Azure and Asphalt Series with Commentary: Ownership of Style and the Meaning of Originality

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Every once in a while an artist comes up with an idea so original and so innovative that it defines a genre or a subject for generations. One can hardly look at a color field painting without invoking the name of Mark Rothko. Nor can one paint a street scene with a high vantage point without someone mentioning Richard Diebenkorn’s name. Why do I choose these two particular artists as examples? In the past year I have experimented with both directions — color field painting and street scenes from a high vantage point. Sure enough, when some viewers saw these pieces, they mentioned the names of those artists. (Additional works from the Azure and Asphalt series are featured at the end of this post.)

Being compared to Rothko and Diebenkorn can be taken as a compliment … or it may suggest that my works are derivative. Either way, it raises interesting questions about the creative ownership of ideas and the meaning of originality.

The question is not whether it is acceptable to explore a certain style or subject that has been trail-blazed by another. It’s what those who create have done for thousands of years. It’s what painters, musicians, and writers naturally do — and must do — as part of their growth process. The scientist who develops a new vaccine is able to do so because his research is partly based upon the discoveries of those who preceded him. In the same way, artists learn from the accumulated innovations and methods of the generations of artists who came before them.

Of course, this is not to say that an innovation like Rothko’s didn’t require hard work and risky leaps into the unknown. It did. And that is why his name is so often associated with the genre. But his work did not spontaneously spring forth in a vacuum, either. It couldn’t have. It also relied on the groundwork laid by the abstract painters of the 20s, 30s and 40s. When a scientist wins the Nobel Prize, or an artist receives accolades for “original” work, her achievements also rest on the many breakthroughs taken by her predecessors.

Impressionism spread to many countries after its birth in France, yet those artists are hardly considered derivative. They were inspired by something new, seized it, and made it something that was uniquely their own.

Richard Diebenkorn, Cityscape I, (Landscape No. 1), 1963, Oil on canvas, 60¼ × 50½

The real question then is whether the artist is merely imitating or extrapolating. Of course, the latter is more desirable — borrowing from what has been done, mixing it with one’s own artistic personality, and building upon it. Rothko does not hold the creative patent on color field painting, any more than Diebenkorn holds the patent on urban landscapes. Impressionism spread to many countries after its birth in France, yet those artists are hardly considered derivative. They were inspired by something new, seized it, and made it something that was uniquely their own.

A case in point are the works from my Azure and Asphalt series—the “street scenes from a high vantage point” I referred to at the outset. I think that any association the viewer makes to Deibenkorn’s urban paintings (from the 50s and 60s) is cursory, at best. Our works share common ground only in subject, which is the least significant dimension of a work. Painters don’t find innovation or originality through what they paint, but how they paint it. As artist and author Patrick Howe notes, “If the viewer categorizes someone’s painting as ‘like a Rothko’, they have avoided the wonderful challenge of really looking at the artwork on its own terms.” Diebenkorn and I may have been inspired by a similar subject, but we use very different aesthetics to express our unique visions.

Azure and Asphalt

The works featured here are presented in the order in which I did them. As the series progressed, the paintings became simpler, more abstract, and more atmospheric. I’ve also indicated whether the painting was done in plein air or in the studio. The plein air works, naturally, tend to be more spontaneous, but the studio works allow me to achieve finer color control and work out the nuances of the abstract design.

Mitchell Albala, Intersection Sunset, oil on panel, 5 x 9. [Plein air] The first effort at this subject, done in 2005. Sold.

azure+asphalt-pastel

Mitchell Albala, Forty Eighth Street, pastel, 6 x 10.25. Sold.

Mitchell Albala, End of August, Ballard 1, 2010, oil on panel, 9 x 9. [Plein air] The original was vertically formatted. Later I decided that the composition worked better as a square, so I trimmed about two inches off the top. For the story about this painting session, see the post: On Location with Stasinos and Albala: Same Subject, Different Visions

Mitchell Albala, Convergence<,em>, oil on paper, 13 x 13. Sold. [Studio]

Mitchell Albala, West of 50th, oil on paper, 11 x 14.

Mitchell Albala, North 2, 2012, oil on paper, 9 x 9. Sold. [Studio]

Mitchell Albala, Azure and Asphalt, oil on paper, 7.5 x 14. [Plein air]

Mitchell Albala, Salmon Bay, oil on panel, 10.5 x 24. [Studio]

Additional Resources

On Location with Stasinos and Albala: Same Subject, Different Visions

New Works from the Azure and Asphalt Series

Ways of Interpreting Color: In the studio vs Plein Air

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About Author

Mitchell Albala is the author of Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice (Watson-Guptill, 2009). A best-seller with 37,000 copies in print, it has been called the "new classic of landscape." A respected teaching artist for more than 25 years, Mitchell currently teaches at Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, Pacific Northwest Art School, and Winslow Art Center. He has also lectured at the Seattle Art Museum and written for International Artist and Artists & Illustrators magazines.

8 Comments

  1. Hi Mitch,
    I love this series–so glad to hear you are building on it. I look forward to hearing more about it. And thank you for your words on originality and creativity. Nicely thought through and stated.
    Chris

  2. Hi Mitch – I appreciate the dual lesson here – that it’s not what you paint but how you paint it, and that, with sensitivity, it is possible to reduce subject to abstract shape and color while still retaining “identity.” Beautiful examples of both.

  3. Jolyn Wells-Moran on

    Very much agree with your thesis here, Mitch. I believe that by trying the masters’ styles — and seeing what feels true to each of us — we can eventually parse out our own unique aesthetic and build on that. Not so easy, though! It takes a lot of dispassionate (objective?) awareness to recognize one’s own truth and doesn’t come all at once — and, if one is to progress from there, risks of intuitive sense must be taken. Then, it requires very focused intent and skill development to make much further progress. I believe this is the path to “originality.”

  4. Mitch. These paintings are completely yours. I would only take it as a compliment that you are compared to legendary painters. “There is nothing new under the sun”, but depending on who you are, everything is new!!!! As an artist, that is really our charge, isn’t it? To uncover and discover ourselves in the subjects that inspire us. Good design always prevails. I love painting from my paintings because the process helps me get to the essence of what it is that I find so intriguing about what drew me to the subject in the first place. But, being compared to other great painters and copying them are two different stories…..copying has its place as a learning tool, but in my opinion should never be proclaimed or celebrated. All of that being said, rest assured your paintings are organic and original, completely you. Congratulations.

  5. Stan Chraminski on

    Great article Mitch. These paintings remind me of your limited palette exercises from your class where the subtle variations are the key. Your compositions then must be strong to offset and enhance the atmosphere created.
    As an aside, I just started a “daily painting” routine to get motivated and it’s worked so well I’d recommend it as an exercise for your classes. This really gets me into the process you taught us to begin a work with the blocking in dark and lights to get the composition down. These are small 4×6 to 8×10 works where I can test a variety of techniques and brush work and not worry about the final result although some I love the result. Next step is to select the best ones and create larger work as warranted. This process is also an excellent prelude to plein air painting as this size can be completed in a hour or so (esp.using water soluble oils which set up quickly enough you can paint over a section after working on another section for a time), the time you need to do most of an outdoor work until weather and light changes. I’m using the photos I took all summer during outdoor painting, and other travel, and trying to interpret them as you taught although I still get a little hung up on cropping and modifying the image, then copying it too much. That’ the next challenge. The results are on my blog, http://albionarts.blogspot.com/

  6. Your work is incredible, Mitch and no explanation of subject is necessary. Anyone who automatically thinks of Diebenkorn when looking at your work has truly not looked. There is no comparison. While Diebenkorn may have been the initiator of the subject, you’ve turned it into poetry. The stretch is incomparable. Paint on, Mitch…I always look forward to seeing your beautiful and moving works. They speak volumn’s to those of us who have our eyes open.

  7. Thank you for such a well written and logical explanation of the fact that artists steal ideas because they are influenced by what they see. Nothing new except that the topic keeps coming up. Your work is not only beautiful but your ability to tell of the process for acheiving the finished result and it’s variations is indeed the creative process.