Saturday, September 27, 2008

Autumn Abstractions #4 Harvest and the element of design in abstract paintings

Autumn Abstraction #4 Harvest

10x12, acrylic, $300, unframed

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Lately I've been writing about how to evaluate an abstract painting. The first consideration was color because of its emotional qualities and its ability to create harmony or tension, also because its often the first thing we notice and respond to in a painting, particularly an abstract that has no recognizable subject matter. Today I'm going to talk about design, a very broad term that encompasses quite a few things. Design has to do with the arrangement of things, shapes, values (lights & darks), lines, textures. It also has to do with variety, repetition, pattern and rhythm. The first thing I'd like to point out is the importance of value contrast. Contrast is the thing our eye looks for, so a painting with good contrast has a solid foundation. Generally, you want to see a larger area of similar values and a smaller, but intense area of contrast. Think of a canvas painted entirely black with one small white dot on it, where does your eye go? Directly to the white dot. That's an overstatement but gives a good visual in your mind's eye. After contrast in value I like to see variety in shapes, both in the size and the actual outline of the shape itself. For instance if there are squares they should be of differing sizes, and there should be contrasting shapes like ovals or circles in lesser number to provide a foil or balance to the squares. There should also be a variety in the size of the interval between the shapes, this creates a rhythm to the negative and positive space. Another thing I always look for is the inclusion of large patches of color, lines, and dots this variety in mark making (or brushwork) provides a rich surface to satisfy the viewer. Of course in any reductionist or minimalist work many of these elements are going to be discarded and the focus will fall on just a few, perhaps even just one of these design elements. In that case the choice of which elements to work with and their arrangement will be all the more critical. With few things to work with each and every element must be absolutely correct for the painting to be successful. I also should say here that everything that applies to abstract painting is also present in a representational work. The elements are simply manipulated to create a recognizable scene. Other techniques may be added to achieve the illusion of reality like those for creating reflections in water or shadows on the face in a portrait but the principles of color, value, contrast, variety etc. should all be present in a representational work even if they are overshadowed in the viewer's mind by the recognition of subject matter. A deficiency in a representational work can often be traced back to a weakness in the abstract design that underlies it, which is why I think artists should work abstractly even if it is just in a sketchbook. Working with just the elements, free from the constraints of subject matter, is an education in itself.


Atul Pande said...

Jan: Beautiful abstract and insightful comments. I have been experimenting with Bob Rankin's concept of the 'edge ratio' in abstracts. He suggests that viewer interest is heightened by having an uneven ratio between the four edges of the abstract work. My limited experience seems to indicate it works.

Jan Blencowe said...

Hi Atul,

This is an excellent point. I'm going to be writing about "edge ratio" in a coming post. Stay Tuned, and thanks for visiting!!