Talking about abstract art

How do you respond when someone looks at a piece of abstract art and says, ‘But what is it?’ Or ‘What’s it meant to be?’ Or even, ‘I don’t understand it’?  I’m sure we’ve all been there.

Talking about Abstract art 2

I had this conversation last week after having a second day of working with Glenda Charles. I’m really enjoying creating more abstract art. I  am allowing the creative process to make its own direction and pace as I continue to explore images from my environment.

Talking about Abstract art

When I showed my, normally very supportive, husband what I had been working on, he responded with the ‘I don’t understand it.’ version above.  I spent a day or two thinking about how to talk to him about abstract art in a way that would help him relate to it.

Wikipedia’s explanation is that uses a visual language of shape, form, colour and line to create a composition which may exist with a degree of independence from visual references in the world. I didn’t think that would entirely help him. While it is clearly correct, its also obvious and doesn’t really speak about the emotional aspects.

Explaining abstract art

He has always loved music. That was the connection I needed. I explained that I see figurative art as being like music with lyrics. The lyrics make it clear what the song is about. You can tell what the composer was thinking when they created the piece. However, quite often, with instrumental work, the same is not the case. Instrumental music, either classical or contemporary is like abstract art to my mind. If it’s well written, you can tell what the composer was feeling and what they want the audience to feel. But the exact story behind the music is only fully known by the composer.

Is it good instrumental music? There are experts who can pronounce judgement on that. But for the average listener, it’s more subjective. You either like the music or you don’t. The rhythms and harmonies appeal to you, or they don’t. If find yourself listening to a piece of instrumental music more than once, that’s rather like seeing a piece of abstract art that draws you back for another look.

He got it. Now we can have some conversations in which we are talking about abstract art.

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Watercolour journal – exploring colour

Over Open Studios weekends last month, my sketchbooks and watercolour journal got as much attention as my paintings. I found myself discussing the method I use to get to know watercolour pigments. I use a system I picked up from the blog of the fabulous Jane Blundell. She is well worth following if you want to get a better understanding of watercolour palettes.

The artists who visited were asking about the colour swatches in the watercolour journal, and many of them commented on their knowledge that they should be doing more of the back to basics.  Visitors who described themselves as non-artists paid more attention to the little sketches I do in the watercolour journal to keep myself entertained while I explore different pigments.  Today I decided to share my journal so far on Youtube.

A flip through my Watercolour Journal

This weekend I played with the idea of painting three different flowers in different styles, with the intention of capturing a different character in each. (You may notice them in the video)

Watercolour Journal - Elegant Magnolia

The delicate colour of magnolia flowers always makes them look refined and elegant.

Watercolour Journal - Flirty Fuschia

Fuschias seem to dance and flirt with their fluffed out petals. They look like little ballerinas sometimes.

Watercolour Journal - WIld Poppies

And the poppy – we love its freedom, its bold colours and its wild ways.

Finally, a use for my elephant dung paper

I’ve just finished day one of Georgia Mansur‘s Seductive Surfaces workshop and my brain is buzzing! Georgia has so much knowledge to share and so many techniques to teach, I found myself making a list of new materials to buy, and my head so full of new ideas I don’t know where to start.

I intended to take lots of photographs, but I’m afraid I was so busy having fun with new materials that I kept forgetting to take pictures. So there are a few, but perhaps not as many as there could have been.

The day kicked off with a discussion about creativity. Georgia shared her tips for loosening up and building creativity. The tone was set for the day, allowing everyone to create our first abstract paintings without judgement. So often, we are our own greatest critics. We beat ourselves up when we don’t think we have done well enough. Today was about suspending all that negative self-talk and just playing with new materials.

A tiny selection of Georgia's texture samples.
A tiny selection of Georgia’s texture samples.

Georgia comes well prepared with plenty of examples and samples for everyone to look at. Given how much information she has to share, these form a fantastic resource. Samples of different watercolour and acrylic paint effects were in constant demand during the day as we all wanted more and more ideas.

The start of Georgia's demonstration. Work instinctively with interesting materials
The start of Georgia’s demonstration. Work instinctively with interesting materials

The real work started with a rummage through Georgia’s treasure trove of paper, twine, lace, fabric, pictures and much, much more. Her demonstration started with a period of intuitive composition with a selection of texture-creating materials. Once the composition feels ready, the individual items get stuck down with gesso and the painting is left to dry. Things to remember: non-porous materials won’t hold paint as well (or at all, if they’re not coated with gesso), and organic materials must be completely sealed to ensure they remain intact over time (and to stop your painting being attached by insects). On an impulse I added the contents to one of a teabag to my painting, so this was valuable knowledge.

elephant poo paper.
Yes, it is elephant poo paper.

In a moment of curiosity, I bought some sheets of elephant dung paper in South Africa last year. I wanted to try it for watercolour painting. As you can see from the photo above, it wasn’t a successful experiment. The paper is just too soft and absorbent. There’s not enough structure to hold the pigment well enough so I wrote it off to experience and left the paper in a drawer, thinking I wouldn’t ever find a use for it. I had a flash of inspiration when I was collecting the materials for this workshop and fished it out of the drawer to bring along. It’s got a great texture for this sort of work: at last I have a use for it.

Seductive surfaces workshop - stage one
Seductive surfaces workshop – stage one

At the end of stage one (composition and gesso application) my painting included fabric, fruit bags, rafia, tea leaves, leather shapes, plastic bag, (and indeed, a smattering of elephant poo!)

After lunch, once all the gesso was thoroughly dried, we started applying colour washes with acrylic paints, and watercolour pencils.

Seductive surfaces workshop - abstract painting work in progress
Seductive surfaces workshop – abstract work in progress

There’s more work to be done – detail to be added and textures to be emphasised. That’s tomorrow’s job.

We’re also due to work on a new more structured painting tomorrow and I’m looking forward to trying out some of the textured  gels and pastes.

Meet the Artist: Mary Frances Millet

What or who inspired you to start painting?

Vintage Kitchen Tools - by Mary Frances Millet. Watercolour
Vintage Kitchen Tools – by Mary Frances Millet. Watercolour

My mom worked at Mayfair Gallery in Glenville and she asked if I wanted to try art lessons there. I said, sure. At age 8 I was exposed to my first art class and was hooked. I was then placed in Dorothy Fredericks class at the Burnt Owl until I was a teenager.

What mediums do you use for your artwork? – Which is your favourite and why?

Watercolor, textile and paper collage, acrylic. I have also worked in clay.

Formally trained or self-taught?

I graduated from the Professional Institute of Commercial Art in Maryland which is gone now. I also took class for several years from Karen Rosasco, AWS.  I also have degrees in Occupational Therapy and Sociology as backup careers.

What is your greatest frustration about art or the art world? (If you have one)

That we need to be better marketers. Being an artist is wonderful and we should all know how to narrow down our choices of what to do with it. It’s very confusing trying to figure out which way to go. There’s so many opportunities.

Which contemporary artists do you admire?

Charles Reid, Mel Stabin, Jeanne Dobie, Karen Rosasco to name a few. There’s many many more. Old master artists: Hopper, Homer, Matisse.

What has been the highlight of your artistic career so far?

Past: When I exhibited at e Wiregrass Museum in Birmingham, AL and was the top bid and top seller at the art auction.  Present: partnering with MVP Healthcare offering art workshops to their employees as a team building and socialization effort. It’s so much fun. I am impressed that they would include art as part of a healthy lifestyle.

If you had one wish (regarding your art), what would it be?

To run worldwide watercolor workshops. I’m working on one right now in Greece.

How would you characterize your style?

Loose, splashy, colorful.

Collage by Mary Frances Millet
Collage by Mary Frances Millet

Do you have a signature painting?

Yes. It’s a watercolor/paper collage of two boats with fisherman talking to each other.

What’s in your calendar for the coming year?

I teach private individuals, groups and corporate art workshops. I’ll be at the Clifton Park Library teaching watercolor to kids in April. I’ll be exhibiting my Uncle Sam statue in April also. It’s a program sponsored by the Troy BID to install 5 ft fiberglass life size statues of Uncle Sam embellished by 20 local artists. Sept brings the workshop in Greece. May brings my first grand baby.

Watercolour and collage by Mary Frances Millet
Watercolour and collage by Mary Frances Millet

If you had one tip share with other artists, what would that be?

Think big. Get a social media coach.i have one and she’s the best. It’s tough to do it all yourself.

New question: how do you keep inspired?  

How do I not?? Inspiration is everywhere! A tree, a window, a shadow, a color, seasons, flowers, people. Im distracted by everything.

How can people find you on social media? (Twitter, facebook, blog address, any other social media?)

Facebook, Twitter, eBay, Pinterest and Workin on a blog and placing more things on etsy, eBay and Pinterest. There’s so much to do! So many paintings! 🙂

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Two birds – one stone

L'Art de L'Aquarelle
L’Art de L’Aquarelle

When I went to visit fellow One Hundred Wash artist, Olivia Quintin last year, she introduced me to the joys of L’Art de l’Aquarelle – a magazine which features the work of world-class watercolours. Olivia was one of the interviewed artists in an edition last year.

I was so bowled over by the paintings in the magazine and the inspiration of seeing such high quality work, that I asked for a subscription for Christmas. I was delighted last week when the first of my four editions arrived.  I hadn’t realised that this beautiful publication is also available in English, so I am receiving the French version. But given that I’ve been trying to improve my French to the point where I can hold a conversation with Olivia and Alain when they visit us in August – it’s dictionary-at-the-ready and I’m loving every page, even if it does take a while to read.

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Pay it Forward

Watercolour bookmarks

One of my Facebook friends put up a status which proposed a Pay It Forward commitment. I thought it rather fun so I decided to take part. The person putting up the status agrees to send a gift to each of the first five people to comment.

Watercolour bookmarks
Watercolour bookmarks

In line with my themes of New Perspectives and Growth for this year, I though some special bookmarks would fit the bill. Each one of these is hand painted which makes them unique.  Although I wouldn’t normally do this to a watercolour, as I want them to last and stay looking good, I put each one through a heat laminator.  Many happy books to be read by  the recipients of my Facebook Pay It Forward gifts.

Thanks must go to Rhonda for her post about bookmarks which made me go “Hmmmm. Good Idea!”

We had snow days on the weekend. One week earlier and we would have been in real trouble:  Our boiler was out of commission so we had no heating for the best part of a week, at the same time as having a large hole in the roof where the builders were adding in a section for our stairs – and the weather turned bitterly cold. Thankfully, by the time the snow arrived, the boiler had been replaced and the roof was back on (almost).

But cold aside – the snow made my studio look so inviting, I thought I should share this photo so you can see where I go to paint and recharge my batteries each weekend.

Studio in the snow
Studio in the snow

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All papers are not created equal

Bockingford NOT 140 lb watercolour paper
Bockingford NOT 140 lb watercolour paper

Most of my painting has been done on cold pressed watercolour paper. I always use 140lb but have tried a number of different papers. I find the water retaining properties of NOT paper makes it very easy to use. When I have used smooth paper I’ve battled to get the effects I wanted. As a result I’ve not painted on smooth paper for some time.

Today I started a large painting I’ve been wanting to do for a while. I decided to paint it twice – both at the same time, but on different papers. Bockingford NOT and Arches smooth.

Arches smooth watercolour paper
Arches smooth watercolour paper

Since the last time I painted on my Arches smooth paper, I’ve done a lot of work involving texture and loose painting.  I was surprised to find that I’m much happier with the result on the smooth paper for this painting. I’m encouraged to work more on smooth paper now – I think the results are much more interesting.

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Where science meets art

One of the major attractions of living in Cambridge, is the number of fascinating juxtapositions you encounter.

It is a city that attracts residents from all corners of the world, all here with a common ideal – knowledge: the pursuit of it and the imparting of it.

It is a city with a pervasive atmosphere of innovation. And also one of venerable tradition and history. In this city, the birth of new ideas is accepted as the norm – but each new idea still buzzes with excitement.

It is worldly wise, and at the same time, a little insular. You meet people with huge intellect, who are almost incapable of buying a postage stamp but will discuss complex physics with authority.  I love this city.

It has Science Week which I’ve heard described as one of the best science festivals in the world. It has Wordfest, now 10 years old, and although small, one of the festivals that attracts authors from all over the country. It has Cambridge Open Studios: four weekends in which to visit artists in their studios all over the city. Each of these is an opportunity to immerse yourself in a specific aspect of the arts or science. But none of them is specifically devoted to fostering connections between these areas of expertise, culture and innovation.

With all these wonderful connections and contradictions in one place, Cambridge is just the perfect place for a TEDx event.   So we’ve put together TEDxGranta:Alive & Kicking – “A celebration of restless innovation in the arts and sciences. Of survivors and creators. And of people who kick back against established ways of thinking.”

Just look at the great list of speakers. We’ll cover design, business, social enterprise, psychology, music, film-making, engineering and more. We’re even having a blindfold kung fu exhibition.  And that’s just on the stage. The delegate list is just as interesting.

We’ve still got a lot to do – and with only 2 weeks to the event, we’re in high-activity mode. I’m really looking forward to it – the buzz will be brilliant.

Wisdom – in the UK

When I wrote about the Wisdom project in October last year, the book wasn’t available in the UK.

But on Saturday, I saw it prominently displayed in the Cambridge branch of Borders. I was utterly enthralled. It is as captivating ‘in the paper’ as it I anticipated from watching the trailer on the project website. The only reason I didn’t buy it immediately was because its a substantial book and I had a fair way to walk with an already-full load of parcels.

But I will be getting it. If you’re interested, you can get it in the UK:  Wisdom: 50 Unique and Original Portraits


Yesterday I was sent a link to one of the most compelling projects I’ve ever seen. Wisdom is a collection of interviews and portraits of some of the most respected achievers of our time. There are the obvious candidates: Nelson Mandela, Henry Kissinger, and other statesmen. There are those from the creative world: Mary Quant, Robert Redford, Dame Judy Dench. And there is the matriarch of the Ndebele tribe in South Africa. And many more.

They all have something in common – a wealth of experience and great thoughts to share with the next generation.

At the moment, the book doesn’t seem to be available in the UK. How frustrating!