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Abstract Realism

Just over twenty years ago, following decades of sketching and doodling, I decided to get serious about developing my art skills by taking classes, first at the Samuel Fleisher Art Memorial, the 121-year-old community art school in Philadelphia, followed by continuing education courses at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Philadelphia is known for having a longstanding tradition of realism in art. Many of my instructors espoused the concept of “abstract realism” in painting.  I have seen abstract realism defined several ways, such as the use of abstract painting techniques to produce a heightened or distorted variation of a realistic object or view. In my work though, I interpret it as an approach to producing more traditionally realist works through the observation and reproduction of abstract shapes that appear in nature. This is tied directly to chiaroscuro, both in the sense of the dark and light shapes that create mood and define forms, and in the gradations of patches of color which depict texture and further delineate form.  Both concepts are illustrated in my portrait painting Bonnie.

Bonnie, oil on canvas, 24×20″

Reverie, oil on panel, 20×16″

I also consider abstract shapes in a painting’s composition. One of my earliest teachers, R. Scott Wright, used to say that a painting should take the viewer’s eyes on a rollercoaster ride through the overall composition and in the choices of what is emphasized and what is allowed to be pushed to the background. In my figure painting Reverie, the strongest focal point is on the model’s right hand draped over the back of the chair. That hand, which bears the weight of the upper torso, stands out in a number of ways.  The hand emerges from the shadows into the light. The line of both of the model’s legs (and by extension, the two boxes in the foreground), her downward gaze, the sweep of the yellow drapery, and the angle of the chair back all draw the viewer’s eyes to that same spot. The brilliant red highlight (in contrast to the otherwise relatively muted palette) gives it an extra charge. The backdrop and shadows in the background, along with the model’s left arm, act as a foil by providing opposing lines and shapes, but with much less prominence within the composition. 

Harpers Ferry, oil on linen, 16×12″

All of the elements described above are also important in landscape painting, as are some other basic compositional considerations, such as placement of the horizon line, and the proportional balance between light and dark areas or between warm and cool colors. The composition of a plein air painting I did a few years ago in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia consists of a series of interlocking triangular shapes of contrasting temperatures and light levels.

I recently began working on a series of landscape paintings that explores the juncture between realism and abstraction to a greater extent than I have previously. In 2011, on a trip through the American Southwest, I spent a day hiking at the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in New Mexico. The sky that day was totally cloudless and an almost impossibly brilliant blue.

As I looked over the dozens of photographs I took that day, I was struck by the sharp contrast in the patterns formed by the irregularly shaped and blindingly white rock formations against that blue sky. Now, eight years later, I have started working on studies (first in oils, later in gouache) that focus on those abstract shapes.

Kasha-Katuwe no. 3, gouache, 12×16″

As this series progresses, I am seeking to approach a point where realism and pure abstraction meet. As the above example shows, I still have quite a distance to go before I reach that point, but my goal is to strive to concentrate more on the large shapes while retaining a feel for light and atmosphere. These are small scale studies. As I get more adept at stripping these views down to their essentials, I hope to move to larger panels using either oils or acrylics. I believe that this skill will allow me to create stronger, more unified images, even when I paint more traditionally realistic works.

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