So much has happened in America over the past month that marks a turning point of the Covid pandemic and its impact. We painters just continue working in our studios, thinking about the day-to-day news and assessing how will we ever reach a return to normal again. However, here in Southern California and over so much of the nation, vaccinations are making a difference, and we can now almost not wear masks, etc. and begin to reengage with our friends and community.
How the art scene will emerge is still in question. But I continue making art, as I have over the past year, on a day-to-day basis, where my abstract painting series, “In Balance with Nature”, has been and continues to be my primary focus. The pandemic is slowly rolling back, but Climate Change continues. And even though our economy significantly slowed down during the pandemic, the net global effect on fossil fuel emissions in 2020 is only a 10% decrease from the rate of change of emissions growth. My personal contributions reduction has been significant this year, having added a second solar array system, and my daughter has leased an electric vehicle that now provides full daily recharge. The country’s conversion to clean energy program appears to be the real beginning of global change.
My focus on this painting series shows several changes and new directions that I want to discuss in my latest abstract painting, “In Balance with Nature #62”. A half-way stage of the painting is shown below.
“In Balance with Nature #62, Stage 3”, 66” x 48”, Oil on Canvas, Thom Wright 2021
The general design of the painting is structured by four vertical rectangles in a vertical format, with yellows of descending values from right to left. At the bottom are my usual geometric tree forms as triangles and quadralaterals, in a wide variety of color hues that relate to the yellows. The large canvas relative to the tree shapes dominates the design, rather than the trees in distress. In addition, the tree colors are somewhat overpainted with the four yellows of the atmosphere as above, that in effect reduces their presence and portrays the impact of climate change happening on our forests. Rising above the trees are linear shapes suggesting the transfer of the chemical by-products caused by dying trees and forest fires. These linear shapes are empty line gestures in this case, rather than adding more colors to suggest emissions of smoke, pollutants and carbon dioxide. Thus, the four vertical rectangles of the atmosphere become hazy and their warm yellow hues dominate the design. Is this a reflection of our state of on-going climate change? Definitely so, and the forest fire season is only beginning.
At the top of the canvas are horizontal bands of primary colors, and they speak via comparison with the rest of the colors in the painting. The wider and lighter blue band at the top contains more shape activity, with blue vectors darting left and right in a lighter blue area. Diagonal lines from the top descend from the left and right sides into the central atmospheric yellows, making an interplay of triangular shapes that relate to the uprising linear vectors. This interplay of shapes and diagonal lines is similar to my earlier paintings, adding to the dynamics of up/down movements and interactions with the tree shapes at the bottom. In this painting, however, the yellow bands of space still dominate the composition.
“In Balance with Nature #62”, 66” x 48”, Oil on Canvas, Thom Wright 2021
In the completed painting shown above, minor changes have been made to heighten the abstract design, without shifting the dominance of space. The brightest colors are placed at the top in horizontal bands, that serve as comparative primary colors and complement the design. The four vertical yellows are now divided by white vertical stripes with thin color lines within, again to clarify the strength of the four vertical rectangles. My feeling is that the fiery atmospheres are moving from bad to worse. Several diagonal lines are strengthened also to focus the importance of the atmospheric interchange in the central area. To show the scale of this painting, I include a photo below of the framed painting mounted in my living room with me beside it. There really is a sense of drama with the larger size.
Thom Wright with his latest painting, “In Balance with Nature #62”, 2021
As in any abstract painting, there are many color and shape relationships that are effective and fit with the general design, without having stated reasons for their size, shape, color, and contrast. These are usually described as refinements of the parts to the whole, that the work must always be an effective abstract with a dynamic composition of movements and relationships of the parts to parts and to the synthesis of the whole. I hope that my choices here are acceptable, and still convey my theme of climate change as coming to dominate our forests and our lives. I welcome your comments.
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.
Let’s begin with the gist of my ongoing painting series during the past year.
Big trees and large forests have long inspired humans beyond the utilitarian resources they provide. Their spirit is uplifting; some becoming massive, towering and long lived wonders of great strength. They thrive with earth, water and sun, and they benefit man and the environment. Symbolically they join the earth with the sky. Yet now less than 25% of the earth’s forests remain, and many are in environmental stress from climate change that brings higher temperatures, drought, disease and forest fires.
Choosing trees and forests in stress as my metaphor for the growing apocalypse of climate change emphasizes our collective dependence on nature for survival, that both man as the dominant species must search for and attain a global balance, in contrast with our present dominance of the earth’s resources and excessive pollution/destruction of nature. It cannot keep up with the pace of human impact on the environment. It is complex, diverse and dynamic itself, multiple ecosystems over the breadth of land, oceans and atmosphere, as well as populated with the great diversity of creatures, plants and the gamut of life.
In my geometric, somewhat expressive painting style, I paint abstract landscapes of line, form and space, on hardwood panels. These surfaces sometimes carry their own patterns, and they have their own way of influencing lines, colors and brush marks. My goal is to create a spatial environment of balance and exchange, of patterns, rhythms and relationships, of parts that make the whole. Just as many contemporary artists make compositions of pictorial, dynamic forces in balance, I make paintings to inspire man’s pursuit of balance with nature.
INTRODUCTION: After a year of the Covid pandemic, here we are, many still struggling to get our vaccine shots and find some kind of return to normality. This global human struggle continues, but now the many vaccines being distributed will help everyone, eventually, we think. However, slowly some have realized that the new normal is not quite the same as before. The virus has mutated and regained some resurgence around the world, and the global medical response has so far been less than focused on our total health and well-being. But how can it not be otherwise, given the diversity of the world’s peoples, nations, cultures, religions, political beliefs, education, interests, personalities, traits, ages, experiences, health or lack of it, wealth or lack of it, resources or lack of it, and even inclinations? And artists still have limited venues to show art publically.
“Showing my art publicly in 2020”, Charcoal and Collage Drawing on Paper, Thom Wright
Don’t bother with political differences, prejudices both racial, religious, sexual or otherwise, because that makes it incomprehensible. Yet, there is a feeling or consciousness that we are sort of headed in the right direction. If we can get the public vaccinated and restarted, and the economies restarted, even stimulated, then some general feeling of well-being may return, even for artists.
However, this is of little concern, compared with the growing threat of climate change. In 2021, almost no one denies that it is now happening. Here and there some dark changes are happening, as in growing disasters in weather and temperature extremes, rapid melting of the polar ice packs and glaciers, and lately, the measurable rising of the ocean level. Where do you place your bets on survival now: kind of depends on where you are and what you have already invested in, in solar, in electrics or hybrids, in elevation level, in location, location, in your friends and neighbors even. As an artist, I decided to include it in my art.
So what’s this is all about? What’s the really big direction and set of goals that we should consider, you know, like science, organization, global cooperation (that’s a joke), consuming less (that’s a joke too), making contributions to NGO’s (???), buying jungle land in Brazil (!!!), changing the direction and purpose of the United Nations, or even prosecuting Trump for countless illegal and obstructive environmental actions during his administration?
Instead, I ask you to clear your head of the minor stuff, and think big. What is the meta-direction that almost everyone can buy in to? Given that our latest climate change science predicts that drastic changes to the global economy are required by 2030 to reduce fossil fuel emissions and limit the severity future climate change, whatever that means. Has any government, let alone the U. S. government, thought about surviving to 2050? So far, I think Norway has, and is actually redefining its economy to do this; and Saab in Sweden is going to produce all-electric vehicles by 2030.
PERSONAL OPINION: Have I got my shots? Yes. Have I made art all this past year? Yes. Have I done all the thinking about this? NO. I read the L A Times daily, and it still hasn’t considered this scope of what is necessary to be done by 2030 or by 2050. Luckily, it still has the comics section at the back of the paper to offer humor in the face of on-going crises. It also picks up on the latest bad news of the day, but never tabloid journalism; and then there is the Op-Ed section for consideration of somebody’s opinions of the real daily and monthly issues of life, like what to do about gun control, abortion, the homeless, the refugees, the minimum wage, and the cruelty to animals. Ah, modern life continues to descend into the abyss, while others learn the meaning of dark humor. And more immediate needs and conditions make most people decide to postpone their long range thinking.
Our democratic electorate relies on responses to today’s reality in order to cope with tomorrow. How could it be otherwise? And is the rational majority of the electorate keeping up to date? Doubtful. It takes a combination of a Greta Thunberg, a teenage climate leader and some more big climate disasters and other long lasting climate and disease disasters that we can no longer afford to fix, to really consider changing the electorate’s views. Just think about the 60 year campaign around the world for women’s right to vote. England finally changed their minds in 1910, early after a 50 year campaign when women then began burning down and blowing up buildings.
APROPO ART: To ask, what does all of this have to do with making art, especially contemporary abstract art, is to begin to understand the realm of the esthetics and dilemmas of post-modern art and artists. That is, only if the artist is not bent on some personal quest for greatness, personal gain, or recognition as creating a new form of art. In addition, most people probably are not interested in the philosophical and esthetic underpinnings of today’s art, but instead look for its impact, attraction, or relationship to themselves. The few art buyers and collectors who know something about it are usually the educated, young, employed and independent-thinking segment that already have an idea of what art they are impressed by, and perhaps too how it fits in with their decor and discretionary budget.
During this past year of Covid isolation, my art making has changed direction, in that I no longer am concerned with raising the public’s consciousness about climate change; the threat is now self-evident. And what happens to abstract art lovers and artists? My decision is to emphasize the importance of finding a balance of man and nature. At first, the concept seems polemical, but for me it became my metaphor, that a well-made, abstract painting can represent global balance and stability of man and nature.
“In Balance with Nature #43”, 40” x 30”, Acrylic and ink on canvas, 2020, Thom Wright
FIRST PAINTING: In my 43rd painting in this series shown above, a dominantly warm colored composition works. It’s interpretive and a talks about finding balance. The group of reddish shapes at the bottom are my suggestion of trees in a hot landscape, and they extend vectored shapes and lines upward into the atmosphere above. The right side with a white space where I suggest the normal, biological interchange of man and nature with the atmosphere, where the yellow sunlight mixes with blue moisture, the violet ozone layer shields the earth from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, and the blue moisture forms rain clouds returning water to the earth. The red and green bands at the bottom act as a ground, both healthy and not so healthy.
It is not the veracity of the alliteration, but the poem of the painting, its rhythms and rhymes of shapes, lines, spaces and colors, creating strong vertical movements with playful variations, all in a vertical rectangular format of layered sections. The connections and relationships are made without overt recognition of real forms. The dominantly warm color palette is limited and still contains some cool tones, all distributed and mixed together for a balance whole. Thus, the painting stands up without explicit references to man or nature, which are both very abstract concepts. This separation space allows the painting to work on its own as an abstract composition.
The more art knowledgeable readers may see the artistic influence on me of the great 20th century Amercian artist, Richard Diebenkorn. His famous “Ocean Park” series of paintings were made in Venice, California, in the 1960’s and 70’s, and they make reference his love the Southern California light and atmosphere and a little of the cityscape geometries around him. However, his paintings are successful solely as abstract paintings of his own painting style. They have inspired my abstract painting as well.
“In Balance with Nature #44”, 40” x 30”, Acrylic and ink on canvas, Thom Wright, 2021.
SECOND PAINTING: In my second painting presented above, I expand my color palette and diversity of shapes and lines. The warm-toned central area changes from a pale brown at the bottom, rising into three areas of yellow, orange and pink. On either side are green and red verticals, and a small, blue-violet band of upper atmosphere at the top. Within these central areas, the boldly colored geometrical shapes at the bottom extend upwards with vectors of lines and colored shapes, and become darting, hot-orange lights at the top. The two, central curved-lines are unique in this series, as dynamic up-thrusts of parts moving to the top and right sides. All of these motions find room and cross the boundary in white areas, making new movements. Again, here is an abstract narrative of the dynamic forces of shapes interacting with color areas and edges of the painting. It feels like an abstract landscape as well.
“In Balance with Nature #45”, 40” x 40”, Acrylic and ink on panel, Thom Wright 2021
THIRD PAINTING: In my third example painting above, the large central light area dominates the space. A subtle vertical division separates a light yellow area on the left from a light pink area on the right, but it still opens the painting space and breathes like atmosphere and light. At the bottom there is a variety of vertical colored shapes and dark lines, with grouping of colors at the verticals on each side. Within the central area are again vector arrows suggesting upward movements and also relating the lower colored shapes and lines with the colored shapes in the upper black band. Thus, these three areas of shapes and lines make a dialogue among them, moving up and down as well as right and left. Additional rectangular geometries at the top and right side also working similarly in patterns and relationships. The blue bands near the top easily suggest sky in the abstract landscape.
Making dynamic balance within a square format such as this that is inherently static with all four sides being equal, relies on the horizontal divisions that naturally reference a landscape scene, and the few diagonals that play against the horizontal stacking of spaces. Some colored diagonals connect with similarly colored geometric shapes. The two yellow-toned diagonals also emphasize the Occidental landscape view that reads from left to right in the central area. And a small opposing diagonal at the top right counters and balances the others.
SUMMARY: How much of this-and-that does it take to make the painting complete? Well, you can perceive in this third painting that I have added more complexity, compared with the first two paintings. Of course, each artist comes to this decision in differently, and even differently at different times. Variety in the scope of a series is also important to me and others. That I am successful in these paintings may depend on each viewer’s preferences for colors, shapes, etc. And so I will continue with this series and return with more.
This past fall I returned to making monotypes, which are one-of-kind color prints made on my large press. In three earlier posts, I presented my earlier works and described how they are accomplished, especially requiring a clear and fully developed design before beginning. In this post I’ll focus on my concerns and approach to this abstract series titled “California Climate Change” and my metaphor of the rampant forest fires that devastated over four million trees in 2020.
“California Climate Change #3”, Monotype, 18” x 24”, oil-based color inks on Rives BFK printing paper, Thom Wright 2020
I begin with the third piece in my series, shown above that I made, because the first two did not survive the cut and contained too many errors in the control of the medium. This one shows the relatively simple landscape composition with an upper region of red-violet that is gradated in value, and a lower region of brown-black. These are rolled onto the printing plate first, and then more additive and subtractive elements are worked serially. The entire plate is mostly completed in less than an hour, followed by some touch ups for spots and small local areas and edges that can be easily fixed.
My theme demands warm and hot colors mostly, and emphasizes processes of change and transformation of trees on fire. Of course the area at the bottom suggests the burn-scarred land, where the lighter content forms from roughly torn plastic stencil and hand-drawn lines and marks. The lighter browns and red-orange colors are dramatically lit against the dark surface, and they also relate to the colors of the standing tree shapes above.
Many times in my paintings I have used vertical triangles to represent the forest pines, and in my monotypes I almost do the same. In this composition, all the tree shapes are in a horizontal band. To get varying rhythms of height, width, branching and growth variation, I use hand-cut stencils and create a large variety of alterations to the triangles. Being the principal elements, they also have the greatest variation in bold colors. To heighten the luminosity, even more lower level stencils made of thin plastic are laid down with fiery yellows and oranges that also suggest the trees are on fire. Once all these stencils are placed for the trees, I draw into the inks to add white lines and active marks around and next to the trees. The whites add more intensity and movement as trees in flames.
Finally, the upper region has an organic, light-colored, horizontal shape to suggest the gases and ashes added to the atmosphere from the fires. My emphasis on this process also adds small triangular shapes of various colors as representing these emissions. They are placed at the upper ends of straight lines coming from the tree shapes below. The straight lines also provide ties of the trees to the emitted gases and ashes, and a more geometric patterning and structuring of the parts into a whole. Which is to say, that there are many ways to invent an abstract of pieces and parts that relate to the whole and allow for wider interpretations.
“California Climate Change #5”, Monotype, 18” x 24”, oil-based color inks on Rives BFK printing paper, Thom Wright 2020
In my second piece shown above, it is clear to see the similarities and the differences of this one from the first one. The sky region is filled with white and colored bubbles made by spraying mineral spirits with a toothbrush. The tree shapes are more distinct and geometric, but have more texture and cut-out shapes, and there are simpler, with fewer hand-drawn lines. Notice too that the tree colors are mostly darker valued than the light red-orange sky area behind them. Still, there is a variety of shapes and relative positions that make the dominate horizontal rhythm of the trees and their paired relationships too. In the lower blue-black base are, only two horizontal bands stand out. This simpler composition still has a lot of music to it.
“California Climate Change #9”, Monotype, 18” x 24”, oil-based color inks on Rives BFK printing paper, Thom Wright 2020
In my third piece shown above, I forgo hot colors except for the trees, and use cool and greyed colors for the sky and ground. It reads like a winter night scene of the forest in its aftermath of the fire. Red-orange and blue-green are extreme opposites of temperature. The hand-drawn areas behind each tree read like ice and snow. The triangles are charred with browns and black, yet have color and glow against the grey background. Only the upper triangles of the emitted gases have a greater brightness and contrast. I particularly like the two blue-black bands at the top and the bottom and how they enhance the middle area as well as enhance the colors and the few white lines.
Although there are many ways to flatten space and integrate objects and grounds, these monotypes could be made more flattened to work as 2D abstracts. However, my interests in expressive color and gestural mark making contribute to my process of abstraction of landscape. I invite your questions and comments about this series.
After about ten years of learning to draw the figure, and after seven years of learning the “monotype” printmaking process, I challenged myself in 2002 to do a series of figurative based monotypes. It is a particular challenge in that each work is a single, multi-colored monotype that is made in a couple of hours, with all the layers assembled and printed at one time.
My theme came from a human interest article in the “Calendar” section of the L A Times, about a semi-famous Hollywood producer and his wife of twenty-something-years marriage having a break up. There was a single photograph with the article of the couple sitting together in their back yard in a braided hammock hung between two large oak trees; their body language with each facing a little away from the other said much about their feelings and incipient alienation. Personally, I have not had that experience, but like it says in the movies, “In movies we vicariously experience dramas outside of our own world”. That photo, I decided, would be my starting point and inspiration for a series of monotypes.
My approach to making monotypes usually relies on including cutout shapes, using all kinds of materials, such as cutouts from paper, manilla folders, flowers, leaves, cloth, plastic sheets, string, and anything flat enough to be inked and added to a printing plate and be rolled all-together through my printing press. Cutouts contribute to the two-dimensional flatness of the design as well. So although I also do direct-drawing on the plate and the additive materials, there is a rather simple, straight-ahead process of rolling and brushing inks additively, and of modifying edges, lines, and areas with scrapers, brushes, cotton swabs, and the like for subtractive techniques. For example, by rolling a single color of ink onto a paper cutout (stencil) or rolling onto the plate inside the mask, it can then be further modified with additive and subtractive (erasing) techniques to make a more expressive element.
With this introduction, I continue with presenting this series of monotypes with a short description of the composition for each. The discussion of three monotypes provides insight into the variations of composition with the same theme.
In the image above, printed on a light-brown colored paper, I show two red-orange figures seated apart on a hammock, with each facing away slightly, but leaning towards each other. Their shared color connects the two and stands out against the soft greens, blue-greens and browns of the background. He has his arms and hands together in a gesture of isolation, while she has a dark, hidden face, with one arm touching him and the other lying on her leg. Even though there are some drawing lines and softening textures on their bodies, there is a readable tension between them. And with these minimal detail figures, less is more.
On either side of the central pair, there are their duplicates (zeitgeists) in opposite tones and textures, like alter-ego shadows of themselves looking on to this scene. Notice too how the patterned textures in the hammock, trees above and low garden walls below complement the line drawing in the figures.
The duplicate figures are copies with almost the same posture, but now with darker values and more masking textures that express separation. Overall, there is a simple and balanced composition, with a light entry path leading to the two central figures from the bottom. The upper background is kept simple, diffuse and with more organic textures that repeat the patterns for movement
For the sake of simplicity and unity, I constructed low retaining walls for these outer figures to sit on. It also functions as visual forces pushing the two central figures together, which increases the tension at the center. So not much is being verbally expressed, but the visual forces and body language tell the story. And by these simple but effective constructions, the mysterious “dialogue” is gesturally conveyed.
In the second monotype shown above, the same color scheme and light-brown paper are used, but with more figures and a different design. The central figures are made using stencils, while the outer figures are made using masks. In a way, the additional figures express additional states of both their togetherness and separation, and suggest a fading of the central figures’ relationship. It also serves visually to make a strong, horizontal rhythm of shapes across the central area. These outer figures have less line drawing as well that somewhat occludes their meaning.
The central figures now are seated on a rectilinear grid rather than on a hammock. The grid becomes the key to the more rectilinear red-orange shape below on the left side and moving to the center. Behind the figures there is a diagonal grid of lines suggesting a fence, and made with a plastic-bag material that is used in packaging oranges. Notice too that on the right side the grid lays over middle values of blue-green and creates a light-valued pattern, while on the left side the grid lies over a light-valued area which was then ink-rolled with the blue-green to make a dark-patterned grid. The two side areas then have a figure/ground ambiguity and approach a similarity and unity of the two side areas. Just below the outer figures on both sides, the blue-green ground has been wiped away with brushy strokes to provide another patterning and a left/right similarity of light horizontal areas.
In the upper section of the scene, the trees are more textured and make a converging set of diagonals leading to the central figures. Abstractly, the trees are dynamic movements and are pointing to the central figures. The lower part of the composition is more stable with static shapes, so the diagonals gain more emphasis.
In my third monotype shown above, which actually is the first one of the series, there are three pairs of figures – The central couple who stand out with the most drawing marks, the red and black figures on opposite sides, and the outer figures that are barely viewable. The central couple are seated again on a rectilinear black grid that extends behind and partially into the tree behind them. The figures collectively have duplicates acting as before with the heightened drama of the set.
It is interesting how the four central figures relate to each other, with similar body positions, but radically different colors. The red female is on the opposite side of the lower green ground shape that horizontally moves to the central base. The green and blue ground shapes complement the red and orange figures. The upper area is now a brushy sky to contrast with the browns of the tree trunks and the abstract diagonal brown pattern in the center area. Their striking dynamic patterns stand in contrast to the stationary seated figures, and they suggest more turmoil than meets the eye in this scene.
In summary, these three monotypes offer a variety of compositions with variations that all contribute nuances to the theme of the central figures and their dilemma of their future. To learn more about how the construction of the scene amplifies the meaning of the work, I would recommend exploring Rembrandt’s many Biblical line drawings, a true master’s touch.
Reference: “Inspired 2020” art exhibition showing at the Huntington Beach Art Center through 10 Dec 2020. This annual juried show presents work by 91 members of the Artist Council of the HBAC. Public access is limited to 25 people and admission with Covid safety measures requiring wearing a face mask, observance of social distancing, and temperature measurement by the art staff before entry. Reservations can be made on-line at huntingtonbeachartcenter.org
In the art show above, I have two abstract paintings concerning my long term theme of Climate Change that I would like to describe in this blog. My two-sentence Art Statement posted with the paintings is the following:
“The Industrial Revolution advanced some of mankind to our present affluence. Its side effect of Climate Change leads to the destruction of man and nature, until we find balance.”
“Balance with Nature #9”, Acrylic on panel, 36” x 36”, Thom Wright 2019
In my first painting shown above, the composition is hard-edge geometric grid of lines and rectangles on a square format. Central to its design are the “saved” knotholes in the original birch hard-wood panel. Their random placement becomes the basis for relating the collection of lines and rectangles, and represent a metaphor of the trees of the forests of the earth. Some of the knotholes also have a short vertical line suggesting tree trunks. The curvi-linear shapes and complex organic vein structure emphasizes their natural growth pattern, and it also provides a strong contrast with the man-made, linear structure in the painting. And as recently published in a “Scientific American” magazine, trees communicate among themselves chemically through their root systems. It was found that trees are helping each other find balance in their root systems, and possibly indicating soil and water conditions in the ground.
As basically described in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, by Wassily Kandinsky in 1912, “the whole determines the relationship of the parts”. He was the first to document how abstraction works in painting, that shapes have inherent qualities of mass, color, texture, direction and distance. Color harmony and contrast also create psychological relationships such as mood and intensity, as well as build relationships among the parts. Thus, for me a successful abstract painting is made with interrelationships of all of the parts that express an aesthetic of order, sequence and hierarchy, making rhythms, movement and balance, and capable of expressing its meaning in the whole.
Just to make it more interesting, working to find a dynamic balance in a square format may be the most difficult to achieve, because of its static balance with all sides and angles being equal. So in this first painting, the random distribution and size of the knotholes has to be dealt with in the composition. They also represent nature, versus the more colorful geometric lines and rectangles representing man. The lines connect the knotholes and also connect, intersect with, and divide the rectangles. Notice too that the dark vertical shapes on the left and right sides act to define a large central vertical rectangle, thereby creating a major change to make a vertical rectangle within the square. Within this central rectangle are large horizontal rectangles in yellows, reds and blue-greens. These build a vertical movement of their shapes. The nested color intensities add luminosity within each of the major color areas, and they have their own rhythms of color value, transparency and chroma.
Finally, there is a single white square at the upper left that repeats the square format of the whole, thereby gaining added importance besides being located at the top. It contains a pale violet square angle that relates to the other neighboring lines, and it relates remotely to a small blue-green square in the lower right. Thus, a subtle diagonal relationship is expressed in the midst of all the dominant vertical and horizontal relationships. Notice the absence of angular lines are triangular shapes that would unnecessarily add competing rhythms, forces and relationships. Even though this white square is the lightest value shape, it is a static square that is held in place by neighboring lines, and finds its match with the group of knotholes at the upper center. However, it is not more important than the knothole group, but closer to an equality of differences. Accordingly, this relationship builds on the dichotomy of the man versus nature meaning of the whole.
Without my title and art statement, this painting is still well done and interesting as an abstract by itself. But in our contemporary culture with its high level of technological complexity and industry, we tend to unconsciously favor our dominance over nature to our own detriment. Now as man has increased pollution and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we see that our waste products are influencing climate with more severe weather, rising ocean level, forest fires, and the beginning of animal extinction. Our future is predicted to be even more dire as we collectively fail to make sufficient rates of cultural change. For these reasons I paint paintings that hopefully speak to this conceptual meaning, and support an activism to increase awareness and support.
“Balance with Nature #18”, Acrylic and pencil on panel, 40” x 36”, Thom Wright 2019
In my second painting shown above, it is immediately clear that the format is a vertical rectangle versus a square as in the first painting. Generally, a horizontal rectangle is used for landscape paintings, representing man’s two-eyed paradigm of his stereo view of the earth as a flat surface, with the bottom reading as closest and above reading as farther away. Similarly, larger shapes read as closer to the viewer than smaller, and larger shapes at the top of a painting read as much larger. And in atmospheric distance, brighter and more intense color read as closer. In value, darker and higher contrast with its surrounding values reads as closer. Darker value also adds more weight, making a shape more static and making a directed shape having more momentum. Accordingly, these variations apply in the triangular tree shapes at the lower (forward) sections.
In the top rectangle, the complete black fills the shape and its value is so great that the black shape advances rather than recedes. Its emptiness heightens the content in the sections below. It also has connotations of the night, the void, outer space and death (non-life), and thereby heightens the contrast of the brighter and more colorful sections below. On the left side the brown ground color adds warmth and heightens the luminosity of the single orange triangle.
In the lower large section the horizontal row of triangular shapes create a dancing horizontal pattern, with interlocking “up and down pointing” triangles. In both orientations they suggest tall pine trees, but in a collective forest of trees in different states or conditions. By sharing common edges and having a few triangular gaps in the group, the painting gains in its two-dimensional flatness. The variety of triangular shapes adds to their naturalness. The variety of colors and texturing also add a degree of uniqueness as well as separateness from each other. In addition, there are two linear shapes above the triangle group that suggest atmospheric distance, yet still belonging to the group. With the warm orange gradient in the upper area, there is a suggestion of dominant warmth, although the green-grey triangles imply different conditions. There is no ordinary green color in any triangle. The small yellow triangle at the lower left feels closest and also talks with the single orange triangle in the left section. In spite of the variety of shapes, colors and textures, the three spatial divisions dominate the design. Allowing for simplicity of shapes and balanced with empty areas, there is an overall unity to the composition.
Although not shown in the images, I usually frame the paintings with my handmade hardwood frames. They are stained a warm brown that reveals the grain of the wood, and it adds a complementary element that further unites the painting. Besides being less expensive, they feel natural and work with most rooms containing wooden furniture. Consequently, I have long favored using warm colors in most of my paintings.
To draw a comparison between these two paintings, I leave that to the viewer. I think that they both conceptually present my intention and theme as well as make a good abstract. I welcome questions and comments from the readers.
Besides being a watercolorist and then a painter, I was also in to printmaking. After several classes taken at Orange Coast College, and after I purchased a large bed printing press from one of my instructors, I ventured into larger prints (18” x 24”), first doing color prints using oil-based printing inks. One of my first attempts at this size is shown below, a rather simple construction using just a few colors plus black.
The tricks of doing one of these larger prints is preparation beforehand, a design in mind, all of the necessary materials assembled, and go-for-it guts. The old “keep it simple, stupid” rule is especially true in monotype printmaking. Looking closely at this piece, one can almost guess at the sequence of events necessary to layer the parts together on the plate. And, of course, strictly follow the standard procedures for getting a fresh and clean print from the process. The printmaking time itself can only last about 30-40 minutes before the inks start to dry and and perfectly dampened paper begins to have dry spots. Anyhow, the materials used in this one are nasturtium leaves, string, a circular floppy disk removed from its case, and a variety of circle and ring making shapes like rubber washers. The white lines are made using a thick cotton string, and the red lines are made using a red oil-stick. I could visualize the end product, but when that paper is lifted off of the pressed plate, the striking and clean results are quite powerful, and I was happy to pursue more.
Years later in my first printmaking class at CSULB back in 2002, the final assignment was to do a series of whatever the students wanted to make, rather than the earlier directed assignments. I chose to make just black-and-white monotypes, using a mechanical drawing draft board set up that I first began learning to do mechanical drawings in my ninth-grade high school class. My approach was to make my own neuvoux-Cubist compositions. In addition, I wanted to show the rich qualities of black-and-white prints having a wide range of grey values and textures. The next image below shows my first print.
Again, this work has to be made pretty much in less than 40 minutes. On the tilted drafting board that dominates the center, there are several darker shapes in a light-valued surface that is made with diluted black ink, brushed liberally over the surface, and then sprinkled with mineral spirits to make the blobs and drips. Additional straight lines are made with straight-edged implements that are inked on the edges. The game played against time is to add all of these additive and subtractive marks, using different ink viscosities, to hopefully end up with a 2D flat print that tells the story of its creation.
In this work one can see that there is more light distributed outside the tilted drawing board, and more combinations of drawn lines, brushed thinned ink, and varying values of ink. The explosive chaos of the light wash areas are contained to some degree by the variety of dark and light lines. At the center is the standard 30/60/90 right triangle that looks representational, but is surrounded by soft-edged greys and located centrally by the diagonal lines. It’s a play on perspective versus 2D composition, with the drawing board on a tilted table top, just like the one I used in ninth-grade mechanical drawing. And there are a number of Cubist interlocking shapes surrounding the drawing board that make an alternating rhythm of darks and lights.
My third work shown above is a variation in this series with the heightened drama of lights and darks, and mounted on a black matt board. Even though the German paper is toned a warm light grey, there is a strong value constrast with the perfectly black triangle shape in the center. A medium grey wash on two sides of it look something like a cast shadow, and even a levitation of the black triangle above the drawing board. Even more dramatic to me is the broad bleed sprinkles of mineral spirits and salt grains over the upper drawing board. The results are uncontrollable, but can be a gift of richness to the surface. The drawn lines also play with perspective and flatness.
In my fourth and last work of this series, I use many of the dramatic inking and salt-grain texturing techniques used in the third work and also printed on the light-grey German paper. The center of the drawing board now shows a duel of the triangles, as they come together at their sharp points, and a few more line drawing triangles. The outer upper area is simplified to light and dark bands to add the circular movement around the outer space. The black triangle is all black and with straight lines drawn into the inked triangle to show the plastic indentations of the tool.
When I presented these four monotypes in the class final critique, I knew that I had an “A” in the class. I won’t go through the critical comments made, especially by the art professor, because they really apply to the next work to be made. However, I have not sold any of them yet, but did go on to do several more figurative black and white monotypes. Those are for another day. I hope that readers gain an appreciation for the richness of this kind of print.
Have you ever gone too far with a painting, to the point where there are no easy fixes? This is especially the case in plein-aire paintings, when there is no going back to the original landscape and its weather to see how to let nature show the way. And for me, for many years of learning to make watercolors, at my selected location and early in the morning, I would do my best effort to draw the initial design, paint the big areas lightly and boldly, and then work in the middle value shapes. After returning home and letting the watercolor dry, all the values become 20% lighter, the richness of color and contrast reduced. Too many times, later I would paint in a richer color, and the unity of the work would collapse.
After learning that the later phase of painting should proceed after time and thought went in to my analysis. Of course, even then some paintings would not give me solutions, so I would set them aside for later, and for much later. After years of being out-of-sight, out-of-mind, and after years more of more art classes, I reconsidered them and looked again for solutions.
In my watercolor shown above, I had already reworked it two more times after its initial plein-aire beginning. I had colored and darkened the upper sky with hatch strokes. Also, the foliage of the two foreground trees were enriched and darkened to add color and darken the undersides. At that time I was taking a watercolor painting class at Cal State U Long Beach, and learning to go beyond the conditions of the scene. When I began it on site, the morning light at the coast dominated and washed out the colors and the darks. Still, I set this aside again and decided to go farther with it.
The second image shown above is the same painting again after one more stage of adding more color and darks. By comparing the first image with the second, one can see the foreground additions are pushing the middle ground and sky back. There are red-oranges, burnt sienna, and mid and dark value blue-greys added there. Remember that a 2D landscape generally requires atmospheric distance achieved with a relationship of stronger and darker at the bottom (foreground) and lighter and thinner color receding in the middle ground, and lightest values and palest color in the distance. Also notice that the color bands at the ground and in the tree foliage add vertical and horizontal movements, so that the whole composition integrates together.
Three years later I returned to the same location and did a smaller painting of the two big trees on the mesa, overlooking the Bolsa Chica Wetlands and the Pacific Ocean seen here in the distance. I was sitting farther away from the two trees and towards the bluff on the left side. Besides using oil paint versus the watercolor before, this scene had changed a little. The two trees are bigger and with more open foliage, and the season changed the morning sky with more haze and less brightness, and with a bluer high sky. On site I was working for about two hours, and initially using more color and value range overall. I differentiated the two trees as female and male, one more colorful on the left and one darker in foliage, the tree trunk and major branches. Notice too that with oil paints, I can work back into dark patches with lighter and more colorful mixes. Overall, the brushwork is more broken and made with distinctive brush marks that also describe the orientation of the pieces.
My finishing of this painting required much less effort, because of the more directed beginning. But it is always necessary to review one’s paintings a day or two later. Some areas always itch and need a little more scratching. With time and experience one learns to make changes only as needed and always with the whole painting in mind.
In pursuit of the aesthetic that less is more, I have pursued some rather atmospheric abstract paintings, along with my more accustomed pursue of color and harmony. In this blog I pursue and explore how that happens in my current series of paintings, “In Balance with Nature”. I hope to convince the readers here that “simplicity comes from complexity of thinking”, as one of my art professors kept repeating in his lectures, but one that I personally have had difficulty with for many years. An Asian American friend also critiqued some of my earlier paintings as “not having enough space”, suggesting that both equally contribute to the integration of the whole, as well demonstrated in several thousand years of Chinese brush paintings. It’s been a struggle for me to appreciate and then apply this concept, but I offer the following several examples of my efforts.
For the sake of contrast, the first image shown above is one of my latest abstract paintings in this series. Many more are also presented in my art website portfolio under the “In Balance with Nature” category. It is quite apparent how filled the work is with shapes and colors, almost a hierarchy of areas and shapes within them that create many movements and rhythms, a play among the repetition of shapes with changing colors, sizes, directions and values. It holds together by the comparable activity in each of the major divisions and how they relate to each other and make a integrated, whole work. This painting serves as a counterexample to my paintings that breathe.
Last year, while I was in the midst of my “In Balance with Nature” series, I made this second painting shown above as an abstract landscape. The high horizon line and small diagonal angles also contribute to the feeling of recession and distance. The light blue at the top is naturally recessive and suggests sky. The blue below the horizon line suggests water. A warm yellow-orange tone over most of the paper has light valued brush markings in shallow diagonals that contribute to the feeling of the plain. It also sets up the burnt siennas, reds, browns and dark greys in the major triangle with inner vertical brushstrokes that suggest the grasslands and prairie. But compared with the first painting, it effectively presents a design with lots of room, and negative space that amplifies the few lines and shapes in it. The composition sets up the distant house as a focal point, using a linear grid structure that leads to the distant house that was in then under construction. By keeping the painting simple and gestural, and keeping most of it light and thinly painted, all the parts become the whole.
Another one of my art history professors also repeated this theme of less is more. She pointed out many times in lectures that the greatest Western painters from Michelangelo in the 16th C., to Rembrandt in the 18th C., to Jackson Pollock in the 20th C., they all made paintings with room to breathe. She described it as having oxygen – ample use of space in landscapes, portraits and abstracts. I surmised that I was not the only art student who needed subtle advice.
My third and latest painting shown above applies the lessons learned from the second painting, an abstract landscape, to my ongoing “In Balance with Nature” series. This theme relates to representing the threat of climate change to both mankind and nature, and uses the California forests in stress from higher average temperature, more droughts and the increasing forest fires as a metaphor for the global threat. Finding a dynamic balance in the design is my metaphor for man finding a sustainable state of balance with nature.
I use triangles to represent the trees. The three horizontal divisions suggest three temporal states of the forests, changing from the cool blue-green (watery) at the bottom to the warmer and drier middle section, and then to the upper band with extremes of hot and cold in the red and blue colors. The top section also has the brightest colors and unbalanced shapes that make it more active and the center of focus. The rising diagonal lines indicate the direction of time from the bottom to the top. Thus, my abstraction has the feeling of space and scale much greater that the rather small size of the paper, and uses spaces, and symbols in lines and triangles to convey a image of finding balance.
At the present time, we are in a state of crisis with climate change, where science has foretold the future, given the past and the present conditions. My art does not attempt to solve the crisis, but possibly to focus attention on the problem. And maybe I succeeded with less is more.
To many people having a sense of color seems natural, that as we mature we gain this just by seeing a lot of images. As described by Johannes Itten in his outstanding teaching book (The Elements of Color, Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1970), he noticed that his students showed subjective preferences for different shades of color according to sex, body type, personality, culture and century. But very few had an intuitive understanding in how to use and control color to enhance their art. His book opens the door to learning color theory and harmony, whatever your preferences and purposes. This book was the basis of my art class taken at Cal State University Long Beach in 2002, and I highly recommend it for study to all art students and artists.
This blog presents some of my examples in use of color through my education and subsequent practice of art. The following aspects of color relate to its basic dimensions across the color wheel, the seven kinds of contrast of color, and a few more considerations:
Light vs. dark
Analogous vs. complementary
Bright vs. dull
Warm vs cool
Contrast of chroma (color saturation)
Tints vs. tones (adding white or black or both
Equal values vs. Limited values vs. wide range values
Hue vs hue
Simultaneous contrast of hues
Transparent vs. opaque
Texture and density vs. flatness
Contrast of material
Contrasts of color extension
Then to make a painting or work of art, add to these elements the size, format, media, types of line, shape, background, and lighting color, degree of representation or abstraction, etc., making art can be almost too complex to explain. Rather, adding more understanding of what happens when mixing color may benefit each artist’s direction.
One way to begin to study color is with stripe paintings, such as the exercise shown above. Asking which of the previous list of color constrasts are applicable to this piece is the beginning of understanding its sequence. From the white and black beginning, it moves through cool colors using a cool green-gray ground. Then after a light grey band begins the warm color sequence on the right. A dark blue is first introduced to heighten the warmth of the yellow ochre, then moving into the yellows. These yellows gain strength from the cool and warm reds, and a dark brown-black. The last band closes with another light grey.
This piece shown above is a variation on the vertical stripes design, but has a chocolate brown window frame to intensify the color contrasts. Yellows and oranges darken to cool browns, but with the yellow on the left side really pumps up the luminosity and glow of the yellow. A pale brown acts as another analogous brown, but in lighter value that still intensifies the yellow. A light red stripe next to the yellow becomes cool. Beginning in the large window on the right side, a yellow-green is a complement to the red stripe and it has a slightly cooler yellow vertical to emphasize the warm glow of yellow-green. Next, a sequence of light blues begin a much cooler sequence of orange, yellow-green, mint-green, cool red-orange (which in its pure mixture is the hottest color), and then two more cooler greens. The greens are neutral, but next to the light blues have a greater glow. So the sequence has a hot-to-cool sequence, and all of them stand out more against the chocolate brown frame.
This third color composition shown above uses dominant blues against yellows and black, with a light-brown mounting mat. The simplicity of its design suggests a three-dimensional scene, while the strong color tends to push the two-dimensional aspect. The few diagonals are key to suggesting the 3-D space, as well as the variation in blue values next to each other. Usually, white advances next to most darker colors, but the human understanding of architecture pushes the white rectangle back the farthest. In most primitive and ancient cultures, blue/yellow is a perfect complement, whereas on our modern color wheel it is blue/orange. And notice that the black is viewed as a cool color versus a neutral color in this construction.
This last piece shown above works with a wide range of color papers, with the yellows setting the color of light. The blue and blue-violet at the top appear as shifted sky colors, because they both are recessive with the other colors advancing to the foreground. Even the black advances by its high degree of value difference, compared to the yellows around it. But the red-orange triangle next to the black advances even more than the yellows and the black. Similarly, the three-color rectangle in the lower left also advances more than the light yellow. Thus, each subgrouping of color shapes have a relative warm/cool contrast, a light/dark contrast, and some show a progression of analogous colors as a grouping. The whole reads as suggestive of a building architecture. Their adjacent color contrasts and their group-to-group contrasts create the movement of the shapes and their energy.
Exploring color is a continuing effort for most artists, even after all this “education”. I may have used heightened color examples, but the “eye” learns to see what is happening, and it is still exciting to discover new paint colors and how they work.