"Teaching" abstract painting, intro to acrylic painting. / by william downey

How do you teach abstract, or "non-objective" painting? I've taught an intro to Acrylic course at the University of Calgary, and since it was to be an overview of the medium, I thought I'd include abstract painting in the outline.  I also happen to be a trained figurative artist with life drawing and paintings skills acquired, among other places, at the Angel Academy in Toronto -under Fernando Freitas, now the head instructor at the Academy of Realist Art, also in Toronto.  (Just an aside, I know of no better drawing instructor anywhere in the world than Fernando Freitas)

I know that my work, when it works, is produced in a profound flow state, which, as far as I'm concerned is indistinguishable from meditation.  I'll save my thoughts and feelings about painting and meditation for a future post, but to be clear, I'm talking about mental silence, not mindfulness, not visualization, or breathing exercises, but silence.  All of my students were adults (obviously) and some of them were middle aged or older, so to get people to paint without thinking was not going to be easy.  Here is the approach I took:

This first priority was to get my students detached about their results.  Kids do this automatically, especially little kids.  Like making a sand castle and then knocking it over, if you stay in the present, both phases of the project are fun.  So how to make a sand castle you are willing squash at any moment?  Or a painting you are willing to drastically change or even paint over without flinching or second guessing yourself?  For starters, I did a demo in which I started half a dozen small abstracts.  By starting many at one time and starting them quickly, I was able to show how it looks when you just throw caution to the wind, dig in, and start playing.  I also tried to give some clues about different ways you can make shapes with brushes.  If you think of brush calligraphy, for example the shape of the Han characters in Chinese written language, the shapes are based on the shape the brush makes striking the paper. The brush size and shape generates the imagery. You can also think of it the way Western calligraphy like italic or gothic hands reflect the square edge of a calligraphy pen nib.  One of the best way to make organic and dynamic shapes with paint is to take this same approach: let the brush make the sorts of shapes and marks it wants to make.  This works especially well if you carefully attend to how you load and reload the brush-just as you would be careful to load the ink carefully to draw Chinese characters: don't dip the brush to far in the ink, draw the brush against the inside rim of the ink bottle to remove the excess, etc.

Hang in there people, I'm going somewhere with all this!

Back to my demos and how I tried to model staying detached about the results: So far we were watching me start a bunch of paintings. By emphasizing how the brush can dictate the shapes we make, I'm already demonstrating how we can paint by feel, (and I mean physical feeling), rather than just by seeing. In fact, you can't see the whole shape your brush is making until you lift it.  The beauty of painting by feel is that you don't react on a mental level to what you can't entirely even see.  I go on to demonstrate that once I load my brush and leave it poised for the first stroke, I can actually look away, relying only on my peripheral vision to make sure I'm in the ballpark and not painting the table or the person beside me. (we are working flat because water is involved enough to make working upright on an easel impractical).  In fact, I'm going to force my students to do the same thing.

Now to further release the students from attachment or anxiety about the results of a particular painting, I'm having student take turns working on the same painting.  To begin with, I distribute blank canvases, one canvas for two students. I explain that we will be working in rotation, so each pair of students will start a painting, then move on to another painting for the next step. The initial marks are important, because once some large strokes are down, the confusion about what to paint is diminished, and the students can start reacting to something that is already there-the process is begun, a big hurdle. The students are required to look away after the brush is poised, and they have to rely on peripheral sight alone. They are allowed to make two or three marks using their biggest brush. We have already mixed some colours, and I've already given the students some strategies for achieving beauty and impact including a primer on transparent mediums, transparent vs. opaque colours, use of water, etc.  We have already prepared our paints with enough water so the consistency is almost as fluid as ink.  When the students rotate away from their first painting, they are now allowed to look directly at what they are doing so they can respond in real time to the imagery their brush stokes are generating.  Even though they are now looking at what they are doing, I'm still encouraging them to maintain the "no mind" state of a calligrapher, like a third party observer.  Already, the paintings belong to everyone and no one, no concrete way to evaluate or mark the results.

I'm going to leave you all to absorb that for now, the next post will try to address how my favourite way to generate "realistic" abstract patterns and images is through iteration, for now I've probably confused everyone enough!