Tuesday, June 21, 2016

On Plateaus, Abstraction, and Light Bulb Moments

Last month I participated in the Oil Painters of America national exhibition and convention. The fact that the OPA is celebrating their 25th anniversary made it even more of an honor to be on faculty. I felt like a bit of a hotshot, having taught a workshop that week and then painting in a group demo for the OPA... until I sat in on a landscape demo by master artist Kevin McPherson, and I realized anew that I know nothing! His demo was so abstract, my brain couldn't wrap itself around the idea of what he was doing. He started with an informal grid (based on the ideas of Andrew Loomis), then started dropping pieces/shapes of color into the grid. He had a photo reference, but was composing his painting based on the grid, rather than by copying the photo. It took a long time before it started looking like anything, which would drive me absolutely insane if I were to try such a method. Still, he insisted the grid could be used for anything, even portraits! (Okay, Kevin...)

Kevin McPherson starting his demo at the OPA

When I got home, I tried starting a painting this way, and quickly realized I was not up to the task. There is something about my way of thinking that is just not able to grasp abstraction just yet. But I'm fiercely determined to learn!

Andrew Loomis' "Informal Subdivision"

Thus started my month-long (and still going) artist's block. Yes, I admit it. I'm in the middle of a plateau.  And it's because I've been challenged to take my art to the next level by thinking in the abstract.

Back in college, freshman year, I was assigned to do an "abstract painting" inspired by a representational subject. I balked at the project and told my professor outright that I disliked abstract art. "It just isn't my style!" I said.

"How old are you?" he asked.

I hung my head. "18."

"You HAVE no style!"

Begrudgingly I completed the assignment and it was quite clear that I hated every second of it. In fact, it ended up in the dumpster at the end of the semester. To be fair, we weren't given very clear directions as to what "abstract" meant within the confines of this assignment. I had no idea what "abstract" meant besides the fact that most abstract art, by my limited knowledge, was stuff I disliked... i.e., it "didn't look like anything."

Later, my graphic design professor (though he still gave me an A in the class) told me my weakness was design... I was too simple and straightforward most of the time and had trouble thinking outside the box. I brushed him off, thinking my intuition would become stronger and carry me through. Fallacies of youth, my friends. That attitude has been my downfall ever since. I am finally seeing it now... 13 years after beginning my career as a serious artist.

What I didn't understand was that even the most representational works of art start with an abstract foundation, that is, the abstract value pattern. I've talked about this before, but I'm still learning to wrap my head around it completely and own it in my work.

And now that I'm a Denverite (Denvertonian? Denverer? oh, forget it), I have the amazing privilege of painting alongside a new friend and mentor, Quang Ho. He is leagues ahead of me in knowledge, experience, and skill. Quang has challenged me to break things down to their most basic visual elements: light and dark. Let go of subject matter, let go of sentiment, let go of ideas for new paintings. Just be OPEN to whatever I find interesting, and run with it. Don't care what anyone else thinks. Just play with paint and capture a good design first and foremost. Some of the things he's told me I'll be chewing on for a while: "There is no incomplete shape. You can play with expressive edges and lost and found, but nothing should be incomplete." Another thing that seems so simple, yet is something I have neglected in my work: "Find the pattern of light and dark. Stay true to the pattern." The pattern should be interesting and strong - in the hierarchy of painting, that comes first - that is what draws the viewer in. Not the subject matter, not even the colors or the edges. The light/shadow pattern. I don't know why it's been taking me this long to see it.

I haven't had this feeling in over five years, when I took a workshop with Clayton J. Beck, III that changed my perspective on painting forever. It's that feeling like my whole world is being overturned and every notion I ever had about painting is false and needs to get thrown out the window. It is terrifying and exhilarating, and it needs to happen every once in a while in order to grow. I know I can be a better painter, and it's driving me bonkers!

I haven't been creating as much in 2016. I could blame it on my two year old and the fact that she is more demanding now (this is VERY true!), or on my husband's time-consuming job and the fact that I don't get much time to paint even on weekends. But when I look within, and am really honest with myself, I can see that it's because I've hit a plateau. I know when my art is "on" , and when I'm making progress because of things I've learned. I can tell when the light bulb turns on and I hit my stride. I haven't had that for months. I've been so busy trying to "finish" paintings that I haven't allowed room for growth. Growth is painful and no fun, and because my painting time has been so limited, I've been mentally restrained by a preconceived notion that I have to finish a painting and make it pretty, every time. I've also not allowed myself the freedom of thinking completely abstract when it comes to design, without regard to subject matter.

So when will my light bulb come on? When will I have my breakthrough? I feel like I'm such a slow learner, even though I know I have what it takes. Well, maybe it's not going to happen in an instant. Maybe it's already started with the loss of my sketchbook and all the old idealogies that are in there. I want to be an open book, an empty sponge, and doggedly persistent even when I fail. I want to absorb everything the great artists are saying and manifest it in my work. In short, I need to heed good advice, and stay hungry. :-)

It sure would be nice to become successful really quickly, to be winning awards left and right, and to be making more money. But what my art needs right now is a reset button. I was getting over-confident, sloppy, haphazard with trying to finish paintings in time for competitions or to sell. I lost a pure objective. Now it's about the art again - making work that is truly excellent. Thank you, Quang, for being kind enough to tell me what I needed to hear!

Above: Crazed notans I did based on the setting below, one day after a deep discussion with Quang on the meat and bones of painting. Just trying to see the light/shadow pattern regardless of the cute kiddo in the bottom left hand corner! (Also, note the dirty dishes. These days, it's art or housework. Not both!)

Below: I highly recommend these two videos by Quang Ho. He is a great artist and teacher!



  1. How good of you to share your realizations with such openness and vulnerability. What perfect timing! These are some of the very ideas I've been grappling with recently, and to know that you, who paint so beautifully, are also struggling with some of these very issues, well, in an odd sort of way it's quite a relief and encouragement. Last week, I finally viewed this new quest more as an exhilarating journey rather than a terrifying ordeal. "Certainly embracing it will lead to valuable growth," I told myself, and now I'm simply eager, excited and terrified all rolled into one! :-)
    I'm sure that many, many other artists feel as I do about the amazing content of this particular blog that you so generously shared. Thank you, Anna! Thank you for being such a blessing!

  2. Really good, Anna. We're not only in the same book but also on the same page. You expressed it well.

  3. This us a problem I struggle with as well. What a lovely expression of it. As for your energetic two-year old, see if you can find a pre-teen mother's helper. During the school year, there are home schooled kids who would be available to help, too.

  4. This us a problem I struggle with as well. What a lovely expression of it. As for your energetic two-year old, see if you can find a pre-teen mother's helper. During the school year, there are home schooled kids who would be available to help, too.

  5. Beautifully shared, can so relate to growth

  6. Thank you for sharing this :)


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