The case for abstraction

artist painting in studio

Why do I make abstract paintings? Well it’s an instinctive thing and it’s what has primarily interested me in my artistic practice over the last two decades. For me, the experience of making a painting successful with nothing but marks and color keeps me interested and engaged. It also allows me to express a lot of the ideas and images I think of in a way that is more sensorial.

I don’t paint so that people can see what it’s like to be outside. I paint so that people can FEEL what it’s like to be outside.

When a painting features a thing or person, we are drawn to those recognizable elements and the possible stories around them. Abstraction is so vital because it captures the things we cannot see. When it’s done well, abstraction pulls at our gut in ways that we may not be able to express with words or photos. It taps a line directly to our emotions. This is why some people cry when they are in the presence of a Rothko painting. I am one of those people. It never fails that if I see a Rothko and I take the time to sit in front of it, I’ll soon be sobbing. (It was embarrassing at first, and then I just gave into it.)

I paint both totally abstract and representational paintings. I consider my more representational work – like my plein air landscapes – an important part of my practice. All of that looking at the world and recording it and making decisions about what to include affects my more abstract work. I think of the small landscapes as finished paintings, but they are also studies for my larger more abstract works. When I paint or draw, and am not simply copying something, I make a series of decisions about how to translate what I see or think of into marks and color. With time, as I keep practicing my craft, my eye and hand become more agile and my decision-making is strengthened. With experience, I’ve become more confident in my decisions while I work. When to make big changes or when to stop are not easy problems to solve, but I trust my process.

Life is a big paradox. I think abstraction often does a more compelling job of expressing this than a photo-representational artwork. I’ve accepted that life is chaos and I’m ok with not having it all figured out. Painting is what helps me explore this and share it with everyone else.

How does abstraction make you feel? Do you have any questions about this you’d like to ask me? Email me and I’ll do my best to answer.

I’ll leave you with this excellent video from PBS’ The Art Assignment. This is “The Case for Abstraction.”

Shared Spaces: a new project

A couple weeks ago I posted about depression on Facebook. I had hit a particularly low point and decided to share my experience in a public forum. I had never openly shared about depression or anxiety on social media in the past and was uncomfortable about doing so, but I decided to do it anyway. I knew other people were struggling too, and I figured that talking about it openly would be a step to help de-stigmatize it.

To my surprise, many friends commented on my post with words of support and openly shared about their struggles and their loved ones’ battles with depression. Other friends wrote me privately to share their experiences. I responded the best I could to everyone’s messages and comments and wondered if there was anything more I could do. There was clearly a need for a safe space to share about our common pain.

Lately I’d been feeling particularly lonely and missed working with a team, so I wondered what I could do to engage others and also to harness this outpouring of shared experiences.

I decided to ask my friends on Facebook and Instagram to share images of outdoor spaces that bring them joy so that I might make paintings using their images as inspiration. This project became a way to sublimate people’s pain and turn it into something beautiful. Somehow in my mind I made a leap from hearing people’s stories to asking them to look outside of themselves to what brought them joy and sharing that. I am not so naïve to think that my project will fix the way people feel, but I do see a need for people to connect on a profound level and since I know the benefit of going outdoors, I think that sharing what we find beautiful outside, is a good place to start.

The project is called “Shared Spaces.”

So below is the project. Please share your images if you want to participate.

I am making paintings of outdoor spaces using photos shared by you as inspiration. If you’d like to participate, here’s what to do: take a photo of a landscape, cityscape or any outside space that you find beautiful or inspiring. Post it to Facebook or Instagram, tag me (Jessica Singerman on Facebook and @jessicasingermanfineart on Instagram) or email it to me and share what this place means to you, why it brings you joy or inspires you. I’m excited to see your images!

Please share this post with anyone who would like to participate. Thank you!

This is a preparatory watercolor sketch I made from a friend’s image.
Preparing the panels for this series of paintings. This is sizing to prepare the wood for the oil primer that will go on top.

The drawings behind the paintings

For the paintings in my exhibit at SECCA, “I must love you very much” I did a bit more planning than I normally do. To be honest, I don’t typically plan my paintings, but for these paintings I did have a specific feeling that I wanted. I liked the idea of making a group of paintings big enough to surround viewers such as Monet’s “Water-Lilies.” Some of his water lily paintings were mural sized works that filled specially made rooms at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.
I’ve been obsessed with Pilot Mountain for a couple of years, and have made a lot of paintings inspired by the place, but they were smaller works. For this project, I wanted to make paintings so big that a person looking at them would have the feeling of being transported to Pilot Mountain. While I’m not interested in creating a photo-realistic image of the place, I am interested in evoking the myriad sensations we feel when we are there.
To determine the size of the paintings, I measured the space I had available for my exhibit at the museum. I planned to make the paintings as large as I could make them while still leaving a bit of white space – or breathing room – around each one. I made four paintings, one for each wall.
After determining their size and taking reference photos on some hikes, I made preliminary watercolor drawings to loosely plan out the composition for each of the four paintings. I used a photo as the first point of reference, then reinterpreted the image by looking for the essential shapes that I would use in my paintings. As I worked on the large paintings, I referred to these drawings as a sort of map to give structure to my paintings. These are those drawings:
 

Want to see how I made these paintings? Check out this time-lapse video I made documenting the process.

Making some paintings

I recently finished a group of four paintings for my exhibition at Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA), and during the time I made the last two of the paintings, I shot a photo every ten seconds to document the process. Below is the time-lapse video of the entire process over the course of six weeks. From start to finish, you’ll see how I put together “Of Stones and Earth and Air” (on the left) and “Unhearable Sounds” (on the right). See these paintings and the others at “I must love you very much,” my solo exhibit at SECCA, in Winston-Salem, NC September 17 – October 13. The opening reception takes place on Thursday September 19, from 6:00-8:00 PM, with an artist talk at 7:00 PM. Artwork is available for purchase. Contact me by phone (336) 283-0185 or email if you’d like to acquire these paintings for your collection.

Read about these paintings and the exhibit HERE.

See a video documenting the process of stretching one of these massive canvases HERE.

 

The finished paintings:

 

Diebenkorn’s Notes on Beginning a Painting

Richard Diebenkorn is one of my painting heroes. I love the way he breaks up the space of a sheet of paper or canvas, his use of color, the way he allows the work or history of a piece to show, and how he worked both in representation and pure abstraction. He had some ideas he kept in mind when starting new work, and I keep a copy of these tacked up in my studio. Whether you’re an artist or not, what do these mean to you?

“Notes to myself on beginning a painting” by Richard Diebenkorn

1. Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.
2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued – except as a stimulus for further moves.
3. DO search.
4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.
5. Don’t “discover” a subject – of any kind.
6. Somehow don’t be bored but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.
7. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.
8. Keep thinking about Pollyanna.
9. Tolerate chaos.
10. Be careful only in a perverse way.

Reference: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/diebenkorn-ten-rules

Why does fitness matter as an artist? It’s not what you think.

Artists get a bad rap. Whether it’s the myth of the starving artist, or the stories of drug and alcohol abuse, there aren’t a lot of highly visible models for artists to follow for a healthy sustainable career. An artist who takes care of themselves, spends time with their family, and behaves like a professional doesn’t necessarily make for the most exciting story, but the fact is, it makes for a more productive, well-rounded, happier artist, who is more likely to keep making their artwork and have a thriving life and career.
Here I am hoofing it up one of my favorite hills in PA…
Fitness is an important tool for me. I need to move my body to burn off excess energy (outside if possible), and most importantly, I find that it clears my head, focuses my mind, and helps manage my mood – an essential part of spending long hours working on my own.
I believe that to make our most honest artwork, it helps to have a clear head. When I don’t exercise – especially outside – I am prone to depression and anxiety. Riding my bike is especially potent – the intense exercise burns off excess energy and the repetitive action of pedaling helps to tap right into a meditative state. This is the best recipe for me. As a bonus, riding is a social activity, a good counter balance to days working alone.
Tying fishing lines to hang origami birds for Paper Mountain
I stand most of the day and my work sometimes involves reaching and twisting into strange positions (such as the week of installation required to hang Paper Mountain – Click here to watch a timelapse of the week-long process). My work involves making repetitive motions for long periods of time (when using painting or cutting tools or folding paper for instance), so repetitive injury is a risk for me. In addition to more vigorous exercise, I practice yoga on most mornings to stave off pain from new and old injuries and to calm my mind. When I’m being especially good, I also finish the day with a few minutes of physical therapy and calisthenics for basic strength and injury prevention.
A big part of making art sustainable for me is to take care of myself. It’s hard enough to spend long hours on my own acting as both artist and entrepreneur, but if I’m not mentally and physically fit, it makes it difficult to stay focused and to work without physical pain.
The old myth of the starving unhealthy artist is just that – OLD. I’d rather keep myself healthy so I can keep on making my work long into old age.
What works for you? What keeps you healthy and happy? I’d love to hear from you. You can email me at: [email protected]

If you found this interesting, you’ll like my post: 11 things athletes do that will make you a better artist

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The appeal of working big and working little

People ask me if I prefer working big or small. I do enjoy working on both scales. Each size has its benefits. The experience of making a large or small painting is very different – both for the artist and for the viewer. I choose to work at both scales for the following reasons:
Painting in a field
Working Small
Small work can often be completed in one sitting and doesn’t require a lot of equipment. This makes it particularly well suited for traveling or when you don’t have a dedicated studio space. I used to make small works when we lived in Australia and the contents of my “studio” could fit into a cardboard box that lived on our dining room table. I still make small works when traveling, when I want to work outdoors, or when trying out new ideas. Sometimes smaller work ends up inspiring larger pieces.
When I make plein air paintings – the ones I paint on location – I am making both a small artwork and also in a way, doing research for more abstract work. While I look at a landscape and make the small paintings outside, I build a memory bank of images, shapes, colors, light effects, and even sounds and smells that I can later refer to in more abstract pieces.
For you, the viewer, the experience with a small painting is more intimate than with a large one. Only one person at a time can really savor a small work at close proximity.
Starting two big paintings
Working Big
A large painting takes much longer to make than a little painting. Even the preparation of the painting surface (canvas or wood panel) takes much longer. It takes a couple of hours to build and stretch a big canvas, and painting each layer of gesso (a kind of primer) takes about 30 minutes compared to just a few minutes per layer for a small painting.
Working on a large painting can be daunting at first – that’s a lot canvas to fill! – but on the other hand, it’s exhilarating to make something larger than myself. I can use my whole body – working crouched close to the ground or reaching out. In the case of super big work like Paper Mountain, I worked with assistants using scaffolding, lifts, and ladders. It’s exciting to create something bigger than we are as humans.
We have a particular experience when we stand far from artwork, and another experience when we are close to it. The piece fills our field of view. I think about this as I make a piece – it’s important to me to create a special experience for viewers of my work. I want to draw you in to examine the work more closely. When I create little surprises in a painting – details that can only be appreciated at close range – I am rewarding you for coming closer. My work is driven by my experience in the outdoors, so when I make something big, I hope that the work transports viewers to the outdoors or a memory of being outside.
Making bigger work requires a longer commitment and focus than making small work. Keeping the energy of the piece going and working through tough spots can be challenging because of the scale of the work. On the other hand, making big work is rewarding just by its sheer scale. There is something special about making something larger than yourself.

Did you find this interesting? Please share it!

Check out the following blog posts if you’re curious…
This one if you want to see what it’s like to build a super big canvas
This post if you want to see how my team put together Paper Mountain installation. And here’s the project page.
And this post if you want to see how I pack my plein air painting kit in a cigar box.

How to stretch a big canvas

By popular request, I made a video tutorial showing how to stretch a really large canvas. This one is 5×4 feet. And if you scroll down, you’ll find a time lapse video I made showing how I went about building and stretching a giant canvas (5×6 feet). You’ll notice the bit where I have to cut down one of the cross braces. This doesn’t usually happen, but in this case, the one sent to me wasn’t cut to the right length…

Enjoy!

Looking for more tips for artists? Check out some of my blog posts below:

How to pack a travel watercolor and drawing kit

Timelapse showing how I pack my plein air painting kit

11 Things athletes do that will make you a better artist

Know anyone who might find this interesting? Please share it!

 

The Story Behind Sky Project

Like a lot of artists, I use photography to document my work and to share my process with the world. I sometimes take photos as reference material for my work. And sometimes the photos make the work. In one of my newest works, Sky Project, I crowdsourced photos of the sky via Instagram to make a video projection. People from all over the world shared photos.

The project is a reaction to the outdoor experience as filtered through our phones. We take photos of everywhere we go and everything we do and share them on social platforms such as Instagram. Many people’s experience of the outdoors is entirely based on what is Instagrammable. So how do we continue to have unmediated experiences in nature with the constant distraction of telephones in our lives? Can we still do that?

While technology like our phones and social media connect us, they also sometimes broaden the divisions between us. When we go outside with friends and family, we can feel genuinely deep connections both with each other and the outdoors. Through Sky Project, I encouraged people to look up from their phones, toward the sky that we share with everyone else – to get outside and to look around. Ultimately, I want my work to spur viewers to get outside and experience nature for themselves. I hope that by doing this, we can forge more profound connections with each other and develop a deep appreciation of nature together.

See more of the project along with Paper Mountain HERE. You can see both projects at Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art in the exhibit “Beyond the Mountain” until April 26th.

Get a video tour of the exhibit on my blog HERE.

Going outside will save us

 

On March 16th, a day after the opening of “Beyond the Mountain” at Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art, I sat down for a talk about the inspiration behind my work. I explain my painting process, where the ideas for Paper Mountain and Sky Project came from, and why art and going outside will save us. And if you scroll down a little farther, I added a little treat: a private tour of my work in the exhibit. Enjoy!

You can experience the exhibit for yourself until April 25th at Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art in Charlotte, NC.  To see more of Paper Mountain and Sky Project, visit the project page HERE.

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