Pathways into Abstraction

posted in: Blog, Classes, Painting | 2

Yesterday I hiked through a salt marsh near me. I was wearing tall rubber boots to allow tromping through the marsh onto muddy flats.  This was a mistake and, an opportunity.  Suddenly one foot, then the other sunk deeply into the mud. As I tried to pull one foot out it added more pressure to the other foot and, I sunk deeper.  Time to relax and problem solve.  Worst case would mean calling the fire department to pull me out.  So, no reason to be alarmed.  To reduce the weight on my feet and redistribute my body weight I sat down in the mud. Next, I used leg muscles and arms to slowly extract each boot. There was a strong wet sucking sound of the mud releasing my boots. I was wet with mud but, able to walk  to freedom. You saw my mistake of overconfidence in my ability to walk on low tide mud flats. But, here was the opportunity: as I lay on the mud flats I saw nature differently. My point of view had shifted down to the surface with the scavenging fiddler crabs.

Looking at familiar realities and seeing them differently is one way abstraction arrived in painting. Turner’s familiarity with sea and sky and, with seeing into patterns generated by loose painting. This process allowed him to create a painting with great ambiguity and few if any nouns (minimal edge information; see example 1).  Painting through evocation versus explanation helped set art on its course toward abstraction. Both Jackson Pollock and Henri Matisse credit Turner with freeing them from representational painting.

Example 1.  J.M.W. Turner, 1840-45, seascape.

Wassily Kandinsky, considered one of the earliest abstract painters recalls seeing Monet’s Haystack  paintings (example 2).  They were not a form of haystack that was familiar to him. He inquired what those shapes represented.   He mused that he had enjoyed the paintings for their color and textures and patterns without knowing what the shapes meant.  This freed him to experiment with shapes without representational content, abstract shapes.

Example 2. Claude Monet, Les Meules de Giverney, (Haystacks) 1891.

Turner reacted to the movement of his paint on a surface and its ability to generate patterns which could be associated with turbulent seas and weather.  The painting process revealed unanticipated possibilities. By refusing to oblige the impulse to explain a picture with representations of nouns Turner had allowed us to see into the paint, to let our own recollections and projections take over. Gombrich calls this the beholder’s share of creation. It occurs when looking at a painting or listening to music or reading a story. We expand the painting’s possibilities just as we personally picture characters in a novel.

I have taken a couple paintings which I was not satisfied with and reacted to them. I used other semi-abstracted imagery as a source and merged them while exploring the accidental patterns of the paint over the old surface. In my first example you see my original work which served as a substrate for the process (example3).  In example 4 you see the first stage of over-painting example 3, the substrate image. In example 5 you see how I explored the paint with references to a few familiar shapes (leaves and vines) which  helped contextualize the image, helped to associate it with water, translucence and reflection.

Example 3. Water Music, step one, original image serving as a substrate for later over-painting.

Example 4. Water Music, step two, the over painting begins.

Example 5. Water Music, step three, the current state of the painting, oil on Dibond, 36×36 inches.

Allow me to provide one more set of examples to illustrate my theme of “Pathways to Abstraction”.  In my first example of “September Pond” (example 6) you see my original image to be over-painted. In example 7 you see my first step in over-painting the image. Here the painting is completely ambiguous without edge information, therefore; without nouns. In example 8 you see the introduction of more textured patterns, some edge information correlating to recognizable organic shapes arranged according principles of the perspective of disappearance.

Example 6.  Step one of “September Pond”, original image to be over-painted.

Example 7. Step two of “September Pond”, initial lay-in of color arrangement.

Example 8 Step three and current state of “September Pond” oil on Dibond, 36×36 inches.

I hope you can join me for my next series of online classes available at in addition to my October 2nd Saturday session on Panoramic Skies and Infinite landscapes. Later in October I also have three Tuesday sessions and/or three Saturday sessions.  Register at

I invite you to join me at the First Coast Cultural Center (formerly the Ponte Vedra Beach Cultural Center) for a three day workshop and/or a one day workshop at the end of October.  These are in-person workshops with demonstrations and personal instruction.  Contact: 904 280 0614 or

Later in mid November I will be offering three one day in-person workshops at Art of the Carolinas sponsored by Jerry’s Artarama.   You can register for classes individually. Contact

These classes are also all listed on the Calendar.


2 Responses

  1. Melanie Ward

    Your marsh adventure was very amusing! Happy you made it out ok!
    I am always amazed when you use an older painting as a substrate for a new one. I especially love the colors and depth of of Water Music step three. Beautiful!

    • David D

      thank you Melanie,
      My latest blog also provides an example of painting over a previous image as well as starting from scratch.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *