Interview with Abstract Artist Karen Knutson
Like many artists, Karen Knutson started painted representational watercolor before realizing she needed a change. She made the jump to abstraction and never looked back. Today her focus is less about reality and more about strong design and color. Knutson is a signature member of the Transparent Watercolor Society and teaches nationally.
You transitioned from representational watercolors to more abstracted mixed media. How did you decide to make that switch? Why was it important to you as an artist? I imagine that kind of large change can feel very scary.
About 20 years ago, I was still participating in art fairs, and I began doing semi-abstract paintings where one could see through the objects. “Before the Wine” is an example of that type of painting.
I remember my husband being skeptical about the change, worrying that I would eliminate both traditional and abstract audiences. But I told him, “Maybe it will be exactly the opposite; that the traditional clients will be excited by the change, because they can see something recognizable in it.”
It worked! My sales went up and the change was well received. Then after I quit doing art fairs, I hardly ever would do traditional work. I get really excited at the challenge of abstracts. I never know exactly how they will turn out and that mystery excites me. I used to belong to a networking group and I remember announcing, “I don’t care about sales anymore. I just want to paint what is in my heart!” The next person was a stockbroker who said that she felt exactly the opposite, and we all had a good laugh.
I still think, I’m the happiest of them all, doing what I LOVE! My husband made a good living, so I have to admit that relieved a lot of stress on my choices about my art. But I truly believe that I sell more when I paint from my soul.
You mention that you don’t want your painting to look like the subject, you want them to be unique. What are the challenges for artists as they move away from representational paintings? How does what you need to think about while working in your piece change as you rely less on the subject matter itself to tell the story?
Design is my number one consideration. So I almost always begin every painting with a value sketch, featuring only two values, light and medium. (I add the dark only when the painting is three quarters completed).
At the beginning, I ask myself what emotion I want to portray. I use bright colors for happiness and dull colors for somberness. With my acrylic paintings, I put on paint, then I remove part of the layers using rubbing alcohol. As I do this, lots of times, an image will evolve. Then I’m off and running!
Many times, I add something recognizable, but I still try to keep lots of mystery in the artwork so that the audience can also get involved in the story. One of the challenges as I work, is when I really LIKE a certain portion of the painting. That’s a real problem because I constantly go around that spot to protect it. Then, inevitably I still need to paint over that portion to make the whole painting work.
I think the main thing artists who want to move to abstraction need to remember is to develop their design skills, and then they are three quarters of the way there! I used to be attracted to paintings for their colors, but now, it’s all about DESIGN.
Could you walk us through your process? Do you start with studies? Sketches? How much planning do you do before you jump into a painting? If you do have a prepainting process, what are you trying to solve at each stage of it?
I have umpteen sketchbooks filled with two-value sketches. I page through them and see which one hits me on that particular day. Then I cover the whole paper with an acrylic underpainting that usually is the opposite color from what I’d like to have at the end. The reason for this is that I sprinkle water drops on each layer and expose some of the color that is underneath.
At this point, I refer to my value study and create a “light pathway” using rubbing alcohol. This light pathway will ultimately lead the viewer’s eye through the painting. I build up the mid-tones, being careful to preserve a little bit of each layer, so that my painting will have depth. I’m constantly referring to my value sketch, but I’m also very open to whatever happens on the paper that may be better than my original plan. I try to be open to change. :) My husband would disagree with that general statement. In real life, I don’t like change, but in my paintings, it’s my time to be wild and carefree! When I’m comfortable with the design, I punch up the center of interest by adding the darkest values and some “wow” colors that command attention.
Where in your process do you really consider design? How much of the design to you have figured out when you start the painting? What are you thinking through when you’re considering the design of a piece?
I think about design from the very beginning and try to have one of the values connected or linked. I also try to limit the number of shapes in my paintings, which is NOT easy for me. I love little tiny shapes, so I have to keep grouping these busy shapes into one big shape, if possible. I learned good design skills from my mentor, John Salminen, and he taught me that one of the values needs to be linked.
We think of design in terms of abstracts, but how do you bring design into your non abstract work? There is such a sense of design in all of your pieces. How has your abstract work influenced your non abstract work and vice versa?
It doesn’t matter whether I’m painting traditional or abstract. I still have the rule that one value has to be linked. Most of the time, it is the light value that is linked in my paintings. I have an exercise where I don’t lift my pencil when drawing a sketch and then the shape is linked to at least 3 sides of the paper.
Abstracts can feel overwhelming because they rely so heavily on design. How did you strengthen your design sense? How do beginning painters get better at design?
Remember 3 words: Repetition, Variation, and Dominance.
When I draw my two-value sketch, I’m constantly trying to repeat things, but vary them. For instance, if I have a vertical thin path, I will repeat that thin shape but make it a horizontal. (That’s variation.) If I have a smile shape, I will make a curve somewhere else, but make it in a frown shape. Then when I’m done with my two-value sketch, I ask myself, is there domination? I check for dominant values, curved lines, angular lines, soft edges, hard edges, texture, etc. Sometimes, I also do color studies before starting the actual painting. Then I make sure that it is a cool or warm painting. One of those needs to dominate. I find that I get into less trouble when I use a limited color palette of no more than four colors.
I feel there is too much to remember with all the principles and elements of design. So, I concentrate on just those three: Repetition, Variation, and Dominance. I turn my painting upside down to check for balance, and to see if I have a center of interest. When I am completed with a painting and not satisfied, I check those 3 words and it’s always an easy answer of how to make the painting better.
How do you warm up for abstracts? You mention Little Abbeys on your blog. Could you explain what they are (how you do them)? Any other warm ups you use? Why are warm ups important to your process?
Little Abbeys are small abstracts that start with a dry brush method and then collage is added to enhance the colors. Layers of watercolor are added to “knit” the collage into the painting. They take about one hour to do and, many times, I like the results so well that I use them as my color study for a larger painting.
I also have a watercolor color study warm up where I limit myself to only 3 colors. I make 3 shapes on the paper and color each of them a different color. Then I use a glazing process to create many beautiful grays and new color discoveries.
Sometimes, I use only collage to produce a small 5” x 7” study. I use a glue stick, torn up magazines and actually do them on airplanes. They are very fun to do.
If I haven’t painted for more than a week, I find warm-ups less intimidating than a big white sheet of watercolor paper. I don’t do much painting in December because I love Christmas decorating, baking cookies, parties, etc. It’s the only time all year that I give myself a break from painting. In January, it’s actually scary to face that white paper, so small paintings are less intimidating. They also get me back into the rhythm of remembering good design!
Similarly, how are studies important to your work? What kind of studies do you do and how do they strengthen your work and your understanding of art? So many students want to skip studies and go straight to the main painting. What are artists missing by skipping studies?
I once did 30 minute studies, using Tombow markers, for one complete year! Yes, every single day! (except for one day that I forgot. I’ve got a great story about that!) I tell my students that if they do this, it will be better than any workshop they will ever take! I learned so much while doing this!
The reason I limited them to 30 minutes was that I wanted to limit the number of shapes and get to the heart of the painting in as short a time as possible. After the first 30 days, it was very evident that I had made a breakthrough and that my studies were getting better and better! These markers work great for this because they work like watercolor and dry quickly.
I now have a process I call “Wire Drawing.” I call it that because the completed drawing resembles a wire sculpture. It’s a free way to draw, kind of like contour drawing, but there are 5 or 6 steps that can’t be explained unless you actually SEE them. It’s the best thing I’ve ever learned to do and I now see wire drawings creeping into all of my paintings! I learned the first few steps of this process from my friend, Mary Beth Downs. I added several steps to what she initially taught me. It was a life changer.
You mention using light pathways in your paintings. Could you talk about what they are and how you use them in your work? What do they give a painting that it wouldn’t have otherwise?
Light Pathways are a continuous light pattern that leads the viewer’s eyes through a painting as I explained in #6. I draw a cruciform design, sketch in the corners and what remains is a light pathway. There are many tricks to make light pathways more interesting. Mainly, it still goes back to repetition, variation, and dominance. They provide the viewer a “road map” to navigate through my paintings. Landscape painters usually have a mid-tone pathway that does the same thing. Linked pathways provide a visual pattern for eyes to follow.
Drawing people can be scary. You have a few workshops that use the figure. What is it about the figure that makes it seem so daunting? How do you suggest approaching the figure?
I just keep the figures very basic. It’s more about the outline of the shape. Most of the time, my people don’t have facial details and just have shadows that show where the sun is hitting their cheekbones and nose.
For studying facial shadows, I love Jan Kunz’ book, Painting Watercolor Portraits that Glow. I like that the faces are simple so that viewers can think that it looks like someone they know. My paintings are always more about the background design than the actual figure. I love to run the design right through the figure so that the “light pathway” leads the viewer’s eye through the painting.