This abstract watercolour class was the most challenging of the classes in the beginner workshop. These are my reflections on the process, illustrated with some pieces I made using the two approaches.
Unplanned freeform: a clumsier blot
The free form process reminded me of Alexander Cozens’ ‘blot technique’ – he was a 18th century watercolour teacher and an important precursor to Romantic landscape painting. Observing we tend to interpret random organic marks as representational, Cozens asked his students to make semi-accidental blots and use those to compose imaginary landscapes. In her demonstration too, we see Marie-Noëlle notice her organic shape looks like a mushroom - the abstract becomes more figurative.
For the free form approach, I made an unplanned piece - Nr 1. I experimented with flow and edges, as that was so mesmerising in the demonstration. When I looked at my entire piece however, I saw it had a figurative subject. It looks to me like the corpse of an animal. It is so disturbing and tense, I think, because time and space are contradictory in it. The animal seems to have died in the immediate present – vivid red pools from its mouth – but at same time, the body, blue-grey, flat, is already decayed. The suspended drips evoke an uncanny dimension, while the ochre swirls – guts or tracks in sand perhaps – are grounded.
This neo-expressionist nightmare is not what I had in mind. I can barely look at it.
Nr 1: Unplanned freeform
It put me off working with organic shapes for a while – as they have so much figurative suggestibility. I felt I had little agency on the mood of an abstract piece.
The challenge is to find ways of having agency on the mood of a piece; and to create abstract work with organic forms that have less compulsion to close off into a figurative subject.
Later: I watched the lessons again. I made a second unplanned free form piece Nr 2. I followed the suggestion to mix and prepare the entire colour palette before painting. I set out with botanical hues, and softer, pillowy shapes. I felt I had more agency on mood through deciding colour palette beforehand. The end piece did seem derivative of Marie-Noëlle’s work – organic shapes with tendril leaf details, as well as the use of white – but that may be a good thing, though. It feels more open.
Nr. 2 Freeform
Planned process: composition
Composition – the dynamic of the elements in the space – I also struggled with: so, so very difficult with abstracts. I can see why thumbnail sketches could be useful for composition. As a beginner, however, I simply could not visualise how to transform a graphite abstract sketch into a dynamic, nuanced watercolour. I lack the experience even to anticipate the effects I may want.
I followed the suggestion of setting up a thumbnail series – A7ish size pieces - but decided to experiment with brush strokes in creating abstract composition. Among the clumsy messes, there were a few that were interesting and worth elaborating on.
Nr 3 has a diffuse atmosphere - textures as dynamic elements in the composition:
Nr 4 was made with watercolour ink: a red dry brush stroke in a black cloudy proscenium arch. I like the composition:
Nr 5 uses much the same colour palette as Nr 2 unplanned:
As these compositions are brush stroke dependent, all of these are difficult to scale up in larger work. I did more experiments using dry brush strokes and layers on larger size paper. Nr 6 is an example:
It is just décor really, reminiscent of 1950s ballet theatre sets – maybe because of the ochre and teal palette. The experiments are ongoing – no completed piece yet. It’s as much about becoming assured with the medium.
Although challenging, I learnt so much from this class. What I’d like for my watercolour pieces one day is to be playful, expressive, and liveable with. I feel that the class has given me more agency in creating pieces, and inspired directions in which I could develop my work.