May’s Painting Project: Blocks of Abstraction

This month’s project is something that can be done slowly over several days or in a burst of activity, at a level of colourful complexity or simply in black-and-white. It’s about recording small bits of things we see and building up a grid of these to show us things anew. I’m calling it “Blocks of Abstraction”.

The starting point is cutting yourself a small viewfinder from a piece of stiff paper or card. Not too small and not too big; mine is about 5x5cm (2×2″). I used a pair of scissors to cut mine, and it’s a little organic rather than perfectly square, but that just adds character. It doesn’t have to be square, it could be rectangular.

May's painting project: Blocks of Abstraction

Next, use your viewfinder as a stencil to draw a grid on a sheet of paper or in a sketchbook, as many as will fit across and down but leaving some space inbetween each to write notes. You’ll see I cut the borders on my viewfinder to allow for this.

May's painting project: Blocks of Abstraction

You might want to create several pages with grids like this so that if you’re on a roll you don’t have to stop to draw one.

The project is about filling the grid using the viewfinder as a composition tool, a way to restrict what you’re looking at. There are numerous ways to go about this, but what I suggest as a starting point is to sit somewhere, hold the viewfinder at arm’s length, and capture what you see in a grid box. The main shapes, lines, intersections, colours, not details. Holding the viewfinder at arm’s length means you don’t see too much through it, and also that you don’t take too long with each drawing because your arm is going to get tired holding the viewfinder in position. Write a few words alongside about what it was (think “clue” rather than “description”). Then shift your arm left or right, up or down, and repeat, and repeat.

Don’t overthink it and don’t reject too many of the compositions that present themselves (some selection is inevitable unless you’re incredibly disciplined). This project works when all the grids are filled, it doesn’t rest on the success of an individual one. The sum of the parts and all that. What you end up with is a page filled with pattern, shape, and colour, small abstractions of ‘life’. This has a beauty and intrigue all of its own, but can also become the starting point for larger abstract paintings.

As an example of what I’ve in mind, here’s my table in my studio. The items are things that happened to be there, not selected nor arranged: a roll of blue paper towel and a scrunched up bit, a water spray bottle, a water bottle with a blue lid, bottles of ink/watercolour, brush washing water container with lid, pencils on a plastic box lid lying on top of my watercolour set, and assorted rocks.

May's painting project: Blocks of Abstraction

I lifted up my viewfinder and noticed there was a blue pencil, which linked the blue of the bottle lid and the blue of the paper towel. So that became a colour to use in my drawings (along with 2B graphite in my propelling pencil) and a starting point for what I would draw.

May's painting project: Blocks of Abstraction
May's painting project: Blocks of Abstraction

Additional ideas:

Do it outside:
Go outside with a sketchbook and pencil and draw looking north/south/east/west at eye level, looking down, and looking up. If you can go for a walk, set yourself a random target for stopping, say every 20 steps.

Look through the viewfinder, scanning a room or garden, and stop to draw every time you see an intersection of two lines or shapes.

Pick a theme:
Limit yourself to a colour and look around for it. Or a shape, such as a circle. Or something that you might have variations of, such as a chair, or what’s on a shelf. Or looking through a particular window.

Object from different viewpoints:
Take an object, something that’s not symmetrical, and look at it through the viewfinder from different viewpoints or angles. You might rotate the object or you might move yourself around it. I’m thinking here of Cubism, where an object was depicted from several angles all in one drawing/painting, except you’ll be using the grid to separate out the parts.

Tear up old paintings:
Use your viewfinder to select interesting bits of old paintings and tear out those bits. Or cut up the entire painting into small squares and then re-arrange the pieces from most to least interesting, or by dominant colour.

Colour only:
Take your paint box or set of coloured pencils and put a different colour in every box. It might be at random, the order you pick them up. It might be colours arranged as a rainbow, or starting each row with a colour and creating variations across, whether in tone or by mixing with other colours. For words, add the colour names, pigment numbers, things that contain this colour, or go on a tangent with moods/emotions you associate with the colour, perhaps sounds.

For inspiration, take a look at the work of mixed media artist Tansy Hargan on Instagram (or Facebook) @palimpsestparade, who describes herself as a “landscape architect gone rogue”. She’s created all sorts of grids, including using white pen on black paper, collaged paper, fabric, pencils, paint. And you can see how these lead towards larger mixed pieces.

One Reply to “May’s Painting Project: Blocks of Abstraction”

  1. Love the idea. I started with an easy one by just filling the blocks using randomly selected fibre tip markers which I found a lot of fun. I look forward to exploring other ideas.

Add a comment here: