Abstract Landscape Painting: Developing an Idea

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Step 1: Seeing the Potential

Abstract Landscape Painting

I regularly get asked where I get the idea for an abstracted landscape painting from. It’s hard to explain, because it comes from the way I see a landscape; not simply as trees and hills, but shapes and colour. I reduce the detail down in my mind’s eye to basic forms. This series of photos will show you visually what I mean, how one idea leads to another, and show you the potential for an abstract in an ‘ordinary’ landscape.

The photo here is of a piece of the landscape somewhere on a backroad in southwestern Scotland, between Dumfries and Penpont. I was driving along on my way to find the cairn that the landscape artist Andy Goldsworthy has made for his home town; it was a cold, wet day despite it being the middle of summer. The area is full of intense green, rolling hills covered in dark lines of dry-stone walls, white dots of sheep, and occasional splashes of brilliant pink foxgloves.

So what is it about this particular bit of hill among all the other bits that caught my eye so strongly I stopped to take a photo? It’s the lines: the dark brown narrow ones, echoed by the wider green, and then the yellows. It’s the curve of the hill against the skyline. Simple, repeated shapes with a limited palette of natural, earthy colours.

Next page: Develop the Potential

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Step 2: Developing the Idea

Abstract Landscape Painting

The photo I took is just a starting point; it’s a reference snapshot, not something I’m going to recreate slavishly on canvas. For a start, the skyline divides the photo in half -- a basic composition error. So I played around with a photo program on my computer, cropping the photo is various ways to see which I liked best.

I suspected I would go for an exaggerated landscape format, but did also try square variations. And changing the proportion of sky to land: what would it look like with minimal sky? How little land could there be while still retaining what had attracted me to the landscape in the first place? What did it look like upside down? And sideways? (This comes from just having watch a DVD on the British landscape artist John Virtue, who quotes someone as saying that “A-grade paintings” work whichever way you’ve got them up.)

I found myself wanting to keep the light green towards the bottom right-hand corner, but worrying about having an element that ended smack in the corner of the painting. But as it’s my landscape painting, I can of course just change that bit! So I extended the light-green part in the photo to see if this solved the problem.

Next page: Try Out Ideas

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Step 3: Try Out Ideas

Abstract Landscape Painting

The ‘real’ colours of the landscape are very appealing, but what about others? What about using the intense reds and yellows I’ve been using in my ‘heat’ paintings? Would this be too unrealistic, or would it still maintain a feeling of landscape?

Using the “flood fill” function in the photo manipulation program (which, basically, enables you to click on a colour in the palette, then click on the photo and it changes the area around where you click that’s all the same colour to the new one) I could very quickly create the version of the photo you see here to give me an idea of how it would work.

As you can see, using these colours would really remove the landscape from any recognisable origins as a hilly landscape.

Next page: Following Another Idea

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Step 4: Following Another Idea

Abstract Landscape Painting

The British landscape artist John Virtue works solely in black and white (he uses acrylic white, shellac and black ink on canvas). So I tried a version in just black and white (again using the “flood fill” function, rather than the greyscale conversion which wouldn’t give me the strong contrasts).

Again, this photo manipulation was done very quickly, in a couple of minutes. It’s just to give me a feeling of how the idea might turn out; I’m not trying to create a piece of digital art.

It makes me feel that a black-and-white version could have potential; it conjures up images of snow, which lead to me visualising the sky that intense blue you get on a sunny day after a snowfall, with bits of green sneaking through the white in places. Dark moss on the dry-stone wall which would be abstracted to a dark brown with bits of dark green. Which is now the fourth idea from one photo. I know from experience that I can continue to develop the idea, but what I need to do is to get painting on a canvas and work on these, to get familiar with the subject and shapes, leaving the investigation of the possibilities of taking it a step further for a later date.