The Abstract Qualities

‘The challenge facing any realist painter in the 21st century is how to depict the world around us with memorable originality. Somehow an artist has to make us see the world anew and discover in it a resonance applicable to our own era and condition.’

– Andrew Lambirth in a review of David Inshaw, The Guardian, 3 October 2015.

It doesn’t matter how good an artist you are, what Lambirth says applies equally to us all. But finding a manner of depiction that would make ‘us see the world anew’ is the really hard part. This where the ‘abstract qualities’ of painting can come in.

walbsBy ‘abstract qualities’ I mean quite simply line, tone, colour, texture, shape, narrative and so on. These qualities are the backbone of any painting for whenever we paint, print or sculpt, we have to use them to describe what we are seeing. It is also those qualities that used in differing proportions make our artworks unique. It is the way they are used that enables us to recognise the work of a particular artist.

If you pushed the use of these abstract qualities to their limits you would end up with an art that was no longer representational but purely abstract. And this is surely where the ‘Abstract Expressionists’ come in. Look at any of them and you can see how they exploit a particular quality at the expense of realism and of the other qualities, Mark Rothko for example, was using colour and tone and reduced shape and texture so that you would look at the colours without being distracted. Jackson Pollock would build up a dense mass of lines to create a textured surface with line and colour.

But moving back from those extremes it can be seen that by accentuating certain of those qualities your work can be more distinctive and also be a more truthful representation of what you see before you and what you want us to see.

Let us take an example. You are travelling around and you come across a stupendous view of a landscape, you want to capture it so that you can make others ‘see the world anew’. But now you must ask what is it about this view that excites you so much? Is it the colours? I am writing this article in October when the colours of the trees have become brilliant reds, yellows oranges and russets. A study exploiting those colours would be far more truthful than one that attempted to capture the lines of the profiles of the trees, the texture of the bark and so on. A focus on the colours could well produce the effect that you want.walbs-2

Perhaps you have just found a view of a Welsh mining village, here there could well be little colour to exploit, but a combination of line and tone with minimal colour could produce an effect that would make other tourists see that same beauty.

I believe that if you attempt to give equal attention to all of the abstract qualities you reduce the general impact. It is a little bit like eating from a box of chocolates. The orange cream or the fudge taste would be absolutely delicious, but if you were to eat four or five one after another the impact of the flavours would lessen possibly to the point of boredom. You might as well pound them all together and sacrifice the individual pleasures of each flavour for a tasteless sugar rush.

To illustrate my point I have taken a photograph of a view of the village of Walberswick in Suffolk and am going to develop it in a series of different ways in which one of the abstract qualities predominates. In the paintings above and below I decided to focus on the colours and shapes and so took only a small section of the total view, simplified the shapes and exaggerated the colours. I have omitted detail so the colours can be seen more clearly.

In the third version on the right the focus on colour can be seen clearly. We are now only a short distance from a completely abstract painting, but at this point the shapes and the colours are clear, which is what I wanted to show in the first place.walbs-3

Fragments from the Forest, Part 6 – The Loss of a Popular Culture

Sacre Coeur

Sacre Coeur

It is hardly surprising that many beliefs and physical objects have not been recorded, when such a large proportion of the population, who lived with these sayings, superstitions and monuments were illiterate. They could not record them themselves and of what interest to others were a few rocks in a field or a curious belief about the efficacy of touching wood. What wasn’t ignored by the educated part of the population was ruthlessly supressed by the Church. So many possibly pagan customs and sculptures were campaigned against by a whole variety of people in the name of the Church and of decency.

It took a change of the attitude and perception of the literate classes for these things to noticed, valued and recorded. By looking at the rocks with a different eye they could see a pattern that could suggest that they were remnants of another culture and not something left over from glacial drift.

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Fragments from the Forest, Part 5 – The Age of Superstition

In The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland, compiled by Steve Roud, touching wood for luck was seen in a 1998  survey as the tenth most common superstition, with 16% of the people surveyed quoting it. Roud goes on to say that this superstition is not nearly as as old as it is supposed to be and can only be traced back to the early nineteenth century, for that was when it was first recorded. But the fact that this was the first time that superstition was recorded in writing does not mean that it did not exist in some oral form before.

It had for example, to have been in existence  for it to be collected in the first place. How long had it been in existence before it was noted, a week, a month, a year, a decade, a century, a millennium? Consider too, that touching wood was a fairly common belief, not confined to one observation, but current all over the UK and apparently the USA as well. It would surely be unthinkable to suppose that from a few limited observations and records that it had spread almost instantaneously over such a large area at the time of collection. What we have to consider here is that the early 19th century was a time when a dramatic change in the attitude of the literate classes occurred for there to appear a serious interest in the culture of the common people. Collectors like Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in Germany collected their folk tales  from friends, neighbours and villagers and published them in German in their Children’s and Household Tales, in 1812. It took a few years for an English version to appear but by now there was a general interest in superstition, folk tales and folk songs throughout the literate classes.

Relying on the written word as a means for dating a saying or belief is fraught with difficulty and could lead to some major errors. For example there was no written evidence that the stone circle in Wiltshire known as Stonehenge existed before the 11th century when it was first recorded, yet we are assured that it’s origins lie some 9000 years earlier. Something similar occurred with the massive stone circle at Avebury, the largest stone circle in Europe, again in Wiltshire, when it was first recorded by the antiquarians John Aubrey and William Stukely in the 17th century, although archeologists assure us that it was constructed around 2600 BC.