ABstract EXpressions
Contemporary Art Gallery

70 High Street
Mount Holly, NJ
   08060

609-267-7513

Wednesday 1-6 PM
Friday 1-9 PM
Saturday 12-9 PM
And By Appointment.

From The Director

Here are two articles written by Gallery Director James Kent which you may find interesting and helpful.


Looking at Abstract Paintings

In the typical mixed bag art exhibit, the typical viewer runs quickly past the
occasional abstract painting to get to the next small scale, charming landscape or
seascape.  Why?  Because, as a result of years of real-world conditioning, the
viewer expects to see things that are familiar and recognizable.  Sunlight playing
on sand dunes and sea grass is familiar.  Perhaps a rendition of the a
lighthouse is comfortable to behold.  These images are easy to digest. 
Understanding an abstract painting might prove too much of a challenge to one’s
imagination!

Often a viewer resorts to saying “I don’t know what I’m looking at.”  The answer
to this is simple – you are looking at a painting, just like that depiction of the
lighthouse is a painting.  It’s not necessary to lay down rules for looking at an
abstract work that are different than those for looking at something more realistic.

Fundamentally, looking at an abstract painting (and for our purposes here this
means a painting that is non-representational) is no different than looking at any
other painting.  Let’s use a landscape as an example, because many abstract
works have a basis in landscape painting.  In a traditional landscape, there is
usually a “way into the picture” – maybe a path or road or river.  There are those
recognizable objects – rocks, trees, fences.  There is a sense of space – some
things are in front of others, other things behind.  Often there is some indication
of a horizon.

Let’s apply these guidelines to abstract work.  Where is the way into the picture? 
It may not look like a road, and there may be more than one point of entry.  What
are the objects?  Whatever they are, they may not look like anything you see
around you, but think about what makes an object an object.  Solidity. 
Differentiation from the space around it.  Sound familiar?  Next, examine the
space.  How is a sense of depth and dimension achieved?  Does the painting
depict many planes or does it occupy a shallow space?  What is your eye doing
once it is inside the painting?  Does it travel around, exploring interesting places? 
Does it shoot off the edge unfettered?  Finally, how does the painting make you
feel as you study it?  Is it exciting?  Energetic?  Serene?

Finally, probably the most important single criterion of a successful abstract
painting is that it rewards repeated viewing.  As often as you behold a piece of
sophisticated, well-resolved abstract art, you will always find nuances that you
hadn’t noticed before.  It will continue to intrigue you and bring you back for
more. 

It is hoped that the basic guidelines discussed here will begin to help the viewer
in his understanding and appreciation of abstract painting.

Creating an Abstract Painting

Creating a fully resolved abstract painting, while not an easy task, is a task
that taps into an individual’s pure creativity.  There are no photographs to
paint from, no preliminary sketches.  It requires a full range of painting and
editing skills and the ability to critically examine a painting at every stage of
its progression to determine its strengths and weaknesses.  This discussion
outlines some key steps in developing a successful abstract painting.

First, some remarks about what we are and are not doing.

We are not “abstracting” from a still life or figure in the manner of the
Cubists.  We are not making “faux finishes” or anything that resembles
designs for wallpaper or textiles.  We are avoiding “all-over designs”
(Jackson Pollock already did that) and hard-edged geometric designs.

It is probably best to switch off some things you might have learned
elsewhere, such as ideas about color theory, composition, etc.  “Balance”
takes on a different meaning in abstract painting.  The existence of a patch
of blue in the upper right does not mean a patch of blue in the lower left is
necessary.  Artist and teacher Hans Hoffman stated that colors have
“weight.”  The weight or behavior of a particular color changes relative to
the other colors adjacent to it.  A large field of yellow may be “balanced” by
a small area of black, for example.

This is about having a pure experience in paint – what we will call “lyrical
abstract expressionism.”  It can be thought of as a modified form of “action
painting.”  We are not throwing paint at the canvas, but we are working
quickly.  The faster you work, the freer you become and the less likely you
are to mire yourself in details.

Getting started.  Just start!  Put some paint on the canvas to give yourself
something to react to.  Forget about how you feel – this isn’t an exercise in
putting your emotions of the moment down on canvas.  Be completely
spontaneous – have no plans or preconceptions.  Imagination is important. 
Paint broad areas of color to serve as fields and planes.  Add lines of
“calligraphy” to suggest structure.  Don’t fuss over details in the early
stages of the painting.

Strive for sophisticated colors rather than “out of the tube” colors.  Blend
directly on the canvas, but be careful not to create mud – it is better to paint
drier rather than wetter.  Guard against everything being in a middle value
tonal range.  Be mindful of your lights (don’t turn them all off) and darks
(don’t be afraid to use black).

Before you know it, these beginning stages transition to the most important
part of creating an abstract painting: editing.  Editing is the selective
addition and subtraction of elements in the painting, and this is where
almost all the time creating an abstract painting is spent.

Step back often to critically assess the painting.  Determine what needs to
be added and what needs to be removed.  Remember, nothing is sacred. 
Don’t fall in love with precious passages because they may not last until the
end.  Paint with an “I don’t care” attitude.  Imagine what the painting will
look like if you take some action.  Think, but don’t overthink.  Think about
what the painting needs, but once you determine what that is, don’t think
too much about executing the solution.

Eliminate anything that appears overtly realistic, figural, vegetal, animal,
etc.  We are painting something that is non-objective and non-
representational.  If, when all is said, done and painted, the viewer sees
things in your painting, that’s OK.  In fact, that can help draw a viewer into
the unfamiliar territory of looking at an abstract painting and enjoying the
experience!  But the crucial thing is you didn’t have those things in mind
when you created the painting.

Throughout a painting’s development, keep the following checklist in your
mind:  Where are the areas or planes?  What are they doing?  What are
their sizes?  What are the objects?  What is happening in the picture
space?  Is it deep or shallow?  What things are in front?  What things are
behind?  Are there explicit or implied horizontals, verticals, curves?  What
is happening along the edges?

When you are stuck, sometimes rotating the painting to a new orientation
will reveal possibilities that the previous orientation did not.  One advantage
of abstract painting is that throughout much of the creation process you
don’t have to be wedded to a particular orientation of a painting.  (Warning:
Don’t try this with a picture of a lighthouse!)

When am I done?  How do you know when to stop?  When the painting no
longer tells you it needs something.  Just be aware that silence on the part
of the painting may only be temporary.  As you study a work, live with it,
look at it every day, you will learn things about it and you may discover
things that need to be changed.  That could happen next week or next
year.

Learning more.  There is no substitute for looking at as much abstract
painting as possible – the good, the bad, stuff you love and stuff you can’t
stand.  Visit museums and galleries, pore through books in libraries and
bookstores, and search the internet.

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