Stepping back from the subject
Varying degrees of abstraction can add greatly to the impact of a painting by encouraging the viewer to observe and interpret suggested details. When our paintings are based on a specific subject there is often a tendency to rely too heavily on what we see. Sometimes it is good to step back and ask ourselves just how much reliance on what we are seeing is really needed to express what we are feeling.
Making a conscious effort to reduce our reliance on what appears in front of us is the first step in learning to extract the essence of the subject without the clutter and distraction of unnecessary detail. It is surprising just how little information is needed to describe a subject. More emphasis can then be placed on the abstract elements of color, tone, texture, line and shape to amplify what it is we wish to say about the subject.
No matter what you are painting, always try to keep in mind the importance of a balance between accuracy and suggestion.
In the painting below, called “Santos Sunset”, selected details were treated with accuracy and precision around the focal area. Away from this area a very loose sketchy approach was taken, eliminating some detail and barely suggesting other elements. The result focuses attention on the subject elements I considered important and, by contrast, gives them more impact when placed along side simpler suggested elements and areas of abstract watercolor.
This painting, called “The Workings”, reduces everything to simple abstract watercolor shapes, devoid of detail or intricacy. This simple approach allows the color arrangement and tonal gradations to build up the atmosphere of an old mine site drenched in rain. Breaking the simple squares and rectangles with the large arc of a pipe, establishes a focal point, reinforced by the rectangle of strong, rusty orange.
Sometimes different elements of the subject can be rearranged and superimposed to make a more interesting painting. Here abstract watercolor shapes suggest the rocks, twigs and leaves covering the ground. These were overlaid with the lines of saplings growing above.
Many of the elements in this landscape were merely suggested. The colors of the landscape and shimmering reflections were what appealed to me. Most of the details were played down while the color and light was given full attention.
For this landscape an extremely simple approach was taken. Through half blurred eyes all the major elements were placed, making sure to keep the strongest tonal contrast at the focal point. Soft distant washes were applied, then a few fine details were added around the focal area. The simplicity of carefully arranged abstract shapes and the gradation from warm to cool color temperature tell the story of a landscape with a minimum of detail.
“Behind a Locked Green Door” What appealed to me with this subject was the almost comic attempt at security. This rickety old shed was in an abandoned mining town miles from anywhere and, in spite of the fact that most of the sheets of iron were either loose or missing, the door had been carefully locked. The other thing I liked was the weathered green paint on the door - perfect for its location on the edge of a desert. The shed and door were painted with lots of detail but the surrounding mining equipment was simplified and abstracted, sometimes just to an outline.
The subject here was the crumbling ruins of an old outstation on a huge cattle station in the middle of Australia. I suggested what was left of geometric, man made relics - window frames, painted timber, bricks etc, then over these painted the variety of thin saplings growing through the decaying remnants. I used simple, abstracted, calligraphic marks to suggest the grass and sticks. I wanted them to echo the ephemeral remnants of the old building.
Don’t get caught in the trap of merely trying to reproduce what is in front of you. Take time to consider what it is that really appeals to you about the subject, then explore ways of placing emphasis on just that. Often the subject, or parts of the subject, can take a back seat and allow other more interesting elements to dominate and hold attention. By abstracting and simplifying areas of a painting much more interest can be created.
Author: John Lovett