Abstracting Figures in Landscape

posted in: Blog, Classes, Composition, Painting | 9

Let’s visit Italy in 1610. Caravaggio is alive and painting.  In ten years he will be gone before reaching 40.  While he leaves paintings that define the beginning of the Baroque age he leaves few drawings as evidence of his process. We want to see how he thought but, it’s hard with so few drawings. However,there is a little. We think this example (example 1) is his. Here is a rapid ink drawing showing a plan, a design with some abstracted figures. These are not carefully crafted forms. They are fleeting visual thoughts; thinking with drawing.

Example 1. Caravaggio (attributed drawing) approximately 1620-1620.

We travel 50 years and North to Delft. It’s 1660.  Delft is home to so much creativity at this moment with Vermeer painting and Van Leeuwenhoek experimenting with his microscopes. Jan Van Bisschop is sketching with a pen, graphite and brown inks as he considers how to picture Delft. His figures are loose abstractions, nothing too specific. They are more suggestions, hints rather than carefully developed figures (example 2).

Example 2.  Jan de Bisschop, graphite, pen and inks, a sketch of Schiedam Gate in Delft, 1660.

We return now to Italy but, 50 years later to find Gaspar Diziani sketching with graphite and ink as he works out ideas for his next painting “Flight into Egypt”. This is a popular theme for artists of the time. His sketch is loose as tries out varieties of form in his figures.  This is quick; he is thinking with drawing tools. This is preliminary work, not a precious painting (example 3). He begins with free lines in graphite then reinforces some of them with ink.

Example 3. Gaspar Diziani ink sketch for “Flight into Egypt”, 1720 approximately,

While we’re in Italy we travel to Venice. The city’s scene painters in the mid 1700’s include Canaletto and Guardi among many. Guardi’s life spans the century. He depends upon  free and loose sketching to help him compose his paintings and thoughts. He has developed a stylized pattern for his figures in his more finished drawings and paintings but, in his initial sketches he is freer. These are not for presentation to collectors. These sketches are think pads for him. Here his figures are barely jottings. They are substantially abstract as you see in example 4.

Example 4. Francesco Guardi, rapid ink and wash drawing.

We have followed abstracted figures through drawings up to the 1800. The 19th century gives us landscape paintings that have the expressive freewheeling effects of the earlier centuries’ drawings. The figures are abstract suggestions in the work of artists like Corot or Eugene Boudin.  Boudin will introduce Monet of plein air painting in Honfleur. Boudin’s figures are hinted at. You the viewer bring them to completion (example 5).

Example 5. Eugene Boudin, 1873, Beach scene,

In my own work I incorporate the sketching process into the final painting. You can see how I begin with blurred suggestive abstract areas which allude to figures. Figures emerge from the paint. Some remain thoroughly ambiguous others find more definition.  The more defined figures allow us to extrapolate the blurred areas into becoming figures. We easily project faces and figures into ambiguous territories like dense foliage or, as DaVinci suggested into moldy stone walls or the embers of a fire.

Here is the step by step development of that process. I move from abstraction toward more legibility but, sustain abstract qualities and areas.

Example 6. Step one, the abstract oil sketch “Mist and Rain”, 48×48” oil on Dibond,

Example 7. Step two, evolution of the “Mist and Rain” as more forms and colors are introduced,

Example 8. Step three, development of rhythmic patterns and consolidation of forms.

Example 9. Step four, “Mist and Rain” in its present state;

I hope you can join me in one of my online zoom classes with demonstrations and optional personal critiques.  This week I have openings for my Tuesday morning online, Zoom class at silvermineart.org.  You may call them at 203 966 6668 ext 2 as well.

This Wednesday June 10th I am giving a demonstration/talk on painting water, its translucence, movement, shadow effects and more. This is a two hour program. You can register at this website, daviddunlop.com .

Please visit my new solo exhibition of works “Luminous Adventures” at Susanpowellfineart.com or visit Susan Powell Fine Art, the gallery in Madison, Connecticut.

You may want to check out my new article on how to build a painting in the current Artists Magazine.  My work is also featured on the cover and inside the new issue of American Art Collector magazine.



9 Responses

  1. Nancy Elisabeth Harris

    David, one of your finest lessons. So much information in a short form.
    Thank you, Nancy


      David, I especially enjoyed this blog, particularly the emphasis on thinking while drawing. The final painting is absolutely beautiful! I would love to paint like this. Looking forward to your class.

  2. Verne Thayer

    I love this painting. And the lesson was inspiring to me. My little scratches now don’t seem to be so crazy.

  3. Judith Everson

    I will look forward to reading your articles in the magazines, thank you Judy Everson

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