A couple of months ago, I was commissioned by a dear friend to paint a tryptic of abstract oil paintings (2 pictured above). I was very flattered that he asked, but apprehensive at first, as this is brand new ground for me. The popular quote by Pablo Picasso came to mind-“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” This is good reflection for anyone interested in broadening their facilities. And as a lover/practitioner of good craftsmanship, I am drawn to this endeavor, despite the slight horror that accompanies. 

This effort was quite a genre leap, however. Other than the exposure amassed by my studies, artist acquaintances, museums, and gallery visits, I’ve put little thought into the concepts behind abstract paintings. I find that I am more literal than perhaps some of my artistic counterparts. I’ve always been attracted to obtaining skill in representational practices, and perhaps increasing my dexterity for general aesthetic perspectives. But what does that mean in context to abstract painting? What does that look like? I understand enough that, to every visual cohesion, there are certain rules binding the work together. Applying the elements of design and composition are among such rules. As these are also concepts used in literal practices, I felt I at least had something to start with. But it didn’t take me long before I became perplexed and frustrated in my apparent lack of intuitive muscle. “I’m an artist god-damn it,” I muttered to myself. “I should be able to do this.” 

I find, sometimes, that I side with people that look at abstract paintings and say mockingly under their breath to a friend that “they can do that.” At first glance, for some paintings, it often looks very much like an effortless endeavor. It is true that anyone can take a brush charged with paint and scribble on a canvas. But as I found myself doing so in preparation for something profound, I saw nothing staring back at me. What was I doing wrong? When will it begin to speak to me? Do I begin with something descriptive and then strip away to become more figurative?

Intent aside, a poorly executed painting, I believe, is an easy thing to spot, abstract or not. But what makes a great painting? It’s easier to recognize in representational painting. Does it convince the viewer of your physical knowledge of the subject matter? In other words, does it look real? Or if done with more spontaneity, is your knowledge still taken for granted? Does it show your familiarity of aesthetic reference or construction? 

After spending hours and days finagling, layering, mixing, scraping, smearing, and cutting through the paint I found that the process itself was taking hold and whispering in my ear. I began to simply enjoy the path of freely creating. And in the end, when I decided to stop, something strangely pleasant sat in front of me. By no means am I suggesting that I now know what I am doing. But I do have a respect for this process. As it took years of dedication and practice to learn more classical techniques, I realize that this hypothetical world of color and shapes will take its share of time. Time needed to for the refinement of instinct, style, innovation and trust in the process. I am intrigued, and will continue my study. I am grateful for this experience. Thanks to my good friend, whom without, I may have never begun this journey.