A Realist Painter’s Adventures in Abstraction

I’m trying all kinds of new things. I’ve been practicing printmaking for a little over a year now and I’m also starting to play with abstraction in a serious way. By serious, I don’t mean dabbling here and there, toe dipped tentatively in the water. No, I think I may be ready to go all in.

When this thought occurred to me this week, I didn’t feel oppressed or panicked (like I sometimes feel about being a representational painter forever). On the contrary, I felt relieved and liberated. It opens up so many new avenues for me, infinite pathways, ideas, and concepts to play with. I had begun to feel very tired of realism and its confines.

Now, I know there are many artists who do both, Gerhard Richter being one of them. If he can swing back and forth between realism and abstraction, I think I can manage it too, if it feels right for me.

For now, I’ve started a line of inquiry that I think will keep me busy for awhile. I have enough ideas I can officially say this will be a substantive body of work including both small works on paper and larger paintings ….and I am excited about it!

Here is an early preview of the small studies I’ve been working on this week. Each of these studies is about 5 x 5 inches and in watercolor and gouache.


I know these pieces are mine because of the palette, the gestures, the shapes – round shapes – I seem to be drawn to round shapes whether they are marbles, doughnuts, or spherical forms made of feathers or leaves or petals.

IMG_2300 IMG_2301 IMG_2302


I have a friend who suggested I aim to do about a hundred of these and see where it takes me. Even doing nine of them has open up my eyes to the different possibilities of form, color, and metaphor.

I will say this hasn’t been a sudden transition for me. I recently read that the painter Dan McCaw (no relation that I know of) refers to the practice of “sending out scouts.” This means you do a one-off piece every now and then to see what’s ahead, kind of like the wagon trains and cavalries used to do in the Old West. I have been doing very embarrassing abstract paintings for years. I never wanted to show them to anyone for one reason or another. Some felt too personal or worse, they didn’t feel personal at all because they seem to be imitating someone else’s work. Still, in everything I did in those days, there were distant echoes of other themes that would pop back up in my work, both the abstract work and the realistic work.

I’ve learned to be more comfortable with making art as a lifelong process tied very closely to a person’s inner growth and maturity. I’ve also learned that to make abstract work that is true and personal, you have to spend time learning your own inner language. If you make enough work, the language will emerge on its own. I am going to dedicate myself to that now.

How about you? Do you prefer representational work or abstraction or, like me, do you love both?




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