Abstracted Painting Step by Step Demonstration: Heat 1

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Abstracted Painting ‘Heat’ Step 1: Blocking in the Base Color

Step by Step Abstract Art: Heat 1
Image: © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc

This painting isn't a pure abstract, but rather an abstraction created from a 'real' landscape. It was done in acrylic using the following colors: titanium buff, titanium white, cadmium scarlet, cadmium orange, Mars orange (a mixture of PY42 and PR101), and Turner’s yellow (a lovely ‘dirty’ yellow from Liquitex, made from arylide yellow PY3 and yellow oxide PY42). It’s painted on canvas, size 250x650mm (about 10x26 inches). I bought a few of these unusually proportioned canvases when I saw them in my local art-supply shop because the shape appealed to me and I thought they’d work well with some kind of tree subject.

I set out knowing it was going to be far more of an abstract painting, with colors that reflected the intense heat and dryness of the area where these grow. I did a few thumbnail sketches with the shape of my canvas in mind, then picked my favorite and got painting. I started by sketching in the elements of the abstract painting with a pencil (you can’t see this very clearly in the photo). Then, using a size 12 filbert brush, I painted the first color in, the Turner’s yellow. Look closely and you’ll see the brush strokes follow or echo the half-circle of the sun as well as the horizontal band at the bottom.

I left the part of the sun I would be painting scarlet and orange white as I would be using these colors straight from the tube for the intense sun and, as they’re both quite opaque colors, they’d just hide any Turner’s yellow anyway.

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Abstracted Painting ‘Heat’ Step 2: Adding Other Colors

Step by Step Abstract Art: Heat 1
Image: © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc

Using cadmium orange and cadmium scarlet, I painted in the circles of the sun. I blended in the edges of the two colours before the paint had dried so the colors run smoothly into each other, rather than there being a sharp edge.

I echoed the curve of the sun with two bands of orange, one pale and one quite strong. The effect isn’t very subtle and you’ll see in Step 3 that I worked on this. You still can see the white of the basic tree shape.

I put some cadmium orange in a horizontal band at the bottom to start defining the land, but it doesn’t make for a pleasing composition. The shape of the land or foreground isn’t dynamic enough and the rectangular block is at odds with the semi-circle of the sun and ‘sky’. (See: Composition Class: Dynamic Lines for more on this.)

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Abstracted Painting ‘Heat’ Step 3: Softening the Colours

Step by Step Abstract Art: Heat 1
Image: © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc

There are two major differences between Step 2 and what you see in the photo here, Step 3. First is that I’ve changed the foreground from a horizontal block to a curved line, more like a hill. The curve is gentle, yet it feels like it’s got an affinity with the sun.

The second is that I’ve blended in the colors of the sky, making the orange echoes of the sun’s shape far more subtle. This was done by adding some more Turner’s yellow in a thin glaze so that the orange would show through. Then adding some more cadmium orange to this before it was dry, blending it with the yellow on the canvas.

Finally I added the titanium white line around the sun and on the top of the hill. I don’t often use pure white in a painting, but as this is an abstraction it felt right. To me it emphasizes the strong heat and bright glare of the midday sun.

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Abstracted Painting ‘Heat’ Step 4: Adding the Tree

Step by Step Abstract Art: Heat 1
Image: © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc

The next thing was to paint in the tree. It’s done using titanium white for the ‘sun side’ and titanium buff for ‘shadow side’. I initially thought the tree would be small and simple, with only a few branches as you see here. But the result if weak, it looks like an afterthought, rather than the dominant focus of the painting.

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Abstracted Painting ‘Heat’ Step 5: Reworking the Tree

Step by Step Abstract Art: Heat 1
Image: © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc

Resisting my “I’m going to muck it all up” fear, I painted out the top of the tree. I reworked the ‘sky’ until it was right again, knowing that I wanted it to be finished before I painted in the tree again. I didn’t want to have to try and paint the ‘sky’ around the finished tree. I wanted the freedom to use a sweeping, uninterrupted brushstroke as I put in the curves in the sky that echo the sun’s curve.

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Abstracted Painting ‘Heat’ Step 6: Close-up of the Tree

Step by Step Abstract Art: Heat 1
Image: © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc

I bet you’re wondering, why has the branches of the tree got orange on it now when I said I used only titanium white and buff on it? Well, it was an attempt to try to give the reworked tree a bit of interest, so that it wouldn’t just be painted in a solid titanium white and titanium buff. The intent was that some of the orange would show through slightly.

After the reworked ‘sky’ had dried (see Step 5), I painted the trunk of the tree taller and added a whole lot of branches, making a proud tree with a lot of presence. I then painted some cadmium scarlet and orange on the branches, and waited for this to dry. I then painted titanium white and titanium buff over the branches; both these are quite opaque paints, so the effect of the underlying orange is subtle, and you have to look closely to see it in the final painting.

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Abstracted Painting ‘Heat’ Step 7: The Final Tree

Step by Step Abstract Art: Heat 1
Image: © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc

I was happy with this, second version of the tree.The fact that the branches go off to the left of the canvas gives you a sense that the whole story of the painting is not encapsulated on the canvas. Your mind fills in the branches to the left where they go off the edge of the canvas. The tree also stretches into the top half of the canvas and almost all the way across the canvas, so it really dominates.

I really liked the tree, but still felt there was something missing. That the painting needed another a third element -- see Composition Class: Number of Elements for why an odd number of elements is better than an even number.

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Abstracted Painting ‘Heat’ Step 8: Adding Another Element

Step by Step Abstract Art: Heat 1
Image: © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc

Having decided that the composition needed another element, I decided that it was going to be another tree, I cut two different-sized trees out of paper. Using cut-outs like this enables you to play around with the composition quickly, to try out various positions for the elements, without constantly painting it in and taking it out (and stressing that you’re quick enough to do this before the paint dries, if you use acrylics like I do) -- see Composition Class: Using Cut-outs.

The photo above shows the smaller of the two cut-out trees, which is far too small. It’s lost in the painting, looking more like an accidental smear of white paint than an element of the composition. The second of the cut-outs was the size of the tree you can see in the finished painting. It’s large enough to be noticed, doesn’t try to dominate or compete with the main tree, rather gives it a sense of scale or proportion to the painting, even though it’s quite abstracted.

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Abstracted Painting ‘Heat’ Step 9: The Finished Painting

Step by Step Abstract Art: Heat 1
Image: © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc

This is the final painting. I’m very pleased with it and have had quite a bit of positive feedback on it. I like the changes of color in the ‘sky’, the final proportions of the trees, the angled line of the ground. Following this I painted several other paintings using the same colors and subject, though in all of those I’ve used the canvas as a landscape.

I also sat down with my sketchbook (for once!) and put down a lot of other potential compositions that could be part of a series. I even found myself doodling potential compositions when I was stuck in a boring meeting rather than my usual flowerpots, spirals, and triangles.

Then I started contemplating what it would look like if I painted the same scene but with blues, greys, and whites, as if by moonlight rather than sunshine. One painting leads to the next, and to the next… As it says in Art and Fear, don’t let “your current goal become your only goal. With individual artworks it means leaving some loose thread, some unresolved issue, to carry forward and explore in the next piece.”