Abstracting the Landscape

I knew today was going to make my brain hurt – and I was thoroughly looking forward to it.

 Geoff Pimlott stretched us in all sorts of ways in the SEAW‘s workshop on Abstracting the Landscape. I’ve taken part in my fair share of workshops over the last couple of years and they typically start with a demonstration done by the tutor, after which everyone gets to feel thoroughly inadequate as they try to master the techniques just demonstrated. By the end of the day, the ‘Aha’ moments have happened and the new techniques are on the way to being learned enough to practice to proficiency level at home.

It was clear this one was going to be different when Geoff walked in with just two completed paintings, two wall charts, and three books in his arms.  Once we got going, it became obvious why he chooses to work this way: Abstracting is about the thinking process.

Geoff emphasised how important it is to understand the history and the background to the development of abstract painting in the last century.  We looked at the extremes of abstract work from John Nash whose work is quite representational, who uses extensive planning of the image and the harmony of his palette in his abstraction, to Bridget Riley, renowned for her use of repetition and colour patterns.

Two other artists Geoff recommended  we research were Sir Matthew Smith, and Ivon Hitchens. We were told about Artcyclopedia: a marvellous resource for those interesting in exploring the history and background a little more. The website stores details of paintings from 8000 artists, searchable by name, style of painting, location and many other criteria. I’ve always found that searching for the artist on Google and then just using the Images tab is quite useful, but Artcyclopedia gives an added level of search sophistication.

Of course technique is always critical to the success of a painting. The process of painting: the layering of colour, the use of shape, and repetition in the composition are all important. But given that the possibilities are almost infinite when you’re working on an abstract, it’s the thinking that is critical to success.  Decisions need to be taken about so many aspects. The artist must ask themselves:

– what am trying to emphasise about this landscape?

– am I going to interpret the landscape, or simply paint my reaction to it?

– just how representational do I want to be? How far can I push this?

– what colours does this painting need to make it really pop?

…. and so it goes.

As a gallop through my painting process today, I’m sharing the stops along my journey, (good and bad).

We started with a sketch, or painting we’d done before that lent itself to abstracting. We were looking for good rythme, shapes and ideas in our preparatory work.

Retreat Watercolour landscape painting.
Retreat (watercolour 21 x 21 cm)

We started out by thinking about what we wanted to say about the landscape in our ultimate paintings, and continued on to creating colour studies in preparation for the main event after lunch, which we already knew would need to be presented to the group (no pressure then).

I wish I had photographs of the work done by other members. Every one had their own approach. The use of colour was diverse. Some people used a range of geometric shapes to create their composition, interpreting the landscape through their composition. Others were more organic and it was all about the colour – a way of working that is particularly suitable when the abstraction is a response to the landscape, instead of an interpretation. That distinction was one I’d not thought about before. There is a vast difference between a painting which seeks to interpret the landscape, and one that is responding to the landscape. The former is a more intellectual process, the latter, much more emotional.

Geoff pointed out that, at heart every painting is an abstract. It is a two dimensional representation of the image which uses a range of techniques to create the illusion of three dimensions. So, if we strip out the illusion of three dimensions and actually try to flatten out the image, we are able to focus on other aspects we might want the viewer to see in the image.

Abstracting watercolour landscape colour study 1
Abstracting colour study 1

Stripping the image right back to it’s basic shapes – perhaps a little too minimal, but I do like the palette.

Abstracting watercolour landscape colour study 1
Abstracting 2

Looking for a moodier sky and adding in some detail. I rather like the rhythm of the fence posts, but combined with the greens it made this study a bit too representational.

Abstracting watercolour landscape colour study 1
Abstracting 3

Still too ‘green’ but adding a bit more complexity to the shapes to bring in the distant hills just visible in the original painting

Abstracting watercolour landscape colour study 4
Abstracting 4

This palette appealed. The addition of red seemed to bring a better energy to the painting.

So now, to dive in to the final painting:

Abstracting the Landscape (watercolour 28 x 38 cm)
Abstracting the Landscape (watercolour 28 x 38 cm)

I reverted to my usual love of extreme colour and texture. My abstraction process is definitely a response to the image. It’s a journey that starts and then finds it’s own way to some extent, each step directed and informed by what has just happened on the paper. That’s what I love about watercolour. Every painting has it’s own little surprises in store.

If I were to do this painting again I might not add in the grass abstractions in the foreground – they feel a bit over-representational in relation to the rest of the painting, but overall, I love the process. Expect a few more abstract paintings in future.

Geoff left us with the reminder that we had all started on a journey to abstraction that would, if we worked at it, help us to see the world a little differently, and as a result, to painting it differently. Artists get to choose just how far they take a paintings before stopping. Sometimes we get that bit wrong and it’s too late to pull back, but even if we do go to far, it’s only a piece of paper – and we’ve learned so much along the way.

Despite the fact that my brain feels stretched in so many directions with the new ideas that keep swimming around in my skull, I found the process and the end results both visually exciting and thought provoking.

Just for those who’d like to see the original and abstract juxtaposed – here they are again without the steps in between:

Retreat Watercolour landscape painting.
Retreat (watercolour 21 x 21 cm)

 

Abstracting the Landscape (watercolour 28 x 38 cm)
Abstracting the Landscape (watercolour 28 x 38 cm)

8 thoughts on “Abstracting the Landscape

  1. Abstract art is just something I never have enjoyed, neither the process nor the final pieces. I will admit, however, that some have caught my attention simply by palette choice. I’m glad you got so much out of the workshop!

  2. What a fabulous and informative read you have given us Vandy, I look forward to seeing more abstracts and the style you adopt as you do more.

  3. Dear Vandy – this is so interesting. I love your landscape as well as your abstract interpretations. I once read behind any good painting whether it is realistic or not there must be a strong abstract underneath. Thank you for sharing your workshop.

  4. your society is very active vandy ..great write up sounds fascinating workshop lots to absorb … i really like the simplicity of your initial colour study .

  5. A bit slow but I got here. Fabulous reading. Learnt lots. I find abstraction scary though but maybe I haven’t looked into it deeply enough. Loved seeing the process. Thanks for showing.

  6. Hi Vandy … just found this post. The workshop sounds fascinating. I’ve always fancied trying to paint in a more absract way but failed miserably. Your paintings are lovely and quite thought provoking. I think it must really help to have a workshop to kick start your brain into thinking this way.

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