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On painting and making mistakes and ego

One of my favorite artists, Richard Diebenkorn, used to talk about purposefully making “mistakes” in the early stages of a painting. This would give him something to change as he worked. I often think of this as I make paintings. In the early stages of a painting, I’ll purposefully use colors that don’t feel like they go together – or make shapes that aren’t right, so I can make changes as I build up the paintings. This process of searching for an image is something that I enjoy. By working in this way, there is no pressure to get it “right” in one go, and the finished painting is a result of this process of making changes.

Maybe it’s tied to my ego – that I feel I need a certain amount of layers of paint to make it worthy of putting into the world. Maybe when I’m making paintings at 90, they’ll be very minimal Motherwell-like pieces because I’ll have no need to prove anything anymore.

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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.”

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