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Challenging Old Habits: Five Learnings I’m Implementing in my Abstract Painting Practice

"Our brains seem to be conditioned into thinking a certain way and it's often hard to break down these barriers that allow us a heightened level of creativity".

I recently read an article in Artists & Illustrators by the artist Andrew Hood (quoted above) which resonated with me. He talks about his process in creating beautiful abstract work, specifically landscapes, which is something I've been working towards in my own art.

Landscape art sketchbook spread

After spending time looking at abstract artists that I admire, I've realised that their journey to get to where they are now is similar to mine.

Throwing out the Rule Book

As many artists do, I started drawing as a child and was always taught how to focus on detail, perspective, and realism in my work. While this is a fine way of working, I've recently found myself unhappy with what I produce as well as the process in creating it.

I find that I'm drawn to abstract art – I get excited when I see bold colours and textures, and it makes me want to bring this into my own work, and paint and draw more freely.

In a way, it's almost easier to replicate exactly what you see rather than paint with minimal detail while still keeping the essence of your subject.

As Hood notes regarding the abstract image, "We are left with the bare minimum yet have the information required to make sense of what's in front of us". This is a skill I strive for in my work.

Familiarity Over Perfection

Hood talks about filling up sketchbooks for a single subject to gain familiarity with it before starting a final painting. I've realised that this is one of the ways I've gone wrong in the past.

By only painting one piece with no preliminary thumbnails, sketches, or paintings, I put so much pressure on that one painting to be perfect. I’d stress over mistakes without spending time to do loose prep sketches or testing materials and colours.

I’d go straight into it, spending hours on the initial sketch, a couple of days adding layers of watercolours and then finishing with another few hours adding the detail with a dip pen and ink. God help me if I make a mistake at this stage – the stress of it all!

I would spend a week painting this one painting that in the end, I was never happy with. It would always feel overworked, rigid, and boring. And worst of all, I'd come out of the experience feeling stressed and like I never want to paint again...

As Hood notes, "If everything is perfect, it becomes like a technical drawing”. With this in mind, I've made an effort to loosen up my style.

In doing so, I have focused on food, florals, still life, and animals, and I've recently built up the courage to start working on landscapes again. I'm also using location sketching to improve my confidence, as well as my quick line work (you don't have very long to sit outside during the cold winter months in Ireland before you freeze!). I'm not being as precious with my sketchbooks and mainly using them for quick observations, notes and maybe (if I'm lucky) some good sketches.

Lean into the Unknown

If, like me, you are fascinated by the practice and possibilities of abstract art but aren’t sure where to start, here are five practical tips for abstract painting that I've implemented into my practice recently:

  1. Start by drawing your subject many times from many different angles. If it's a still life, move the object around to get a feel for it. If it's a landscape, position yourself from many different angles (if you can!) to see what composition works best

  2. Look at your subject from a distance and close up, with one eye closed and with full view

  3. Fill a sketchbook with ideas, notes, compositions, textures, different media etc.

  4. Take time to fully absorb the colours. What colours stand out to you the most when you look at your subject?

  5. You need to familiarise yourself with the subject, so do all of the above BEFORE you start the final painting

As Hood notes, "it's this very familiarity that allows us to be more expressive and leave out more than what we put in".

It can feel uncomfortable, but by becoming familiar with your subject in an unconventional way, you can start to defy those old habits, ultimately allowing for satisfying expression in your art… Exactly how I like to work.


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