Artist Debora Stewart worked realistically most of her life but then she became frustrated and stuck in her art. She realized that much of the work she was attracted to was contemporary, abstract work. And so began her abstract journey. Stewart is a painter and teacher. We carry three of her excellent workshops in the shop and you can learn from her directly with her workshops around the country.
For a large portion of your career, you painted realistically. How (and why) did you make the change into abstraction? What does abstraction give you that painting more realistically didn’t? What advice would you give to artists who think they need a change but are fearful of it?
I began to experiment with abstraction after a long period of feeling stuck and unsatisfied. I was tired of reproducing photographs and wanted something more but wasn’t sure what it was.
Abstraction had always appealed to me and was usually the first place I went in a museum or gallery. I felt the artist was tapping into a deeper meaning. I wanted something that had more meaning and was personal. I wanted a way to express the inexpressible.
I also had studied some art therapy and had used it with adolescents in counseling. I enjoyed expressing emotions through mark making and color.
I began to experiment with abstraction my own. At first, I began by cutting up photographs and drawing small sections. Later I introduced color with pastels. Using small sections help me to find the abstract in the real. It helped me to see shapes, value and design. I progressed onto working intuitively by reacting to marks and colors on paper and canvas.
I believe that working abstractly has helped me to find that deeper expression. My work is a more personal statement now. Abstraction is not for everyone. I think you have to jump into it and experiment. I have found it very freeing and I seldom feel stuck.
I tell artists in my workshops to set aside a day a week to experiment only and see what happens. It is a different process than working realistically. To work abstractly you begin with a general plan but allow it to morph and develop as you react to what is in front of you. Intuition develops with more experience.
Why do you think it’s important for abstract artists, especially beginners, to start with a direction in mind for their painting? What do you think they should have decided before they begin their main painting? Why?
I usually have workshop artists begin by making small thumbnail sketches based on sections of photographs and drawings. These thumbnails take the place of a photograph. They give the artist a frame of reference or road map to begin a work.
I think it is good to balance having a general plan and working intuitively. Abstraction is more than marks or splashes on paper. I think it is good to decide on a color scheme for a work before you begin so you are not throwing every color into it. I also think it is good to have a general compositional format that you develop through thumbnails. These thumbnail sketches will also help an artist find value and to simplify their composition.
You have developed a very specific process for working. Why is it important for artists to find a process they can repeat each time they work through a painting? What has that given you and your work?
My current process developed over a period of time and through a lot of experimentation. I was looking for what worked for me. I would try a technique and ask myself if it felt right. Did I enjoy it? My process came about with a lot of small changes and adjustments over time. What works for me may not work for someone else.
I start with a transparent underpainting, make marks on it with charcoal or graphite, cover it with ground and finish with soft pastel. I try to keep a similar process with acrylic painting.
A process gives a start to the work, allows experimentation and movement within it, and brings work together in a series or between different mediums. It also gives consistency and depth instead of going every which way. In the beginning you may try many different techniques to get to the point where you identify your own style of working.
How does working abstractly help you loosen up and become more expressive?
I always loved gesture drawing when I drew figures. I often bring gesture into my abstracts. I do work quickly but it is usually after a period of deliberation, creating thumbnail sketches and small color studies. I’ve done a lot of preliminary work before tackling a larger piece. I react to each mark and color and let the work tell me where to go. I work intuitively but I also take time to step back and evaluate my work. I’m continually questioning myself about what to do next, is it overworked, what does it need, does it have enough contrast, is it too busy, etc.
Working abstractly has also helped me in returning to more realistic subjects in a different way. I did not draw a flower for twenty years. After working abstractly, I was able to express this subject in a different way. Flowers have once again become a familiar theme for me.
You recommend drawing from life. Why is drawing from life important? What benefit does it give an artist? How does it help even if you plan to work from photographs?
Drawing is a basic foundation and many ideas spring from the act of drawing. I find it is a direct expression of what I see expressed on paper. It also slows me down and is a meditative experience. If I want to create an abstract floral or garden it is important for me to draw it first instead of relying on a photo. A photo has no real energy in it. I find drawing brings life to a subject. Drawing also helps to simplify a subject. Drawing also helps you find your natural mark, which is so important in pastel and paint.
What are you looking for in a good reference photo? How do you use your reference photos so that you can get the most out of them?
I like to use black and white photos as a reference. I do not use a photo exactly as it is. I pick and choose different elements from a photo if I use one. I may use the same photo multiple times but move elements around within a composition. I also combine drawings I have done from life with drawings from a photo.
Besides gesture drawings, I use blind contour drawings. When using a photo I use a blind contour drawing technique. In workshops I often give artists the same black and white photo and have them search for small sections. I have them create thumbnails from those sections and use these as the beginnings of abstract pastels or paintings. A photo should never be copied as is. It should only be used as a jumping off point.
Should an abstract artist keep a sketchbook? What for? Or is the sketchbook only a tool for realistic artists?
I keep many sketchbooks. A sketchbook is an idea generation tool for me. I also use it to journal and develop goals for my work. I sketch ideas for paintings, color combinations, compositions, a series of works and possible combination of techniques. I consider it thinking on paper and it is part of my planning. I may use some of my simple sketchbook compositions to begin a new work. It helps me visualize. Visualizing a work or a series of works is something I often do. I have a vague idea of what I want a painting to look like and I try to record this in my sketchbook.
Color can be an overwhelming topic for artists. Where do you suggest students begin in their color studies? Why is it important to understand color wheels and color relationships? It can be hard at first to understand why having a color wheel nearby is invaluable.
Color was and is very challenging. I felt overwhelmed when it came to color. I have been through many different transitions with color. I’m much more comfortable with it now but only through a lot of trial and error.
I realized a few years ago that my colors were all too bright and I was not using any neutrals. I wasn’t sure how to incorporate neutrals into my abstracts or what neutrals to even use. I had sets of browns and grays that I never used.
I decided to set a goal for myself to learn more about neutrals and did that by mixing paint. I took tempera paints in complimentary colors and mixed them together in varying degrees to find grays and browns. This helped me to see what type of neutral I would get if I mixed blue and orange together. I took these test paintings to my pastel box to look for similar colors. Then I was able to incorporate these neutrals into my pastel work. I find that mixing colors with paint helps me in pastel works. One medium influences the other.
I use a color wheel to help me simplify my color choices and also look for that unexpected color I may have overlooked. Sometimes one pop of pure unexpected color is all it takes to bring a work to conclusion.
I usually do small color studies in pastel and/or paint before starting larger works. I tend to focus on complimentary colors and choose a few neutrals that will go with these colors. The small color studies help me to simplify my color choices.
If working on a pastel, I lay my colors out in order of value. I choose light, medium and dark pastels in complimentary colors. Then I choose the neutrals. This prevents me from picking up too many different pastels for a work.
Simple is best in abstraction. I continually study color. I take time to practice mixing paints to create color wheels. Recently I did some experimentation with the Zorn color theory. I did this with paint and realized how many different colors I could mix with just a few basic tubes of paint. I learn a lot in this way and it helps me in both mediums.
Along those same lines, design. How did you you take on studying design? How long did it take you to feel fluent in that particular language? What can beginners do to start tackling such a complex concept?
Early in college a professor of drawing told me I had an innate sense of composition. This is not something I spend a lot of time thinking about. I would imagine I do have some personal guidelines that I use which have also developed over time. Keep it simple is one. I like to have a balance of open, quiet space and more active areas of mark making. I also move the main element around to different quadrants of a composition. I usually never put something right in the middle of a square or rectangle. I usually use an asymmetrical composition.
I think about things like placement, differing sizes of shapes, something moving off the surface, value and other elements of art. I would advise a beginner to get some books on abstraction technique to study and try different compositions. I also advise beginners to look at a lot of art and ask themselves what they think makes an impact on them and why.
There is an idea that abstraction is a subject matter where you only use your right brain and you work fast. That you don’t have to do the thinking involved when working with other subject matter. Is the left brain important for abstraction? Is slowing down? Why?
Ideally working abstractly involves the right and left brain. It is a balancing act between having a plan and working intuitively. I find I work more intuitively if I work quickly. When I slow down I begin to think more and that can hinder expressiveness.
The left brain is used in the beginning stages for me. I do a lot of preparation and planning in my sketchbook where I come up with ideas for compositions, colors and series of works. I also prepare several color studies where I work out color relationships in pastel and paint. I do a lot of research by viewing the work of other artists. This helps me get a sense of what they are doing that is successful and how I might incorporate some of these ideas into my own work. I also spend some time exploring new ideas through structured exercises. I rarely just get out a piece of paper or canvas and just go for it. I’ve done some preparation and I continue with a series to see where it leads. Much of abstraction is paying attention to what makes an impact on me at the moment and in the environment.
The left brain is also used in evaluating the progress and completion of a work. This happens by continually asking questions, evaluating and concluding a work.
To summarize, preparation and conclusion involves the left brain. When I am working I want to avoid thinking too much, respond to the surface and be spontaneous with my marks. In order to do this effectively a lot of planning takes place before even beginning. When I am finished I evaluate what I did that I think is successful, not successful and how to proceed onto the next one.
It is all a beautiful journey and there is always so much to learn. I hope that I continue to explore and grow.
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