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The journey to my abstract art style

First, let’s start with, what is abstract art?

If we go by the definition from The Tate Guide to Modern Art Terms, ‘abstract art’ is as follows:

“The word abstract, strictly speaking means to separate or withdraw something from something else. In that sense it applies to art in which the artist has started with some visible object and abstracted elements from it to arrive at a simplified or schematised form. The term is also applied to art using forms that have no source at all in external reality.”

The definition continues from there citing styles, origins, and example artists, but I think that first paragraph is enough to go on at the moment. I think it is important to then look at the definition of ‘abstract expressionism’ to understand a little further about what I do:

“Abstract Expressionism- Term applied to new forms of abstract art developed by American painters in the 1940s and 1950s. […] The name evokes their aim to make abstract art that was also expressive or emotional in its effect.”

The entry continues with more information and example artists, but let’s move on.

I do a bit of both, mostly leaning more towards expressionism. The journey to abstract art that pleases me (in so much as it turns out in a way that achieves mostly whatever I needed to achieve) has been a multi-decade process and evolves still.

I’m not gonna lie to you: My early abstract art was derivative, lacked skill, boring and did not come close to tapping the things inside me that needed so desperately to come out. But they were important works. You need – NEED – to make a lot of bad art to get to the good stuff (which comes and goes like a stray cat). I have MOUNTAINS of what I consider ‘bad’ art. The way I put together shape and colour now was learned by years of getting it often wrong, but with an occasional feeling of getting closer to ‘right’ to keep me going and experimenting. I have also had long periods of time where I’ve not painted or drawn at all. It is OK to pause. Take a break if you need to.

I have not wasted a single art supply in my entire life.

This is important to realise and say to yourself out loud in the mirror if you need to hear it. No mark is wasted. No blob of paint you let dry on the palette or scraped off a shit painting, no pile of paper with overworked, contrived, or ugly marks is money down the drain. This stuff is necessary and you have to make the effort. You have to use the pencil in order to find your line.

I have destroyed most of my old work because I believe you can curate however you please. I did not always think that way; I used to save EVERYTHING. Now, I can take a photo and light a bonfire. Not everything I create is worth saving, in fact, most of it isn’t because that stuff is the learning part of this creative process. I gotta learn what works, what materials and marks complete the sentences in my head, which lines take my mind to new places like a drunkard drawing a map.

I recently created and launched a video class on Skillshare called Find Your Line: Develop Your Drawing Style and it’s all about the hard work part. The drawing things over and over, using materials as tools not precious things, and discovering – through lots of iterations – what stuff feels like you, but you in a more authentic and unique way. The exercises work. I found out the hard way over years and years of no one guiding me, but I’m pretty sure the class will cut some of that frustration out for you. I digress.

I am still evolving.

I look at the work I liked even just five years ago and I see that my abstract art has matured and shifted. I figured out what does it for me and am always finding new ways of putting it on paper or canvas. I have changed my entire mindset over the years on how I put down what is in my mind: I start cold. Typically, anyway. No idea. No sketches. Just do. I tend to figure out what material I want to work with (oils, pastels, watercolours, etc.) then pick a colour and make a mark. There is nothing in my mind other than what is in front of me and I let the piece guide me, rather than me guide the piece. At some point, we – the piece and me – work together to find some kind of finish. Sometimes, I let my brain dictate too much and that’s when I usually overwork something by trying to cram ALL THE IDEAS into one piece and it becomes a bit shit. Knowing when to put down the paint is a struggle that I reckon will never end.

If you are frustrated with your progress but have only been creating art for a year or two, maybe five, I have some good and bad news for you:
The good news is that you’re making art and – if you don’t ignore the signs – you’re going to find some exciting and satisfying work along the way.
The bad news is that you are going to make a lot of shit too. You will feel frustrated, lost, and like a fraud. And if you aren’t making a lot of shit, you aren’t growing, experimenting, or pushing yourself as an abstract artist.

Fail often.
I certainly have and vow to continue to do so. That’s how I know I’m an artist and not a machine. And remember, no art supply is wasted unless it sits unused.

Now, a little walk through some stages in my work over the last twenty-five years: (click to make larger)

See all this? Most of it is crap but all of it is important to the process.