Chapter 11 of my landscape book is called Abstracting Nature. It looks at several contemporary landscape painters whose work is decidedly abstract, including my own. It asks the question, “What is abstraction?” and then offers several strategies painters can use to induce abstraction in their own work. The following demonstration, which shows the genesis and development of a large abstracted landscape, is a demonstration that was not included in the book.
Below is a brief excerpt from the opening of that chapter.
Abstraction isn’t unique to landscape painting, but landscape painting does wonderfully lend itself to the approach. When we consider nature’s exquisite light and atmosphere, its many colors and textures, we realize how much of nature is inherently abstract — from diaphanous clouds to rock formations, from dancing waves to branching filigree, from crystal clear light to form-dissolving fog.
An abstract sensibility has always had special importance in my own work. I have always been intrigued by the abstract or “secondary image” that emerges when I search beneath the surface of a subject. When a painting becomes not just about the subject matter, but emphasizes the aesthetics of painting — color, movement, pattern, shapes and texture — it is more interesting to me. Like an optical illusion, the painting can be experienced in multiple ways. It conveys discernible content while also bringing greater attention to the aesthetic experience.
Step 1. Initial inspiration [left]. All of my paintings begin with an observable phenomenon that inspires a visual idea. If the inspiration is an aesthetic such as color, an atmospheric effect, or an arrangement of patterns and shapes, then my vision is headed toward abstraction. In The Lighthouse Keeper’s House, I was struck by the pure frontality of the house emerging as a monumental form from the fog. I was reminded of Mark Rothko’s massive color field paintings. The fog did much to “pre-abstract” the subject for me, but there was more I could do with composition and color to push it even further.
Step 2. Black and white reference [right]. A painting is never simply a copy of the photograph. The photo is used primarily as reference for design and drawing. By enlarging the photo many times on the copier, or applying various filters to it with an image-editing program, the image simplifies, even breaks down, and reveals its essential patterns and shapes.
Step 3. Composition studies. Because the subject was so rectangular and frontal, I knew one key to a successful composition would be to find the right balance between the mass of the house and the large sky. The center placement goes against one of the “rules” of composition, but in this case, the frontality and symmetry enhanced the monumental nature of the subject. The left study surrounds the house with much more sky; the right study shows the balance I finally selected.
Step 4. Color studies. In an abstract or semi-abstract painting I prefer to invent the color. This frees me to choose a color plan that works best for my subject. I work with a black and white photo reference, so my eye isn’t misled with unimaginative photographic color, which in this scene was plain gray (see Step 1). I created no fewer than a dozen color studies on paper, each one exploring a different color direction. Some receded, some advanced, and some glowed. They helped attune my eye and hand to the broad simplification that was needed for this subject, and also allowed me to start exploring variable texture — thick and thin paint, opacity and transparency — which I planned to use in the final painting to help imply space.
Step 5. Underpainting. Starting with an underpainting, I established the value, placement, and composition in the broadest way possible. I chose the color for the underpainting, yellow ochre, to serve as a warm backdrop for the colors and “layers of light” that would be applied over it. Note the very thin suggestion of an antenna just to the right of the middle. I would eventually choose to remove this accent.
Step 6. First color pass. Before I began building up the paint, I circulated color across the entire surface. This brings the painting closer to the color-light I am after and helps me see if I am on the right track. Although I have an idea of the color I want, I keep the color open and flexible enough to encourage exploration and discovery. The antenna still hasn’t been torn down.
Step 7. Texture layer. The fog could have been interpreted with a smooth, blended application of paint; instead, I wanted to use variable texture as a way to excite the surface and help suggest spatial differences between the foreground and the background — very important in a painting in which extremely simplified shapes could easily be read as flat. I devote several sessions to building up the tactility of the paint (detail at right), intentionally assigning greater texture to the house and ground, and less texture to the sky. The antenna has finally disappeared. I felt that it would be too much of a distraction from the simplicity of the house.
Step 8a. “Tuning” the color. Once the texture is laid in, the real work of fine-tuning the color begins, which may take up half the time devoted to the painting. As in an Impressionist painting, the “envelope of light” is very important, so the colors across the entire surface must be carefully modulated. The paint is not applied in rapid-fire expressive style, as it might be in a short outdoor study, but in a much more controlled fashion.
8b. Wet-over-dry. Color modulation is achieved largely by dragging wet, but stiff paint over dry areas. The new paint is caught by the raised texture of previous applications, creating a complex latticework of broken color. For this “dry brush” method to work in oils, the paint must be much stiffer than it comes out of commercially prepared tubes. I squeeze the paint out onto cardboard or blotter paper, which absorbs the excess oil in about 10 to 15 minutes. The resulting paint is a stiff, putty-like pigment that has “textural memory.” At this stage, I still build texture, sometimes adding a dollop of paint, or scraping off paint with a palette knife or rough sandpaper.
Step 9. Completed painting. The Lighthouse Keeper’s House, 2001, oil on canvas, 38 x 32 inches. The title of the painting references the subject from which it was inspired, yet at the same time it has been transformed into something that expresses the inner life of the subject. A series of choices about composition, color, and paint handling cohere to make the painting more about color, shape, and atmosphere than just a house.
Additional Resources from Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice
Chapter 11: Abstracting Nature, pages 168 – 175
Transparency, Opacity and Texture, page 148
Stiffening Paint, page 46