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Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Abstracting the Landscape: Workshop with Scott Gellatly

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"Rio Grande" 4x8 Watermedia on Cold-Press Watercolor Paper
(One of the abstractions I came up during the workshop.)

As a long-time, committed plein air painter, I tend to paint what I see.  Sure, I may "abstract" the landscape, as most outdoor painters do, by squinting or making a thumbnail sketch.  Really, though, this isn't abstracting so much as simplifying—rendering the landscape in a few simple shapes and values.  My purpose is to take a three-dimensional view and flatten it so I can transpose it easily to canvas.  The result can, indeed, look pretty abstract.  But then my very next step is to re-install the third dimension and add bits of detail.  In short, to make it look like what I see.

I don't care for abstract painting, per se.  Most of it is just lazy painting.  It looks like decorator art—something you'd see in HGTV's "Property Brothers", whipped up out of masking tape and spray paint.  (Granted, that's often the best the team can do with an exhausted project budget.)  But what if we take the landscape and use it as a jumping-off point for abstraction?  What if we move it beyond reality to a place where the paint and the surface are more important than the scene itself?

Now, this kind of abstract painting I do like.  It takes the real and pushes it—richer color, stronger rhythms—all in an effort to enhance whatever quality of the scene attracted us in the first place.  In the process, the landscape takes a back seat, letting design elements and principles drive the painting, with tools and materials riding shotgun.  The result can excite and engage far more than the actual scene.

It's something I've always wanted to experiment with.  I've tried it on my own, but it was a struggle.  So, I was delighted to see that my long-time artist friend Scott Gellatly was offering an online workshop on this very topic through the Winslow Art Center on Bainbridge Island, WA. Over three weeks, he explained the process and gave us homework.  Playing with a variety of watermedia—watercolor, casein and gouache—plus a variety of tools and surfaces, I based my experiments on plein air sketches.  

I've included in this post some of my favorite results from my week.  Some are more abstract than others; in most cases, you might have a fair idea of what they represent.  All of them are 8x10 or smaller.

Am I satisfied with them?  Well, I had enormous amounts of fun, but I still struggled.  For me, having painted realism all these years, pushing the real into abstraction is hard work.  It's so easy to fall back on old ways, adding atmospheric perspective and details.  Fortunately, there is no recognized, absolute degree of abstraction in this game; the road between photorealism and the non-objective allows for many stops along the way.

One thought:  Can I take this approach into the field with me?  Can I push the abstraction while standing in front of my subject?  Often, just painting the subject in a representational manner is hard enough.  Adding the complexity of interpreting it in this new way might break me—or will it make me a stronger painter?  It will certainly give me new eyes.

I expect Scott will teach this workshop again.  I highly recommend it, and you can keep in touch with the Winslow Art Center's offerings here.