What Powers Abstract Painting?


A passionate connection to the work is what keeps any artist creating. We feel driven to make art, no matter what the genre, by our need to capture something – an idea, a color, an interaction of colors, shapes, forms, lines, a mystery, a feeling, a love of paint, a solution to a problem, a desire to make real what only we can imagine. Abstract art has usually been defined more by what it is not—non-objective, not representational, not depictive—than by what it is. A more positive definition, from the Oxford University Press, says: “What is missing in such qualifications is that ‘abstract’ as applied to works of art is not a merely passive negative characterization, but has a further privative force.“

There are many types of contemporary abstraction, such as conceptual, gestural, geometric, and formalist. In the future I intend to do a series in ProWax Journal of occasional articles about types of art made by Pro Wax Members (including not just abstraction but realism and figuration). To begin this series I have invited two painters to speak in some depth about their work. Both artists paint abstractly: Cheryl McClure, gesturally, and Graceann Warn, compositionally geometric. I wanted to know why each of them had chosen to work in that form of abstraction and also about the emotional connection to her work that each artist felt.

Cheryl McClure

Cheryl McClure, Parallels, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 40 x 50 inches

Cheryl McClure, Parallels, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 40 x 50 inches

I was particularly focused on emotion since the force driving abstract art has at times been regarded as no more than an intellectual exercise. Yet, if it were only cerebral, would that be motivation enough for artists to keep making the work, painting after painting, year after year? Would the work be aesthetically pleasing and capable of arousing emotion in viewers?

Cheryl McClure is mostly self taught and has been painting for more than 30 years. She shows throughout the U.S. and is represented by five galleries. Living on a ranch in northeastern Texas, she finds influences in nature – the trees, sky, pastures, pond and creek – but is careful to say that she does not try to replicate what she sees. Rather she lets her observations come through as she paints and “has a conversation with the paint and the process.” She is most interested in surface quality, color relationships and formal design.

NN: What draws you to abstraction as an approach to painting?

CMC: I am not sure there is an easy explanation. As a kid, I drew, but I was never really attracted to drawing or painting people and things. I see now in retrospect that I was more interested in the colors and shapes in a work of art.

Cheryl McClure, Gray Day, April, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 40 x 40 inches

Cheryl McClure, Gray Day, April, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 40 x 40 inches (click to enlarge)

NN: Would you comment on the idea of abstraction allowing you to have greater freedom in painting. Do you think that’s true? Or does the “freedom” of not trying to represent something make it more difficult?

CMC: I feel that I have more freedom, more that I can do or say without having to spell out something I would rather keep to myself. Most people would think of me as a gregarious, extroverted person, but I have a side to me that is very private and this is a little bit of protection.

I am invested in the emotional side of things. I don’t always identify it as emotional, but my work does come directly from my own experience, and usually is just an unexpected and unconscious inspiration. I have come to realize that I generally paint from non-objective to abstraction. In other words, I set parameters in my work with formal issues. Then, as I work, relationships in the painting begin to take on meaning that possibly only I will know. It might not be what others will see, but that doesn’t matter to me.

McClure_Feat_RThe emotional involvement to me includes some kind of gesture and a sense of space – probably coming from working less abstractly in the early years. When I am painting, I paint furiously and quickly, then I look and analyze, taking a lot longer than the time I actually spent painting. The brain can get in the way of the hand and the brush and this is my way of trying to avoid that.

NN: How do you begin a painting?

CMC: Sometimes it’s entirely arbitrary because I have set myself up to work with whatever relationships develop as I go along. However, I began a continuing series in 2014 when I started thinking more about intent after reading On Looking, Eleven Walks With Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz. I started looking around me more carefully and then took days at a time just jotting down words or phrases that I thought would be inspiration for paintings. I called the series “Annotation” and also noted the color inspirations.

Cheryl McClure, Annotation: Cobalt Blue-Violet, 2014, encaustic and oil on wood panel, 24 x 24 inches

Cheryl McClure, Annotation: Cobalt Blue-Violet, 2014, encaustic and oil on wood panel, 24 x 24 inches (click to enlarge)

NN: Is struggle a necessary part of painting for you?

CMC: It has become a part of my work. Usually I do not really want to know exactly where I am going when I begin a painting but only have a generalized map of what I intend, when I do have a more fixed intention. I don’t have to think about it much in the beginning because I can do just about anything and make a layer that adds to the richness that I hope to achieve in the final work. I’ve come to believe that the longer you paint, the more you realize how little you know. You become more critical of your work. Hence all those ugly middle layers. That said, I am thankful for the few paintings that come now and then without a lot of struggle, as though someone else painted them.

NN: What effect does changing mediums have on your work? Do you find you work differently in one medium than another?

CMC: I studied watercolor painting when I first began painting since that was the only thing available from teachers in my area. I didn’t love watercolor because it took too much pre-planning, but I learned a lot about negative shapes. I also learned a lot from using pastels and charcoal about the marks I like to make. I like acrylic because I can layer over and over without a problem of compatibility. I find that working with oil and encaustic slows me down a lot, but sometimes slowing down is a good thing. The richness and surface qualities of oil and encaustic are very appealing. I think working back and forth with all these mediums helps me to grow as a painter.

Cheryl McClure, Pier, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 40 x 60 inches

Cheryl McClure, Pier, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 40 x 60 inches

NN: Are you ever inspired by particular places?

CMC: Pier is an example of my being inspired by a place. I’ve made several trips to Provincetown, Mass. for the annual International Encaustic Conference. I have been struck by the color and the shapes of the piers, boats and buildings there. Not being a coastal person, I didn’t start out to paint this, but I found myself making these marks with large brush loads of paint on the canvas. It just developed and somewhere in the process it became Pier. More than likely others do not see it this way, but this is Provincetown to me.

Graceann Warn

Graceann Warn, Sugar Factory Painting #2, 2014; oil, beeswax and pigment; 30 x 40 inches

Graceann Warn, Sugar Factory Painting #2, 2014; oil, beeswax and pigment; 30 x 40 inches

Graceann Warn was born and raised in New Jersey and currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in landscape architecture. Later, while pursuing a Master’s degree in Landscape Architecture at the University of Michigan and working as a landscape architect, she visited an exhibition of the last paintings of Mark Rothko. The emotional impact of that exhibition was the catalyst for great change. Within a year she made the decision to devote her life to making art. She has been a full time studio artist since 1985 with work exhibited and collected nationally and internationally.

NN: Why do you think you were drawn so strongly to abstract painting?

GW: Abstraction was always the style of painting that I was moved by as a viewer. Particular artists whose works made my heart beat faster were Tapies, Rothko, Motherwell, Mitchell, and Twombly. These artists made marks and gestures on canvas that seemed like a secret alphabet to me, yet one that I could somehow read. My training in design probably cemented my interest in seeing form and color as being more important than representation.

warn_feat_LIn my expanded story about seeing the last Rothko paintings at the Walker Art Center, I talk about being so overwhelmed with emotion that I had to sit down. I was trembling and possibly tearing up. It was huge. It was so clear in that moment and then later in retrospect that my work life had to change and align more with my emotional life. It was devastating for me because I was on my own, still paying school loans, in grad school plus working full time, trying to be an adult and yet my insides were screaming ‘get outta here!!!!’–totally irresponsible to some but undeniable to me.

NN: Does abstraction allow you more freedom in painting?

GW: It’s a natural way for me to “talk” so it’s freeing and not difficult in that regard. Painting in a representational way, which I did do at one transition point in my career, is frustrating in that it feels constraining. I do believe that successful expression through abstract means is more challenging, especially as regards viewers. When someone clutches their heart or covers their mouth in front of one of my paintings, I know I’ve been successful.

NN: Do you generally begin a painting with an idea in mind?

GW: Paintings generally have their genesis in a word or a line of words. Words connote images very powerfully for me. I have lists of single words or short sentences in journals, post-it notes, and random scraps of paper all over my studio awaiting transformation into a physical entity. I am constantly listening, reading, and looking for the spark of engagement with a word or two. Beginning this way generally gives me a strong sense of the direction in which I want to go with a painting, but sometimes things go awry, frequently in a good way, and I change course.

Graceann Warn, Stonington, 2013; oil, beeswax, pigment on wood panel; 40 x 40 inches

Graceann Warn, Stonington, 2013; oil, beeswax, pigment on wood panel; 40 x 40 inches (click to enlarge)

NN: What are some of the sources for your words and phrases?

GW: Some come from physics textbooks, others are place names or descriptive titles, such as Red Contents and Stonington. I am also fortunate to have a working relationship with the poet Dan Gerber, for whom I provided art for his latest book, Sailing Through Cassiopeia. We collaborate via email by exchanging his words and my art. We inspire each other this way. Most of the poems he writes that I am drawn to center on the mysteries of the cosmos and the wonder of science.

NN: I know that you are also influenced or inspired by particular places. You mentioned the Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn, where Kara Walker had her well-known show.

GW: I made a series of paintings derived from photographs I saw of the abandoned Domino Sugar plant (Sugar Factory #2 at the top of this section is one of the series). Maybe it’s because I live near Detroit and have an emotional reaction to them, but abandoned factories attract my attention. The very idea of these once mighty structures literally humming with purpose but now discarded and left to ruin makes me want to honor them in their present state. The beauty I see in the scraped and battered walls informs the look of most of my work. In the Domino Sugar plant, the colors and surface textures were made even more lush by the patina of caramelized sugar and that was irresistible to me.

Graceann Warn, Sugar Factory Painting #1, 2014; oil, beeswax, pigment on wood panel; 40 x 30 inches

Graceann Warn, Sugar Factory Painting #1, 2014; oil, beeswax, pigment on wood panel; 40 x 30 inches (click to enlarge)

NN: I also want to ask you about materials. I notice that you usually describe your medium as “oil, beeswax and pigment” and only occasionally use the word “encaustic.” Do you mean that you use just beeswax or that you don’t choose to mention encaustic?

GW: A while back I realized that two things might happen in response to the word “encaustic.” Either people didn’t know what it was or they equated it with some of the truly egregious examples of the medium that are out there in the world. It’s not like oil painting in that there are millions of examples that everyone is familiar with, good and bad. Encaustic is still used by only a small minority of the art world and unfortunately there are too many poor examples of it, in my opinion. Another issue is that I am starting to introduce some oil painting into my work.

NN: Do you view color as a vital component of your work?

GW: Absolutely. I am a synesthete, which means my brain mashes up sensations. In my case I combine color with words and numbers as well as words with flavors. This wonderfully weird condition most likely helps me make decisions in the studio.

Graceann Warn, Red Contents, 2014; oil, beeswax, pigment on constructed panel; 40 x 30 inches

Graceann Warn, Red Contents, 2014; oil, beeswax, pigment on constructed panel; 40 x 30 inches

NN: What do you think is the most important quality about your work?

GW: There is a restraint in the work that, when successful, seems to be on the brink of something without being obvious – an innuendo, the unsaid, or what lies just below the surface.

NN: Because of this apparent simplicity and reticence, your work seems to me to be influenced by a Japanese aesthetic. Would you comment on this?

GW: When I was studying landscape architecture, I was deeply influenced by certain aspects of Japanese design. The editing inherent in that aesthetic is deep within me. I respect its quiet strength and its dignity.

NN: What do you want your work to reflect?

GW: Throughout the process of making it and then later experiencing it in its finished state, I
want to feel that I’ve been true to myself and, by extension, my work.


 Summing Up

Although the final forms of their work may differ from each other, Cheryl and Graceann have in common paintings sparked by words, phrases, or observations and composed with formal arrangements of elements. From there, they proceed in two directions with structure and balance still being necessary to the final compositions’ success in both forms of abstraction. I think they each have a poetic sense of their work in that they are sensitive to beauty and to the feelings their paintings elicit from themselves and from their viewers. While their own personal intention or meaning may not be explicitly stated in the works, the emotional reaction to the aesthetics of their work is important to each of them and something they strive to achieve.

1. http://creativetime.org/projects/karawalker/ – a short video about the Domino Sugar factory project
2. https://www.flickr.com/photos/jarak08/13995716857/ – a cast-sugar statue against a wall at the Domino Sugar Factory
3. www.americanabstractartists.org – American Abstract Artists – a democratic artist-run organization founded in 1936 in New York City to promote and foster understanding of abstract and non-objective art
4. www.geoform.net – Geoform – an online scholarly resource and curatorial project whose focus is the use of geometric form and structure in contemporary abstract art being made by artists from around the world.

6 thoughts on “What Powers Abstract Painting?

  1. Jane Michalski says:

    Love this discussion. I think it’s inherent in our physical make-up (think about the right side of the brain , it’s completely non verbal and very important) that a large part of our perception is concerned with trying to understand and make sense of the world without words. Thus the meaning we find in “non-representational” work,while it can be subjective, is very real.

    • Dianna Woolley says:

      Nancy, thanks for sharing these two great artists today. In depth re McClure and Warn lovely to read! Their works are definitely inspiring.
      I regret missing Provincetown this year as I enjoyed it so much in ’14. It’s on my calendar for ’16 and hope to see you and your work there!
      Best regards,

  2. nancynatale says:

    Jane Michalski and Dianna Wooley – Thank you for your comments! Cheryl and Graceann were very generous in sharing their processes and thoughts about their work. We are fortunate to get an inside look at what happens in the studios of these wonderful artists.
    All the best, Nancy

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