Part 5: Towards Abstraction

Exercise: Abstraction from study of natural forms

I approached this exercise with a little apprehension as I have always viewed abstraction as a form of imagination. I don’t have a great imagination! However I have come to understand whilst studying this course that it is the process of developing your painting that is so important so why should creating an abstract be any different You don’t have to imagine the outcome, you can follow the process and see where it takes you.

working through ideas

I chose to work with a pheasant feather that I happen to have to hand. It has a repeating pattern as well as a detailed micro-structure that appealed. I was also reminded of an abstract painting that I thought was by Hans Hartung that I had come across when researching abstract expressionism. I have since been unable to find any reference to the fact it was actually painted by Hans Hartung so it may just be in the style of… however regardless, I wanted to use this image as inspiration (view here)

pheasant feather
Sketches for abstracting a feather

My initial sketches revolved around the micro-structure – of the tiny barbs all lined up at an angle to the main rib. From here, using the (in style of?) Hans Hartung painting as inspiration I decided to lay down a series of broad coloured bands roughly corresponding to the close up structure of the feather. I  mixed up a set of colours in oil paint thinned quite a bit with liquin. The colours were quite warm brown tones and I chose to use a russet transparent acrylic wash to cover the ground first.

Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo of me placing these colours on the coloured ground. However I repeated the process on a plain white ground and this is what it started out like. The masking tape is keeping an area corresponding to the midrib clear of paint:

Laying down blocks of colour

I painted in the midrib, then used a palette knife to smear the paint sideways to create feather-barb like shapes in the paint. This allowed the coloured ground to show through the thin layers of paint. There was also a certain amount of blending that occurred a the edges of each stoke. (The whole painting was very wet so it was hard to get a good photo without glare).

creating the barbs (version 1)

I wasn’t happy with the midrib so I scraped that back and made it wider. I also added some white highlights to try to show the light bouncing off the feather vane in the way that I had observed. I did this by dropping white paint on and dragging back – it didn’t work!!

Adding highlights (version 1)

I wish I hadn’t put in the white highlights, however to remove them would mess up my vein structure. So I used a technique I had used in the impasto exercise, I made a print to remove some of the paint. I actually really like the impression of the patterns on the negative!

This enable me to rework the areas that had contained the highlights by re-blending the barbs. The finished result is this:

Feather abstracted, final painting

I really don’t like the result – so much for process! However I do think there is a bit of potential if the more messy parts are cropped out. In this version the main rib is no longer such a dominant feature and the unevenness of the top barbs is less evident. I still don’t like it but it works better as a composition.

Feather abstracted (closer crop, coloured ground)

NB. I had repeated the process on a white ground for the photo graph at the beginning. Here is the resulting end point of that piece. The same colours were used for the painting, it is amazing the difference the coloured ground makes. I prefer the coloured ground version, there is a much warmer note to the painting. However, the colours had a tendency to muddy. The white ground version is much cleaner in this regard, however much of that is down to the technique of blending the barbs. I was better at it the second time, and I didn’t have to try to remove the highlights! This however isn’t really a completed piece and I have treated it as a study.

Study on white ground


Exercise: Abstract painting from man-made form.

In the previous exercise I was very much driven by looking closely at the form of the feather and then replicating that in some way, following a set of logical steps to create a painting. I don’t feel that it worked very well so i tried a different tack with this exercise. I painted a very quick study of the electricity meter, then listed the features that stood out. I then tried to use my imagination and imagine those features in a different order!

Study of electricity meter


  • The numbers on the dial
  • The red number at the end
  • the wires coming out
  • the texture of the board behind contrasts with the metal box

in  my mind I took these elements and reassembled them in an abstract way (this is me using my imagination!). I used oil paint diluted with zest-it solvent to create a very watery background.

Abstract elements of the electricity meter

I knew this wasn’t finished but I got this far and had no idea where to go next so I left it for a couple of days. On returning I felt that the good bits were the way the very thin paint had picked up the texture of the primed oil paper, the crossing of the wires and the ghostly numbers. The bits I didn’t like were the metal boxes, and the fact that I hadn’t got the red in yet. With very little idea of how to proceed I made a list under my original sketch of things that an electricity meter symbolises:

  • use of energy
  • energy flow
  • time passing
  • use of resources
  • engineering, both mechanical and electrical
  • money

From this list I was aware that my brain made a mental shift towards the whole energy flow and I suddenly envisaged the electrical readout of a heart monitor. The wires then took on a new meaning, connecting to life. From there I have no real recall of the process of how I modified this painting however I used the image I had of representing the heartbeat whilst I put paint on the paper in fairly random ways. I used many different things to apply the paint, except using a paintbrush in the conventional manner. This was the final result.

Energy loss

I was stencilling numbers on in quite a random way, when I realised I had put a zero towards the end of the heart-beat line. I realised that I had only put in one heart beat followed by a long straight line denoting no electrical activity. The zero suddenly became more poignant – it could be the last heart beat. So I added a couple more zeros to emphasis this point.  I am pleased with the amount of texture that I have managed to incorporate. There is definitely a feel of graininess inspired by my original sketch. I wish that I had managed to retain some of the wiring from what is now the underpainting- I could have escaped back to reveal parts maybe.  The industrial grey is also a little uninspiring, and although it was intentional it does look in parts as if the black and white have just got muddied together.


These exercises took me very much out of my comfort zone (as so much has done on this course) and I approached them in two different ways. In the first I analysed the subject, drew sketches and developed a painting from there. This was the method that at the time I felt comfortable with. For the second exercise,  whilst I did do a painting sketch, the final piece very much came from my imagination – and this was sparked by delving into the emotions evoked by the subject rather than being driven by the subject itself. I enjoyed doing the second exercise more than the first, in the end, on the second day of painting, I completely let go! Of the two paintings, the second I consider to be the more successful. I wouldn’t want it on my wall, but I have been very surprised at how many of my family and friends who have seen it who like it (no one likes the feather!)

For me the learning curve here has not really been about actually painting but rather about the psychology behind the process of painting and I feel as if I have just made a huge step up that curve: understanding what is driving me. I have to feel connected to the subject in some way as I have previously established. However that connection doesn’t have to be a physical one or even an emotional one. It can be simply a thought process or an idea by association.Whilst writing this I am very excited. This opens up far more possibilities as to where my painting can go. I am going to try to carry this ‘letting go’ approach forward into my final project.


Part 5: Towards Abstraction

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s