When is a figurative painting not a figurative painting?

Post by Lucy Somers!

I’ve decided to base my fast approaching dissertation on the difficult division between abstract painting and figurative painting. Partly with the ambition of working out my relationship with figuration in my own painting.

I’ve always painted with varying levels of figuration, wether I used people, fruit, domestic interiors, or landscapes, because it never seemed to make sense without that essential connection to reality and to observation. Like any statement, it doesn’t mean anything out of context.

But one thing that has frustrated me and confused my tutors is that I’ve never wanted my paintings to be about the objects, and because I resisted any reading of the painting as being a social comment on domesticity, they test my need for the figuration entirely.

Recently, I’ve come to think that my difficulty is in the heirarchy of the image. That our minds are constructed so that any figurative element is picked out from abstraction. So when I paint figuratively, but want the abstract elements of the colour, tone and light to carry the meaning of the picture, the mind will always be diverted to the figurative element- and thus my tutors want to talk about the chair not the light.

I also came to think how clever Baselitz’s method was, to use people, which have got to be the most immediately recognised subject, very pinnacle of the heirarchy. By using images of people, but picturing them upside-down, the potency of the image is diffused, and so the abstract painterlyness becomes dominant over the figurative element.

I need to find some way to keep my link to reality, but with some way of diffusing the image’s power, letting my paint come to the fore.

What do any of the other Paintists think?


10 thoughts on “When is a figurative painting not a figurative painting?

  1. thepaintists says:

    Reply to “When is a figurative painting not a figurative painting”
    Hi Lucy, I totally sympathize with your dilemma and experienced the same thing at college too.
    There is a possibility that:
    1. the subjects you choose have a greater significance than you realize, and that possibly you are too closely connected to your own life to appreciate the significance of the elements within it. I know it seems arbitrary at the moment, but in the future your narrative on the present may well have a deep significance to you.
    2. Possibly you are at the beginning of your painting career, and that losing the directness of the reference to your figurative stimulations will become your art-form. I am aware that as I go on I find new ways of painting roughly, to imply that the message is the medium not the thing itself.
    Further to this, over time your painting will get better. This doesn’t imply a criticism, or imply that it doesn’t look fantastic, what I mean is that your painting will more accurately present your intention.

    At the moment your way forward must surely be a dual one of experiment and discipline, to paint precisely the elements that inspire you, wherever that inspiration comes from, making sure you leave out all descriptive clues.
    The ideal medium to experiment with is one that is not capable of explaining too much.
    The ideal subject matter is exactly what makes you go “wow” at that moment, whether it is a bowl of fruit, newspaper cover or crisp packet! Just bear in mind that you have to paint the context as well as the thing itself….

    Thats enough for now
    Best wishes
    Penny /Mum

    PS I think I will email Artlark students first asking who wants to participate in a blogging experiment…

    • Painting is a 2 dimentional thing whether it looks 3 and figurative or not is still in essence (did I spell that right?) – abstract
      Think mum is right Lucy
      You need to explore everything at the moment and all possibilities and out of the chaos hopefully you will find a direction.
      Try to keep some real dicipline though in Improving your drawing and painting skills from life in a classical way as well as your expermentation with composition and colour etc;.-in the long term you will not regret it.

  2. Ba Stunt says:

    Hi Lucy and Penny
    Within my own work, -both painting and sculpture, I am aware that I often start from a figurative point, but inevitably as I develope an idea it becomes increasingly abstracted. Penny will remember my cadmiums!
    I have come to value the tensions between the two extremes, -I love a bit of ambiguity! It not only makes me think about my motivation and the intent of the work, but I also find it really valuable to just ‘let it happen’ for a while, exploring the extremes, and maybe, just maybe, drawing back for the final piece to a balanced position somewhere between!
    Like Lucy, I have moments of desire for a recognisable element within the composition, but I could never be content with a true representation. It has to be stretched through colour, composition, distortion or formatic change.
    Great idea to set up this blog, I havn’t joined on before, but this appeals!
    all the best
    Ba Stunt

    • thepaintists says:

      Hi Ba, fantastic comment!
      When different Artists talk it draws your attention to aspects that you’ve over-looked. Distortion is a vital part of the editing process in turning real life into art, I have had students who were outraged that I suggested distortion of an image to make the composition work. It is fundamental!
      “Stretching through colour, composition, distortion or formatic change” is good food for thought!
      Lots of love,

  3. peter greenhill says:

    Hi Penny
    Just a quick intro…Brian Homewood and I have been wrangling over this subject for some months now.We went to the same art school and it would be interesting to widen the discussion>Peter Greenhill

    • thepaintists says:

      Hi Peter, we are delighted to receive your and Brian’s posts! I hope that formalising our discussions onto a blog site will include more artists into the discussion.
      I am amazed constantly at how many people come into the gallery and respond to the alla prima paintings in preference to the photo- realist ones. My feeling is that there is a trend at the moment away from classicism and towards expressionism. Perhaps in the current economic climate, if people are feeling emotional they want to participate in what they see as a catharsis?

  4. peter greenhill says:

    Whilst I admire the skill levels of some photo realists it leaves me cold.For what its worth, I believe portraits should show the work of the hand.We are not machines and most of us do not respond well to perfection as it leaves us feeling a bit left out.

  5. Philip Lee says:

    Mondrian went through a process of greater simplification of objective imagery throughout his career, and eventually found his way to abstraction. Similarly with De Kooning and many others. Some however, myself sometimes included, have started pictures with only abstraction in mind, later to develop images from within the artwork.

    Abstract elements are an essential part of figurative work, yet figuration doesn’t necessarily have any role in abstract art.

    It may be unwise to predetermine the route to take. Experiment.

    And as Brian Homewood says – keep practising drawing and other skills – Mondrian and De Kooning and almost every artist of worth has or does.

  6. raygrinney says:

    I am somewhat technophobic (which isn’t unusual in people of my age) and am not sure that I have pressed the right button on this blog lark. But here goes –

    It could be argued that all art is to some extent abstract. In the book entitled “Abstract Art”, by Mel Gooding, it is suggested that all art engages with the world and abstracts certain aspects.Plato suggested that physical objects are inferior copies of true ideals, and art merely imitates those copies; a philosophical statement that appears to support the notion that all art is by default the product of a process of progressive aesthetic abstraction. It could be suggested that during the art making process the artist, intentionally or otherwise, abstracts certain aspects of the subject in an action that removes unnecessary clutter to produce an essence of its perceived spirituality or inner being.

    So I guess that all art is abstract by degrees, from the truly figurative art of the Renaissance, where the truth is altered for reasons of vanity or flattery, to almost total abstraction of the Minimalists.

  7. raygrinney says:

    Hello Lucy

    one book I found a great help in understanding the relationship between the figurative and abstract is:
    “Abstract Art” by Mel Gooding, published by Tate Publishing.
    It is written in an easily comprehensible style, which I found very informative.

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