It’s often said that artists are like sponges, absorbing visual and conceptual ideas from the world around us, from other artists past and present, from our culture and others (contemporary, historic and pre-historic) and from our own interior landscapes of memories, experiences and emotions.
As sponges absorb, so they also release when squeezed, and the result is a mix of all that has been taken in, then mingled and combined into one unique and individualized substance. This substance is the source of our personal direction, voice, or path. If sufficiently complex, it will be hard to define or explain, or fit into precise categories. Our job as artists is to work with our own blend of influences and references to distill and refine something that is meaningful to us, and that others may appreciate. To do this we not only need ideas and personal direction, but also an understanding of the tools of composition, visual weight, dark/light value, color relationships, form/content issues, line quality and the other basic elements of art.
Abstraction requires every bit as much attention to the visual world and the basic elements of art as representation. If anything, to create abstraction with meaning and depth requires even more “sponginess” on the part of the artist, since it involves more than observing and interpreting the real world, and the field of influences is wide open. The process of distilling, manipulating, combining and ultimately transforming original source material is complex. The results for one artist can be austere minimalism, for another, wild, gestural expression, for another, bits and pieces of the recognizable world, presented in an abstract context. But always, if the work is meaningful to the artist, he or she will have something to say about it and its process. There is evident thought and connection to the work, and a progression of ideas over time—a long-term research project into personal meaning and purpose.
A student said to me recently, “I love rocks. I want to paint surfaces that look like rock.” Well, rocks are a good starting point—but I asked, what about rocks do you love? Their permanence, their strength, their solidness? How could these qualities be expressed? What about bringing opposite concepts into the work for contrast—fragility, movement, a sense of the ephemeral? What is the context for rocks that means the most to you—a cliff, in a building, a cairn, a path, a farm fence, or on the beach? None of these need to be illustrated or explained in the work, but to contemplate them can feed and guide the artist’s vision.
In the workshops I teach, I address issues of personal direction, as do many other teachers and mentors. We know that there is nothing easy or slick about any of this, nor can it be rushed and hurried along (though constant practice does help.) Nor are there recognizable standards for knowing when someone’s artwork is sincere, authentic and personal. This is a very subjective realm. I tend to recognize authentic, individualized work when I see it, but have a harder time pin-pointing what is missing when I do not. Personal voice may be there, but in some timid form, under-expressed in the urge to quickly resolve a painting or the desire to avoid messing things up.
Sometimes I advise my students to let their inner quirkiness show—to bring into their work bits and pieces of whatever it is they find captivating. If we allowed our artwork to be as odd as our random phone conversation doodles, what amazing imagery would be unleashed. I don’t mean that the actual doodles necessarily—but that half-conscious process of drawing things that are specific yet dreamlike.
In high school English class we were taught to be specific in our descriptions and observations, because the things we each pay attention point to our individuality and lead to personal voice. In painting, it is not that the things themselves must be depicted precisely—we’re talking about abstraction here—but to be specific in our intentions, thoughts and connections is important.
A crucial part of finding personal direction is to love and pay respect to the art of others, not just that of contemporaries but art from many cultures and times past. To visit museums, own art books, and take university courses. The more points of reference we have to art history the better. To have specific knowledge and appreciation for various kinds of art in that sponged-up mix of sources and ideas opens many portals. For example, I might notice that a certain color palette of cobalt blue and gold in a painting I’m working on reminds me of the work of the early Italian Renaissance artist Giotto, and I might look in one of the art books in the studio to find a reproduction of his Flight Into Egypt. A few minutes of looking at the color relationships in this painting might give me the idea to add a bit of red or green to my own work. Or, that idea about the colors being similar to Giotto might pass through my mind only fleetingly. But whether the thought passes quickly through, or whether I pull out a reference book to pursue it in more depth, I feel connected to the historic flow of visual ideas. As artists don’t we all owe ourselves that pleasure?