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Learning from my process—order out of chaos?

March 25, 2011

sketch of random lines and colored shapes about chaosMark Mehaffey says that abstract or nonobjective artists need to plan the structure of their paintings so that they have a strong composition rather than generating chaos:  “To avoid the ‘put some paint down and mush it around’ syndrome, which, I’ll admit sometimes results in a good painting, a more considered approach will give you a leg up on producing a work that is well-designed and for which the application of materials match what you want to say; in short, a work that has meaning.” This is from his article (keep scrolling down the web page to get to it) in the January/February issue of The Artist’s Magazine.

Well, I thought, here’s an intriguing idea. And I say that because mostly I’m a “mush it around” kind of painter. I am intrigued (most of the time) by unexpected results from applying paint, and think about composition as a painting takes form. Clearly I could be doing this backwards; taking a cue from Mehaffey might save me some angst in my process.

I decided to try a painting with a pre-planned composition. I had a canvas with a big red square partially filled in that I created with some leftover paint (because I love red and I didn’t want to waste the paint). I added part of a big black “Z,” one of Mehaffey’s suggested structures, and some other color areas from paint that was also leftover from another painting, and the checkers. So that’s Step 1.

Three stages of a painting

In Step 2 I added some shapes that I like and that I have used before in drawings, so there’s the diamond and little cookies swimming in a blue pond. From there I got stumped. The “Z” was so distracting and divisive, I couldn’t see a way to resolve it. I looked at it for a couple of weeks. Should I add more shapes? Paint out the “Z”? Fill in the red rectangle? Nope. I opted for flipping the painting upside down, laying in an area of unbleached titanium mixed with a tiny amount of cadmium red, adding some additional color areas and calling it finished. And I like it!

Trying Mehaffey’s suggestion was a good learning exercise. I’ve had to think more about my process for painting—how I get started, what I’m envisioning as images, and how I approach composition. I’ve decided that I am more attuned to unpredictability and responding to what’s happening on the canvas as I add to it than I am in planning a composition ahead of time. Which leads me to the painting I’m working on now.

I imagined space. I mean big space, like undefined outer space—a small peek at infinity. I pictured floating orbs, some veiled divisions of layers, some amorphous shapes, all sharing a piece of the cosmos. Okay, that’s pretty ambitious given that what I see in my head never matches up exactly with what I put on canvas, but it’s what gets me going. What keeps me invested is the resolution of composition, color, and surface along with the reduction of chaos (referring to Mehaffey), as the painting takes direction.

Working space for acrylic paintingI started flat, spreading color washes on two panels, one 30×40 and one 16×40. The wash is a mixture of acrylic paint, matte medium, and water. I let it pool on the surface, sprayed on more water in some spots, sprayed some denatured alcohol in other spots, and added some sprinkles of salt in one small area on both panels.

And here’s where I’ve got to. The stages of this painting so far are:

Step 1. Apply washes and look for interesting areas that develop because of pattern, texture, or value.

Step 2. Add more washes to specific areas to enhance depth and color.

Step 3. Start creating divisions of space by using masking tape to section off areas and add additional washes to broaden the color range.

Four steps of working on a current paintingStep 4. Well, here’s where it gets interesting. I did not like the color relationships on the canvas: too much reddish-violet and pastel orange. Too much sweet blue. There weren’t any significant shapes that tied the space together, and all of the surface looked too similar. So I added this lovely sour green and made it blotchy by subtracting color areas after I put the color on with a palette knife. I think it’s beginning to work better.

What I’ve learned from Mehaffey and from thinking about how I approach painting is that:

  1. It’s good to explore different ways to approach painting by looking at other artists, reading about how they work, and trying out some of their ideas.
  2. Taking pictures of a canvas as I work on it gives me a history to go back to so I can review my decision tree (I’m not that analytical, but there is a definite process with decisions along the way…). It gives me more information about how to approach pieces that follow.
  3. It is valuable to figure out my own process and what works for me. It’s good to challenge the rules I think are important in making art.



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