Colour, Space and Abstraction

Black Ashop Moor. Mixed media painting on paper. 15x10ins. Although there is some sense of space in this work, I didn’t deliberately concentrate on trying to paint it as I worked. Grey and mauve predominate and those colours themselves often suggest distance.

In paintings I completed recently I’ve had to think more about depicting a sense of space while, at the same time, using more of the abstract elements that feature in my work. Most paintings that attempt some kind of realism also, in many cases, attempt to depict space in some way. This is the difficulty in abstract or semi-abstract work: making decisions about whether to make a feature of the picture plane or how far back to push it. Representing space is one of the most difficult aspects of painting and artists have come up with many different methods of showing or implying it in their work.

In my own paintings I don’t worry too much about how I represent space, but I feel it does have to be represented in some way. In art that is completely abstract, there is no real need to portray a sense of depth, The flat picture plane aids the artist in his selection of colour, shape and texture. Even some semi-abstract works pay scant heed to conventions of representing depth. In my own paintings one can hopefully get some kind of a sense of space; this is a deliberate thing, although if the painting works without it I don’t worry too much. I don’t set out to paint in a particularly abstract way, or even strive for complete realism. I know my work has abstract qualities and I often deliberately stress those in particular paintings. Dots and splatters of paint often suggest rocks, stones and scree, broken or crumbling dry stone walls; wheels ruts and tracks are indicated by meandering lines. All these elements are abstract in nature and I’m aware they don’t necessarily have much to do with a representation of space when I paint them.

Space is often implied by colour and by using certain hues a sense of recession can be hinted at. In the painting Moorland Towards Rowarth shown below, most of the colour towards the horizon is deliberately kept to a blue, grey or mauve, implying that the landscape is receding into the distance. This, along with the fact that the colour in that area has been applied in thin bands that could be either hills or clouds, and the foreground, too, is little more than an abstract area of daubs, lines and dots, implies a sense of distance.

Moorland Towards Rowarth. Mixed media on board. 20x16ins. By blocking out the top third of the painting you’re left with a completely abstract image of dots, lines and daubs that are merely suggestive of landscape elements.

Painting an abstract or semi-abstract work is just as difficult as painting a representational one and as much thought goes into their design, composition and execution as any other piece, if not more. Everything has to work in a much more coherent way. The contiguity of line, shape and colour needs to be considered extremely carefully if the work is to be successful.


Vatnajokull: A New Series of Paintings

I’ve wanted to begin a series of new paintings for a while, not ones that share the same theme in a very broad sense, like landscapes of Derbyshire or scenes of Scotland for instance, but related images of the same subject that are closely connected, works that try to answer the same question and perhaps share some of the same motifs. I was provided with a theme a few days ago when I watched a TV documentary about the geology and topography of Iceland.

There were a series of images, presumably shot with a drone camera, of the surface of the Vatnajokull glacier. The textures, colour and patterns of this ice sheet were incredible. Fortunately, I was watching via Sky – a system that has the capability to pause, rewind and fast forward the action – so I paused the programme and took some photos of the screen on my phone. Some artists might eschew using images captured in this way, even of using photos at all, but I have no qualms about doing so. Of course I would like to travel to Iceland, take a helicopter trip its remote areas and sketch them, but the Covid-19 restrictions, not to mention my own impecunious state, prevent me, so I’m reduced to using the TV for my stimulus.

The images I saw were aerial shots, some looking straight down, others were slightly oblique views. I was fascinated by the sunlight on the ice, the brightness of it and its clarity. The crevasses were deep and in heavy shadow which were of the deepest blue, almost a pure cobalt. The whole surface was shot through with black and grey cracks like a web of inky lines that contrasted with the brilliance of the ice. It was a scene of total abstraction, and yet completely natural. I could see these images forming the basis of a project of my own.

Vatnajokull I. The first drawing I made from the TV images .

The first pieces I made were relatively realistic drawings from the photos. I used a B pencil and added pastel pencils for colour. I’m comfortable with them and drawing media seemed more suitable anyway. Already I was thinking about finished works and what I would use to tackle them; soft pastels seemed the logical choice for me; paint seemed inappropriate for these first forays. Later, after I had explored the subject a little, paint might be a possibility.

I made a few drawings and analysed the subject a little more, making notes on my observations and how they affected me. After further representational pieces I began working on some more purely abstract sketches, simplifying lines, shapes and colours to try and resolve some of the issues of structure and composition that I felt were inherent in the originals.

A page from my sketchbook showing a few of the smaller drawings I made from the original photos.
Vatnajokull V. Once of the first representational drawings I made of the glacier surface.
Abstract thumbnail sketches from Vatnajokull V

I don’t know if I will continue with this series of paintings. I need to think about the work for a while and decide whether it merits being turned into larger finished pieces. Most artists agree there can be no snap decisions made about creative pieces. Plans for works of art, paintings in progress, three-dimensional pieces or whatever, are better viewed with a fresh eye after being hidden or put away for a short time. I’ll look at this material again, perhaps in a week or two and make some decisions then. Watch this space!