Friends often ask me how they might start painting in an abstract way because it feels so intimidating to them. I started to think back to my art experience and found that I have 10 tips to help jump start any 2D creative abstract project.
Here is Tip 2 out of 10 for "How to Jump-start Abstract Paintings Practice."
If you are following along my blog posts about "How to Jump-start a Practice in Abstract Painting," here is "Tip 2, Materials & Mark-Making." (click here for Tip 1 - Ugly Paintings).
I think many novice artists are naive and think that all professional artists just wake up every day, turn "on" their creative juices and stuff just flows out!
In fact, before I identified myself as an artist and "became" an artist, I honestly didn't give much thought about how artists painted. I learned a lot in school through art history courses but most of those classes involved a lot of memorizing (which is not one of my strengths) dates, facts, styles, locations and history. Not a lot focused on the radical materials artists used, which often set him or her apart from other craftsman or artists at that time, and why they did that.
Materials are everything for an artist. Not only do they inform whatever art piece we are working on, they have their own context and own cultural significance just standing on their own.
Therefore, the choice to pick up charcoal, for example, is vastly different from painting with Utrecht oil paint.
Materials inform not only color choices or style, but are also infused with symbolism, cultural significance, context of wealth, power, religious undertones and nods to the ancient past, just to name a few.
An example of this is my Pompeii mixed media installation I did for one of my classes at graduate school. After visiting the real Pompeii in Italy, I was inspired to create my own wallpaper based on the fresco designs as well as create a video of my hands breaking down plaster pieces to signify the passage of time and cultural significance.
The materials of this piece were essential to the project. If I had used oil paint for the wallpaper, that would have a different context. If I used sand instead of plaster, that also would also have changed the context of my project.
The materials we use and experiment with are crucial to our painting process.
The super fun part though, is that basically anything and everything you already have in your house is usable—household objects like jars, cans, plastic rollers, to pens, markers, your own fingers etc, can be used. Pretty much anything you can make a mark with paint.
And it’s so much fun to experiment and play—even more so then painting in "an ugly style" (my previous post), here we are focusing solely on just the materials.
Materials used with paint or mixed media, translates into 2D form as "mark-making." Generally speaking, mark-making is the visual vocabulary an artist uses in an abstract painting. It is considered an artist's own personal visual language. Layers and layers of different mark-making creates an abstract piece.
Again there are as many different ways to create an abstract piece as there are people, but in general, we like to break down our mark-making into hundreds of layers of different kinds of marks. This creates a very rich and complex visual language where the artist can communicate a variety of ideas or feelings, etc. through this visual vocabulary.
The viewer should also be intrigued by the visual complexity of the painting. As artists, we take it as a very good sign when viewers take time to pick apart the interweaving layers, bringing their own interpretations and meanings to the piece as well.
Painting is not just "one-way" medium. Like many forms of art, it's the exchange between artist and viewer that creates the life of the piece.
Some of the layers blend into each other to create new ones. And most often, in my opinion, the most exciting mark-making layers are those which are spontaneous or even done by sheer "mistake" (but more on that in a future post).
An example of a chaotic mark-making painting are the most well-known large works by Jackson Pollock completed in the 1950s. His art was revolutionary at that time, because he established the "drip" as his sole use of mark-making. He created thousands and thousands of layers of the "drip" to create enormous pieces.
This was the first time in history that a human purposely "dripped" marks on the canvas without using a brush and allowing the paint to "drop" almost haphazardly, without the arm, hand and fingers of the artist manipulating the brush or the knife.
But there are many, many, many other artists that offer up their own unique view of the world, and some of my favorite are on my pinterest board, so feel free to check them out.
So let's begin your journey into mark-making!
Choose a Surface
First off is the choice of surface you would like to paint on. The best options are larger so you can really feel like you have plenty of room to experiment and make large marks. Paper is great but if you would like to use a lot of media and have it withstand the materials, then I would choose a board or canvas larger than 20x20, if you have the option.
The cheapest option is a piece of plywood from the hardware store. They are very affordable, and you have the choice to cut a large piece into smaller ones or pick out large sizes at low cost.
You can also choose to keep it unfinished or "raw" and paint directly on the wood itself. Or prime it with acrylic medium or couple layers of acrylic gesso if you would prefer a smoother surface.
At this point I would highly recommend a hard surface like a wood board verses canvas, only because a hard surface holds up really well to all sorts of more "violent" mark-making like scraping, gouging, sanding and cutting. And as the mark maker, it’s more fun at first with a harder surface so that whatever you experiment holds up well with all sorts of mediums.
You also always have the option to paint over everything and start over and it's much more durable lifespan with a board surface.
Paper is OK but not great, especially for beginners. Unless, you are prepared to use lots of paper. Investing in higher quality paper is worth it. Higher quality paper can hold up to lots of water or even be gessoed on the surface to support oil. Otherwise, paper will often bend and roll.
BUT you can honestly you any surface you prefer. It’s just experimenting and trying as many things as you can think of (I have an entire series where I paint on found tablecloths).
A note about color - do not worry about color so much in this exercise. If you would like to keep it simpler than use a limited palette - a dark, a light and a middle tone. If you want to do a “rainbow” effect, that’s fine too. A lesson on color will be a later post.
Take about 20 minutes or so to just play around - put on music. If you would like longer, then take a break and come back to continue. Use your dryer to speed up some parts of the drying process. Try to "build" layers. Usually about 20-50 layers start to build depth in a painting. Some artists have hundreds (like Julie Mehretu or Mark Bradford).
So, the list below are just some ideas to get started. If you are unsure and feel like you would like a few demonstrations or a bit more “ structure” then continue following some suggested steps below.
acrylic paint, chalk paint, watercolor, ink, oil paint
brushes (flat, oval, round tipped, fat brushes at hardware stores etc)
pastels , dry or oil
colored pencils , graphite, charcoal
pens, artist pens or even ball point pens, sharpies, markers, crayons
gesso (acrylic is best)
water (lots of it!)
any other household items for creative designs (bottom of jars, cans, paper towels to blot, sticks, leaves, tape, etc.)
Ideas for Mark-Making:
• short, staccato marks
• smooth long lines
• flicking paint brush (hovering over surface)
• use lots and lots of water
• dryer paint
• palette knife
• bottom of cups, bottles for stamping
• paper towels - blot
• finger tips/finger smears
• thicker paint
• thinner, watercolor paint
• scraping with palette knife - use edges, flat panels, etc.
Take your a favorite brush and start to paint! Add more water. Add more paint.
Literally go through the list above and start playing around
If you get stuck and would like more structure, try these timed exercises that I do for all my art classes