Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Friday, November 14, 2014

A Looser Start

The last post was an example of a tight start (d)evolving into a more abstract expression. I think I mentioned that I don't always work that way. In fact, more often than not I start my paintings quite loosely.

This one I'm showing today is a smallish (7 x 14) study for a larger painting.  The first image is the start of the painting. As usual, I'm using Claessens No.66 oil primed linen, and using a small brush, I drew out the placements of the major elements.

The brown color is Asphaltum, which is just a mixture of bone black and mars red, I think. It's a warm transparent reddish brown that's not as red as transparent oxide red, and cleaner than burnt sienna.

Sometimes I use a straight Ivory black for this stage, and often I mix transparent oxide red and ultramarine. But any grayish brownish transparent dark color will do.

The composition is basically an arrangement of dark geometric shapes in a light valued field, so it didn't require tricky drawing or anything. It's just a pattern.

The really tricky thing, I thought, was the firescape, its shadows, and the traffic light all stacked on top of one another. I wanted this area to be a somewhat abstract jumble at first read, and may be make sense upon further study. In other words, I wanted expressive mark making to obscure some of the literal depiction.

Same thing with the far left dark shape representing another traffic light post. It's a lot of painting, scraping, repainting, pushing and pulling. The identification of these abstracted elements rely heavily on the context within which they exist. It's not dissimilar to how we see the world around us. We can only focus on just a small area of our field of vision, and everything in the periphery is blurred / abstracted, (especially if we are moving) and yet we are able to identify the various objects in our field of vision and recognize how our environment is laid out.

If something is out of context, we notice it. On the other hand, if something is perfectly in context, we don't need it to be defined so clearly for it to be recognizable.

By starting the painting very loosely, I'm able to establish the visual context very early. I can get a rough idea of just how much definition is needed for the environment to make sense. Once that's established, the degree of "tightening up" is not for recognizably of things, because we can already tell what it is. That squarish blob is a window, for example. We know this without having to render window panes. 

So how do I decide how much further to go? For me, the question is one of balance and expression. I pick a few elements to describe relatively tightly, to provide a focal point and an anchor of sorts for my visual context. And I decide which areas can be so abstracted that they can't be recognized without context. Everything in between, is... everything in between. 

I play with super sharp edges against goopy paint, thick areas against thin, textural against smooth. I try to have fun just pushing paint around, always checking to see if it fits my context. If it doesn't, does it still work? Sometimes it does, other times, it needs to be reined in. But if I can remember just how little information was needed to define the environment in the initial loose lay-in, I can keep myself from over rendering. In theory, anyway. 

In practice, it's still hard to stay loose and expressive. Painting loosely (yet drawn well) didn't come naturally to me, and it doesn't to most painters. I'm an analytical guy (I think I have two left brains) so even learning to painting loosely had to be somehow logical.  

It's starting to look intuitive, finally, so I'm pretty excited about that.


  1. Thankyou Terry for another great post...I really look forward to your explanations of abstraction. Unfortunately I seem to have two right brains and sometimes I think there is enough information, but no-one else can see what I think is obvious. Your work is so inspiring to me, whenever I think I am getting good at this whole art thing I check out your work and I know I have so much more to learn. :)

    1. Thanks Leesa! It's a good thing you see differently from everyone else. Therein lies your identity!

  2. I have really been enjoying your posts and explanations of abstraction. I struggle with work being either too literal or too abstract (and sloppy). Your posts are really helping me to think more about the whole process.

    1. Thanks Roberta~! I'm glad my ramblings resonated :-D