to be enlarged to lift the yellow rectangle above. Who knew that a frame could play such an important role in the final whole combination of painting and frame? Luckily, there was space to make these adjustments.
My last addition to the painting was to add the thick, black lines to the middle blue band. Its geometry stands out, and relates to the black frame as well. Thus, the painting is a new direction for me in appreciating that there are effective horizontal forces in shapes as well as vertical forces, and that the diagonals can be subdued to a lesser role in the final painting.
I hope that the readers of this blog have followed my dialogue of meditations as to the process of my painting, and that it reveals some of what goes into making an abstract painting. My predilection of geometric shapes comes from my mathematical training and interests, as opposed to the more gestural great abstract paintings of painters like William DeKooning and Joan Mitchell. For me and my inclinations, the framed painting is shown below.