Mixed media artist and workshop instructor Ruth Armitage works across watercolor, acrylic and oil mixed with cold wax. Viewers, however, often have trouble telling them apart. Armitage enjoys how the fluidity of watermedia allows her to be spontaneous while oil paint and wax allow her to build up textures and layers. Her work is rich in color and vibrant in narrative and design plays an important part in her paintings.
Could you walk us through your process? (Do you start with a drawing? Loose shapes? Work big to small? Etc.) What are the general steps you take between a blank page and a finished painting? Do different steps of your process have different goals?
I like a lot of variety in my process, so very few things are constant. One thing that does remain constant is working from a specific idea. I work in a series and keep notes of different facets of that idea. Those notes often become the title of the painting.
For example, my current series is based on memories of my farm upbringing. One title I haven’t painted yet is called “Bunkhouse.” It was an outbuilding where farm hands could live during harvest season. That single word calls up imagery and memories enough for at least one painting, possibly 3 or 4!
Once I’ve decided on the title, it leads to the next question, which is how to paint that idea or emotion. My first consideration is generally dominance. Will I push color, texture, shape, line or value? That generally helps me decide how to proceed.
Next, I consider composition and lay out a few thumbnail sketches. Next, I generally dive into the painting process!
How do you create a framework for where you go in abstract painting? In non-representational painting, there are just so many paths you could take at every step. How do you create direction for a piece?
Deciding on a design element dominance helps immensely. I try to stick to that dominance for as long as humanly possible, only adding accents at the very end. For instance, if I am working with color, I choose either a warm or cool dominance. I try to really emphasize that temperature over the whole painting, only allowing myself the accenting cool colors near the very end. The title often helps me redirect if I get lost during the creative process. I can ask myself, ‘does it feel like the bunkhouse?’
Many people tend to think that abstract painting is only fast and pure response. And while that may be part of it, there is a lot of thinking that goes on. Could you talk about how fast or slow you move through your work? Is it important to slow down at some points? What are those points for you? And why is it important for you to slow down? (Or if not, why not?)
I do like to vary my pace. I find it important to step back from my work frequently, to really see the work as a whole, not as small areas or details. The stepping back forces me to slow down and make thoughtful choices. It’s a hard habit for someone like me to cultivate. I tend to become absorbed in the work! I find it easier to do when working at an easel. One thing I’ve started to do is stop when mixing a color or value. It’s a prime opportunity to step back, because I’m not in the middle of applying paint!
You work in several media. Does your process change between watercolor and, for example, acrylic? How do the different media let you explore differently?
Most of my acrylic paintings are watercolors that went awry. Sometimes I’ll begin with a watercolor underpainting with the intention of covering most of it with acrylic or opaque media. I love seeing the difference between opaque and transparent passages. Other than that, my process doesn’t change all that much between any of the media. It’s always a searching journey to a place that feels right.
Where in your process do you think about design? What do you have planned out from a design standpoint before you begin painting and what do you leave for discovery while you’re painting?
I like to think about design in the very beginning. I find my work is most successful when I do. It also helps me feel like I’m getting variety in my work. If my last painting was a cruciform design, I’ll tackle something more organic for the next one. It’s all about keeping myself entertained.
I also find myself thinking in terms of content when choosing a design. If my subject is a building, like a bunkhouse, that would lend itself to a more cruciform design, whereas if I were painting something like wildflowers I might choose a Meandering composition.
I also like to limit my design elements: so “Bunkhouse” might be more of a value painting, while “Trillium” might be more about pattern or color. The painting process always brings plenty of decisions to make, so I never worry about being too tied down. I can always change my mind.
What are the most important elements and principles of design for you in your work? Why? How do you use them? (Please feel free to talk about a particular painting and send that along with the images if that would make this easier.)
Color is the design element I find most attractive. I find it an extreme challenge to make value-oriented paintings! I find color to be the first thing I think about when deciding how to express my subject. I’m also attracted to line, but I wasn’t always. I spent an entire year working at adding line to my work, becoming more comfortable with using line in an expressive way.
Other than dominance, which is my first consideration, I’d say balance is the other principle I use most often. Abstraction can look rather wild or chaotic if you’re not careful. Setting up a pattern that feels balanced (without being symmetrical or static) is a good way to calm that chaos for me, and an interesting challenge. Examples of paintings where I considered this balance idea: Two Sides, Seismic Shift, Beneath the Surface, No Sign of Rain, Undertow.
Color: What do you decide about color before you begin a painting? Do you have a general palette or a color relationship (for example, analogous or complementary) chosen beforehand? How firmly set is that choice?
Color is the most intuitive part of my process. The only thing I generally decide is whether my palette will be dominantly warm or cool. From there I try to give myself complete freedom to explore. If an idea occurs to me, I try it! I try not to worry about whether it is right, wrong, analogous, complementary, etc. If I get into trouble, the logical brain can always kick in with my knowledge of those things.
For someone who wants to learn how to paint abstractly, where do they start? What foundational skills would you suggest they work on that will make the most difference later?
I think the first thing any artist needs is an idea that they are passionate about. Being willing to experiment with different approaches to the same idea can also be very helpful. Abstraction is such a wide spectrum, from slightly abstracted to non-objective. I like to think of it as leaving out some of all of the realistic imagery, or abbreviating the subject. If you leave out or change the shape, for instance, and only paint the colors of a flower.
Artists can try to be willing to let the paint be the reality. Letting go of trying to reproduce what one sees is crucial. Abstraction is more about the artist’s choices than about the subject. What attracts me to abstraction is when I sense the artist’s search, but feel that they’ve arrived at a conclusion. That’s a difficult place to find. Being comfortable with the search, with not knowing, is the biggest hurdle to learning to paint abstractly.
A slightly different question: What were you focusing on that helped you make the jump from an intermediate painter to an advanced painter?
Sometimes I still feel intermediate! Finding a series that obsessed me made all the difference for me. When I switched to painting something deeply personal, my commitment to my idea took off. I was more willing to work on the paintings obsessively, trying many times to get it to feel right, starting over many times, honing my sense of color, shape, design, etc. Focusing on the content of the work, rather than the method, still helps get me back on track.
In life, there is always a lot going on and even as a professional painter you still have to make the choice to go paint. Before you were full time, how did you get in the habit of showing up? How did you shape a life where painting took priority?
I used resistance to my advantage. I am a very good procrastinator. Right now, I should be painting. But, I’m procrastinating by writing answers to this interview. When I should be doing household stuff, I’ll paint.
I also like to use my calendar as an organizing tool, giving myself days (like today) with nothing on the calendar so that I feel like I can spend all day in the studio. (Even if that doesn’t happen!) Having mental space is so important. I try not to even say the ‘time crunch’ things. If I FEEL like I have time, I generally get things done. Just like this interview. I didn’t have pressure to finish until next week, so I sat down and did it this morning. If you’d said you wanted it today, I would have procrastinated, haha!
Early on, if I spent time in the studio, I wrote it down. It was nice to see those hours tallied up at the end of the month. I also set short term goals of how much painting I want to get done. I have a good art buddy and we check in with each other regularly to make sure we are getting work done toward our goals. If not, we give each other a figurative ‘kick in the butt.’ If the other person offers excuses we ‘play our violin’ for each other and then ‘kick in the butt.’ Hard love. Haha :) It also helps to have a very supportive spouse.
One thing that folks don’t often think about is that life stuff does take a lot of time. But family, friends, travel, gardening, all enrich our lives and provide great fodder for our artwork. When I’m not in the studio, I’m still collecting ideas. That’s the beauty of being a creative.
If you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it. I truly enjoy painting, so it gets done! It’s one of my guilty pleasures.
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