The Cat’s Tail, and Other Abstractions

posted in: Painting | 5

In early childhood we learn to attach words to pictures. In later adulthood we continue to conceive of images through schematic pictographs whether we are photographing, sketching, doodling or painting.  Examining how we begin and advance this process allows me to introduce you to two watercolors by my 3 year old granddaughter, Iris and then, to followthe process through into adult abstraction.

Knowing Iris was coming to visit I purchased glitter pens, a set of watercolors, varieties of paper,  a booklet of stickers, and a collection of colored markers.  While water-coloring Iris proposed a few subjects. They occurred  to her as she painted.  She said she enjoyed mixing colors which she layered in a quasi circle. As she examined her circle she recognized an opportunity for a picture. By adding a wide brownish strip she re-identified her form as a tree.  Feeling newly confident in her tree making skills and wishing to further mix colors she constructed two more tree pictographs (example 1).  Remember her intention to picture followed her initial shape and coloring. The tree did not come first. It came last.  Here is a clear example of looking into the paint and following the paint as recommended by Picasso.

Example 1.  Watercolor tree forms by Iris.

Later she decided to print her name vertically within the image. She began with the first letter and then climbed vertically to make the forms symbolizing her name. She created each letter from the bottom-up.

Example 2 presents Iris’s cat. The Iris again begins with a circular form made from circular strokes then, Iris recognizes an ideogram.  In the case of example 2 she recognized the beginnings of a face in her circle.  All faces whether animal or human begin as circles and have the same components: eyes and mouth.  What differentiates them depends upon the foremost characteristic that Iris perceives for her motif for example, Iris only needed to add ears and whiskers to transform a potential person into a cat.  For Iris, cats and people are the same except that cats begin (like people) as a circle to which later cat-whisker and ear shapes are added. Finally, like  the tree, Iris adds a dark stripe which she calls a tail.  This addition certifies the image as a completed cat!

Example 2.  Watercolor cat by Iris.

I proceed in a manner like Iris.  Except, I begin with a broader menu of schema.  I too like mixing colors. I lay-in a schematic foundation or, I borrow a pre-existing one by over-painting an older image. With example 3 I begin with a photo which I deliberately blurred and a substrate. Example 3 is the older image substrate.

Example 3. Substrate for later abstracted meadow flowers.

Next, I cover the substrate image with varieties of vertical smears which run in counterpoint to the more horizontal marks of the substrate.  I want to show you how I previously experimented with this subject.  Example 4 presents a small incomplete studio demonstration of the subject.  Example 5 presents an alternate exploration of similar subject matter on brushed gold laminated aluminum, 24×24.

Example 4, Quick unfinished studio demonstration of techniques.

Example 5. Related image on brushed gold laminated aluminum.

One of the photos I referred to is example 6. The photo was altered to present a color-boosted  and cropped image. In example 7 I abstracted my meadow flowers by vertically blurring the color shapes. They cling tentatively to any sense of legibility in step 3, example 7.  Further changes are introduced in example 8.

Example  6. The  altered photo.

Example  7. Step 2, blurred image.

Example  8. Step 3, blurred image with a few articulated modifications to improve mental anchorage through greater legibility and edge enhancements.

Examples 9 and 10 present the substrate and its subsequent overlaying image.  The final image also began with vertical blurring and selected deletions  revealing snippets of the substrate.  Like Iris I referred to my foundation schema (leaf, branch and petal forms and, leaf, branch, petal and sky coded colors).  I used other learned art historical principles like overlapping, open-closed forms, and shifting focal edges. Like Iris, I looked at the paint and let it suggest a direction for me.

Example 9. The older image serving as a substrate.

Example 10. Image of Abstracted Dogwoods in their present state.

For the next few weeks I have an exhibition of my paintings at Susan Powell Fine Arts in Madison, Ct at 679 Boston Post Road, 203-318-0616.

Saturday and Sunday June 17 and 18 from 9 am to 4 pm, I am giving a two-day in studio workshop, “Natural Elements: Learn to Paint Nature from Historic and Contemporary Techniques” at the West Hartford Art League.  Call them (Elisabeth McBrien) at 860-231- 8019 to register or visit their website at (go to “school” then to “workshops”  then to “spring 2017 workshops” for a fuller description).

Nicole’s Art Gallery, in Raleigh Durham, NC. will host me for a  3-Day workshop, Monday – Wednesday, June 26-28. My workshop is “Painting with the Masters, Old and New Techniques with David Dunlop.”  Call 919-838-8580 or register online by visiting

5 Responses


    Wonderful and intriguing works of art. What an influence from a granddaughter!

  2. Dorothy Bryant

    This is fascinating especially since I know she is an unencumbered child. When I taught elementary art, I would set up a still life. OMG, what results!! One child painted the top of the table and the electrical chord and outlet in the wall. What a grand Grandpa you are!

  3. Donna Mirabile

    Children’s art is so pure and spontaneous.
    Over the years, my sketchbooks have had young artists, one year old and older, add
    to the pages inside along with names, dates and comments. I treasure these drawings. The latest contributors are my twin grandchildren. Soon, their baby brother will join them.
    Thank you for sharing you granddaughter’s work and “process”.

  4. Nanci Sackett

    I found you on PBS watching Landscapes Through Time. Love your videos and really am enjoying your blogs. Everyone of them gets me thinking and rethinking my own paintings and gives me ideas for new directions and techniques. Thank you! Oh, BTW, I love your work.

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