Ann McMillan Art
Fine Art in Color

Studio Blog

teaching resources and studio blog

Discovering Abstraction

A student asked me where abstraction

comes from, and how to do it.  When I was twenty two, a wise old painter told me that all painters become asbstract as they age: I scoffed and said never, ever.  Now, here I am, working on abstract painting.  The good news: it is tremendous fun.  The bad news: it's really hard. Here are my thoughts so far:

  • Abstract art hinges on  design, but be careful,  this stuff is tricky.  It is like poetry, hard to pin down, and hard to create and difficult to think of.  Any artifice shows through.  Nothing ruins a painting like boredom, or a cliched premise, or just a bit of resin or gilt because it is in fashion.  I feel like abstract paintings are something to stumble upon and be open too, rather than something to create with intent..  To me, abstraction feels zen and accidental.  Trying too hard ends the painting.
  • Since abstract painting is so intensely personal, it might be useful to delve into the process of artists that do it well-- I currently am watching Mitchell Johnson, Andy Goldsworthy, Gee's Bend Quilts, and Nancy Crow to make up my own view of successful abstraction.  Joan Mitchell is wonderful as well.
  • I am still enchanted by representative work, so I tend to focus on examples that walk the careful line between the two disciplines-- Dan McCaw, Joaquin Sorolla, Melinda Cootsona, and Linda Christensen, and Wolf Kahn.
  • An abstract design is usually the bones any great painting is founded on.  Flip all your favorite paintings upside down to discover the basics of their design.  Sargeant, Sorolla, Zorn, Rembrandt were all great abstractionist designers.

To make an abstract painting:

Walk carefully and gently.  Be open to incidents

Quilt in Red, 8 x 10 inches, oil and gilt.  I like this one best, and worked on it and changed it over the course of a few painting session.  A richness developed that I enjoy looking at.

and accidents.  Crop the real world so closely its meaning blurs out.  Use the cropped image as a starting point for a new image that no one has ever seen before.  Let the starting point develop and metamorphose.

Set the painting aside and do another and another.  Take them out once and a while and make a few changes.  Beware of boredom or automation.

Be patient, and make lots of paintings.  Your abstract voice will take a while to manifest. It might be worth it.  I am happy with a few of my abstract paintings, but feel as if I am probably about 50 more paintings away from something special.

Make up new rules for light and color and help them live in the environment of your painting surface.

Good luck!  I will post more abstract adventures as painted.

Mcmillan City Abstract 30 x 48
Mcmillan City Abstract 30 x 48