The Abstract Struggle...

Do you start a new piece by asking "What will I paint?" or do you ask "Where will I start?"

The answer matters. I believe the 'What will I paint?' artists look for a subject and then set to work mastering the techniques necessary to render that subject in their style of choice. Then there is the second group. This is where the abstract artists live. We aren't looking for a subject. We are looking for a direction to start a journey. A road paved with the methods and techniques to render a feeling. Our joy in creating is not found in mastering the ability to replicate reality, but in using materials to evoke an intangible response. Lovers of abstract art often have a hard time explaining exactly why a particular piece 'speaks' to them. They only know that something about the colors, shapes, textures, movement, energy, or some other component the artist has executed in the work draws them to it. As an abstract artist, I love it when a viewer connects with a piece, but has a hard time figuring out what about it feels special. It's much more interesting to hear someone say "I don't know why, but I just love it!" than hearing them say "It matches my couch." Haha.

This ongoing desire to capture the intangible means abstract artists rarely stop exploring new ideas and new techniques. We are constantly searching for that next 'thing' that will take our work just a little further than it was before. That unknown something that makes a piece just a little better, just a little more different. In the beginning this struggle feels overwhelming, and often manifests itself in self doubt. We feel like nothing is working, and no matter what we try we never get the results we want. This is where a lot of us may give up. We quit. But those that stay the course eventually realize that the struggle isn't a matter of success and failure. It is simply a need to continue the exploration; to keep learning and trying new things. To keep moving forward. When we embrace the fact that we will never be 'done', and there is no end destination, then we can stop feeling lost. Each new piece begins to feel more like an adventure and stops feeling like a hurdle.

Learning to love this process means we can look forward to each new painting as filled with new possibilities. As time goes on we will master certain techniques and commit them to our practice, but for every one we master there are a dozen we abandoned after the first or second try. Much like a cook constantly trying new recipes. The great ones get added to the menu, and the not so great ones are just shrugged off and forgotten. Just because the recipe didn't work out, doesn't mean the cook is a failure. As artists, we need to stop judging our 'new recipes' as a reflection of our artistic merit. We are artists, but not every painting is a great recipe. The joy of being an abstract artist is in the process of creation, and in using new tools, methods, techniques, and materials to develop something that has never existed before.

In addition to giving up on the idea that there is an end destination, as abstract artists we have to let go of the idea that we can make our canvases conform to the ideas we have in our minds. Unlike figurative or representational art, success in abstract art is not the ability to duplicate an image. Giving up this criteria for determining success means that each panel is free to be evaluated, not by whether it matches some preconceived image in our minds, but simply based on if the piece is conveying what we intended. Did that tool or technique add or detract from the intent of the piece? Did the next color help or hurt it? Did the new element benefit the composition or design? Using this method of evaluation, instead of a generic 'does it look how I wanted it to look?', is far more encouraging and constructive.

Ultimately though, the first step is to answer that initial question. Do you start a new piece by asking "What will I paint?" or "Where will I start?" Is your intent to render a replica of what already exists in the world? To perfectly execute a portrait or still life or landscape in a style of your choosing? Do you need to work within well established rules and techniques? Or are you an abstract artist, ready to step into the abyss of your creativity, where there are no rules? Are you driven to interpret the intangible with your materials and techniques? These are two very distinct and different journeys, although both carrying the name 'artist'.