Workshop – Foray into Abstraction

I signed up for a week at the excellent Oxford Summer School with Jane Strother for a course she called ‘Foray into Abstraction’.

We started by looking at lots of postcards of paintings with various degrees of abstraction, choosing one or two each and presenting them to the class, explaining why we had chosen them. Jane pointed out various ways in which the artists had abstracted their subject.

We spent quite a time doing simple still life drawings, just using blocks of three tones and concentrating on identifying and merging shapes in related tones.

foray (1 of 18)

foray (2 of 18)

As well as found objects around the room, we drew crumbled paper, which I found a really useful and interesting object to draw. We looked to join tone but also identify lines which could be emphasised or extended or even placed elsewhere in the frame. Similar exercises were attempted with monochrome paint or paper collage.

foray (3 of 18) foray (4 of 18)

Before doing any painting or moving into colour, we did exercises in colour mixing, taking a cool or warm primary colour, mixing a complementary colour from the other two corresponding primaries, and then mixing these to  to create all the tints between. I struggles a bit with this, since I am not a painter and don’t have a great range of acrylic paints. That made it all the more useful an exercise for me, since my understanding of colour is poor. I also tried this exercise in my sketchbook with a palette knife, bristle brush and eclipse brush to see the difference the tool made.

foray (5 of 18)foray (6 of 18)

This was followed by an exercise where we painted a small scene outside, in blocks of colours, as near as possible to the local colour. This was then repeated trying to identify the cool or warm primary colour which we would use as a starting point to make that local colour.

The next exercise was to take our earlier drawings and create an abstract piece using a limited palette based on  complementary colours.

foray (4 of 5)

Having painted this, I then cut it around a bit to try and improve the composition. Good exercise. We also did some small cloud pieces looking at different ways of painting these.

After the first couple of days, Jane let us loose on painting our own subjects. I used my Scotland holiday sketchbook, where rain clouds had been the most available subject.

isles (20 of 21)

A5 sketchbook, watercolour and collage

I set myself the objective of painting the clouds with the landscape being secondary and using a liited palette of Paynes Grey, Burnt Sienna, Phthalo Blue and transparent white. I am not sure that this is particularly abstract although nothing is described in detail. I am pleased to have got the sense of weighty mass of those Scottish clouds. I think that there should be less landscape and it should have softer edges.

foray (3 of 5)

26 x 60 cm, acrylic

As my parallel project, I want to explore my garden as an inspiration for abstract work. Jane was really helpful suggesting relevant artists to look at. She had brought along a  reference library of books on artists to refer to and it was very helpful to look, for instance, at the landscape works of Klimt, Virtue and Tress. Jane had also brought along some sketchbooks, showing how she collects ideas. I found it extremely interesting to see how she used acrylics to create small landscape sketches.

JStrother sketchbooks (1 of 2)

Details of A5 sketchbooks, Jane Strother, by kind permission

JStrother sketchbooks (2 of 2)

I had taken a number of photo references with me and used these as a basis for sketches where I was looking for massed shapes and tones. I found sketching in charcoal really helpful for this. I don’t normally use charcoal for sketching because of the problem of fixing, but will definitely do some more in future.

foray (7 of 18) foray (8 of 18) foray (10 of 18) foray (12 of 18)

 

foray (11 of 18)

I tried pushing this larger sketch of light through branches into colour, but I definitely prefer the monochrome sketch.

foray (14 of 18)

A4, acrylic

foray (9 of 18)

I used this lower sketch as a basis for a larger work just using charcoal and gesso. I was concentrating on massed shapes and how they worked with the edge of  the paper. The gesso creates texture which can be picked up and worked into with the charcoal. This produces a rich history of marks. The trunk of the tree would have been better rendered as a more characterful shape. The sense of light streaming in from above is successful. The building has almost disappeared apart from the angle of the roof and the reflection from a window.

foray (2 of 5)

34 x 45 cm, charcoal and gesso

The sketch below of the same red acer was almost an afterthought, squeezed into the bottom of a used page, but was one of the sketches I liked most. I tried developing it in gouache, a new medium for me, and one I have not got the hang of yet.

foray (15 of 18)

foray (16 of 18)

A3 sketchbook, gouache and coloured pencil

I like the textures but texture everywhere is a bit exhausting; the eye needs somewhere quiet to rest. I like the shapes and pushed this into a more formal painting in acrylic.

foray (1 of 5)

28 x 42 cm, acrylic

The shapes and colours here are more considered. A bush on the right has been reduced to just a line connecting with the space beyond the frame. The shadow has become more intense emphasising the glow of the acer, but I think the shape has become less interesting. Texture has been retained but now is not dominating the large shapes. The outline of the acer is too complicated and would be better with less fiddly small bulges bottom right and left. I have echoed the yellow and orange highlights in the acer, which describe three dimensional form, in the background and in the bush in the right foreground, and I think that this helps unify the image. The textured, slightly dreamy, shapes of the two shrubs at the front are a good contrast to the bulk of the tree and the rather flat background, however, perhaps I could have reversed this and executed the background in transparent layers for a dreamy feel and the shrubs in opaque layers to push the background back and the shrubs forward. Or maybe that would have been less abstract.  I think I should return to this subject repeatedly.

The final day finished with a group critique with a wide range of work produced.  It was very useful to prop up my work amongst  others’ and try to view it objectively. I could see things which I would like to have done differently, like the tree shape, but also that it was coherent and convincing.

I really enjoyed taking a small sketch and developing the shapes, tones and textures without worrying about observational veracity. My confidence in using colour increased although painting still feels like an unknown country. Oxford Summer School is a wonderful annual resource, great value and with excellent professional tutors. Jane Strother was the best I have experienced yet. Her thoughtful, academic approach was very structured, and she was extremely supportive whilst rigorous in her analysis of our work.

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