Journey to Abstraction

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In 18th century India Hans Raj Joshi used traditional watercolor and powdered gold leaf to paint the tiger hunt. Within his red border we find a forest with its camouflaged participants. The space feels compressed and map-like because, we do not see individuated shapes diminishing in size as could have suggested using linear perspective and individually observed trees.  Yet, we still easily read the picture while the repeated forms for trees and other flora offer a visual puzzle and an analogy for the anxious confusion felt hunting for tigers in the forest. (see example 1).

Example 1. Tiger Hunt, 1777, India, Hans Raj Joshi,

When I follow Raj Joshi’s lead of sustaining the repeated regularity of shapes across the picture plane then my result feels more modern, abstract and distant from the realism suggested by the European tradition of linear perspective and individuated shapes.  If I similarly layer my shapes with gestural brushstrokes and qualities of transparency then, the viewer can conclude my image is not a realistic picture but, perhaps something more abstract. Examples 3 and 4 illustrate this.

Before painting this image I began the abstraction process by layering photographs following a similar theme (see example 2).

Example 2. One of the photos I used as a resource,

Example 3. Step one of the painting, “Abstract Surface Matters”,

Example 4. Step two of “Abstract Surface Matters” an oil on brushed silver laminated aluminum, 36×36,

The late 19th century found European artists like Gustav Klimt flattening and repeating shapes. The effort gave a patterned and decorative effect (example 5). Klimt also had seen the use of gold in Persian and Indian paintings as a part of their decorative lighting effects. Furthermore, we can see he was aware of the expressive patterning of Monet in his water paintings. Klimt’s innovations were built upon clear art historical precedents.

Example 5. Gustav Klimt, Landscape.

Other artists continue their explorations using historic models from antique Indian painting to the work of Klimt. Consider this image by contemporary artist Peter Doig. He too found a path to semi-abstraction by referencing similar examples (example 6).

Example 6, Painting by Peter Doig,

In examples 7, 8, and 9   you see how  I appropriated elements from these traditions. My horizon is high in the picture plane like Klimt and, frequently Monet and Indian painting. Like Klimt, my water reflections are multicolored like jewelry floating on a surface. Our own innovations depend upon our familiarity with art history across time and cultures.

Example 7, Vernal Pool Reflections, oil on aluminum, 36×36,

Example 8, Reflecting the Past, oil on Dibond, 24×24,

Example 9, Necklace for a River, oil on Dibond, 36×48,

December 13th is the day to register for my classes for the winter semester (mid January through March) at the Silvermine School of Art.  Come work with me in the studio. Call the Silvermine School of Art at 203 966 6668 ext. 2 to register.   Registration for my week long spring workshop also opens on December 13.

I invite you to join me in an upcoming workshop at Artsplace in Cheshire, Connecticut at 203 272 2787. The Workshop is “Natural Elements: Painting with the Masters, Old and New Techniques” January 6 and 7th, 10 am – 4 pm.

Join me this spring at the Huntsville Museum of Art (Huntsville Alabama) for a Master Workshop there, Natural Elements: Painting with the masters, Old & New Techniques with David Dunlop”.  The workshop is part of the Museum Academy program. Thursday May 3rd – Sunday May 6; 9:00 am to 4:30 pm. Register on line at or call 256 535 4350 ext 215.





  1. Patricia Scanlan

    David: Your painting ‘Vernal Pool’ seems to dance with color and delight. I don’t know how you do it. The debth of the reflections as well as the shimmer on the water is masterful. I continue to be stunned! Have a Merry Christmas.

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