Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Recent Abstraction Efforts

As I mentioned yesterday, I'm posting some recent abstracted figures. All were started with a live model during weekly figure painting sessions or as class demos.  And all except the very last one got 2 to 6 more hours afterwards, without the model, in what I call deconstruction sessions.

The one above is the oldest of this bunch. Last year I painted many nudes with this sort of blue violet color scheme.  The orange in the skin tone and the violet background share the red hue in their mixes, which ties them together. To the left side of the figure, you can see some of the skin tone worked into the back ground, and in various places you can see the violet in the skin tone as well. Some times on top of the surface, some times mix into the color of the flesh. 

That, and the fact that the edges are integrated, creates unity. Without some way of integrating figure and ground–or simply two adjacent shapes–you end up with a cut out, stiff looking figure which looks like you tried very hard to stay within the lines. A coloring-book effect.

This started out as a class demo. I teach a weekly figure class, where I switch back and forth between drawing and painting every three months. At the start the painting rotation, I have everyone paint in black and white only. This is a great way to transition from where we left off in the drawing rotation, which is red and white chalk on toned paper. The introduction of white chalk separates the light and shadow with one tool assigned to the light, and another to the shadow. This understanding of separation is critical because when painting, we can never confuse the values of light and shadow. 

The lightest shadow is darker than the darkest light. You've heard that a thousand times, right? When color is introduced, sometimes students forget all about organizing values. So before we start messing around with color, we want to make sure we understand value.

This one is more abstract than others. I like the direction this is taking me. One of the key things about abstraction is context. When you start with a representational figure and work towards abstraction, it's very difficult because you've already established a representational context. In this context, an abstract note more often than not looks wrong.  So you pull back and make it less abstract, until it's back to representation, or the note looks haphazard and overworked. 

It takes a lot of mileage (it did for me, anyway) to be able to ignore the context and have faith that abstract notes I'm putting down will eventually look good when there are enough of them to alter the context. 

One thing I found helpful is to start slinging paint in areas that are low risk, just to break up the representational context. Typically, that's the background and peripheral  areas. Do enough of it so that at least in these areas, you have a context that's abstract, not a believable representational environment.  Then abstracting the figure itself becomes a little easier.

I like this one a lot. It has sharp edges in unexpected places, which breaks the rules of representational painting. Manipulating edges is as important as color and value, but it's not quantifiable. In traditional painting, there are rules that guides us where and what type of edge to use in what situation. Not so in abstract painting. It's totally subjective, and yet there seems to be something that tells us whether an edge works or not. Only we... that is, I... don't know it until I do it and see it. 

What that means is a lot of experimentation, a lot searching, and a lot of trial and error, and a lot of reliance on accidents. To make matters more difficult, these accidents aren't totally random. If I could explain it, I'd have a lot easier time creating paintings. 

But I guess the uncertainty and the mystery is what keeps me coming back and trying.  It never gets old.

This last one was done without additional hours of deconstruction session. All from one afternoon session of figure painting, with a model. There are some things I'd like to try with this one and I'll get to it after I'm through with my current projects. (Deadlines!)

Oh I used the Zorn palette for this one. I wanted to get back to using limited palettes after seeing the Zorn exhibit at Legion of Honor last month. Boy, that was one of the best shows I've seen in a long time!


  1. Another good post Terry. Believe it or not, the most abstracted one is the one I like the most. In fact, I love it. And she doesn't even have much of a head! ha.
    Anyway, this reminded me of our conversation a year or so ago when I was working on a large ballerina and I asked for your advise on keeping her abstract.
    You were telling me it is harder to go into abstraction after the representation has been established.
    At the time I think you were working on one in a new way, (which I loved), but with it you may have said you actually started with abstraction. And you said it was easier? Correct me if I'm wrong. But this is the way I usually approach a painting, I begin with a very abstract messy but colorful underpainting and then pull in from there.
    Anyway, I'm doing good up here in Truckee. Love the studio. It is beautiful up here. I met an artist (John Pugh) who is an amazing muralist. (There are lots of artists up here) He said he plans to open his studio for figure drawing/painting soon so I'm planning to get back to it!
    Thanks again for sharing your experience.. Just love it.

  2. Hi Randy, Yes I remember that conversation, and your painting. The painting I was working on at the time was indeed started with non-representational marks, and it was easier. But I've tried to do that again and again, and I can't say that it's consistently so. I'll probably have to do a hundred more before I can draw a conclusion. Like everything else I do!

    By the way, that painting will be displayed at this year's CAC Gold Medal show~

  3. I really love your figures! and appreciate your commentary so much! As someone who starts every painting intending to abstract "reality" my brain seems to take over and gets hung up on trying to make everything look "right." It's really helpful to read your approach. Thanks!

  4. You saw the Zorn exhibition?
    Oh man, I'm so jealous!