I’m not really sure what I’m doing. Not in any grand sense of the phrase (though that might be true also) but in a more minor and specific way. I’m not really sure what I’m doing in regards to the painting I’m currently working on. Usually I know exactly what I’m doing. I graduated from college back in December 1988 and have been painting on my own since then. Painting-wise it hasn’t all been smooth sailing but I couldn’t have been painting for that many years and not have learned a thing or three. I know how to make a picture and I know how to make a painting. But this week I took things in a different direction.

I decided to start a painting from a sort of stained color field abstraction approach. For those of you who don’t know stained color field painting is done by such famous artists as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. They would create large abstract works of art by using thin layers of paint, the stain in stained, on canvas to build up a usually geometric abstract painting. The thin layers of paint would build up color in such a way that it would have a certain light and glowing quality about it. I’ve always liked stained color field abstraction but I’m an artist who likes to use images so I’ve never done much of it.

This week I decided to try some stained color field abstraction. Or at least start out from that point and probably add an image on top of it. But how to integrate stained color field abstraction with an image? I’ve seen people try to mix abstract painting techniques with imagery and it usually never works. It always ends up looking like bad 1970s illustration. The two do not play well together but somehow I got it in my head to try and make them.

The first thing I did was make a drawing that I wanted to use. I also bought a six pack of 18×24 inch pre-stretched canvases so that was the size I was going to work at. I scanned the drawing in and started to do a color sketch on the computer, as is my usual method, but ran into a problem. What was my color sketch of? The drawing or the stained color field? I had no idea how to integrate the two things into one color sketch. That didn’t bode well. I ended up doing the color sketch of the stained color field. I figured out a basic geometric pattern and color scheme but I still had no idea how it would all turn out.

Years ago I did a little bit of stain painting with thinned oil paint. I didn’t want to use oil paint and turpentine this time because I avoid using turpentine as much as I can these days. The stuff is not good for anyone and I only use it for cleaning brushes. So I decided to go with acrylic paint and water. I bought a few new Rubbermaid containers to keep the watered down paint in and started working. Things didn’t quite go as I expected.

I was working on gessoed canvas, as I usually do, but the water doesn’t really get absorbed into gesso like it would paper or even raw canvas. It sits on top. It dried eventually but it took longer than I thought it would. I wasn’t sure if I had my water to paint ratio correct either. My stains were not looking as I had envisioned them but I kept at it. I had the canvas flat on the floor and after two days of laying down stain (most of that was drying time) I had something vaguely interesting. Certainly not a very good stained color field painting but something I could work with.

The next step was to work with the image I had made. A female figure but one of my strange ones. Normally at this point, if this were a usual painting of mine, I would refer back to my color sketch and start to fill in the basic colors I had figured out. But this time I had no color sketch and opaque filling in a base layer of color was not what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to just put a figure painting over the stained background. I wanted the two to relate in a different way than foreground/background.

I painted the line work of the figure but that really didn’t help me find a direction. I’m not used to being directionless when making a painting. When I lay down paint on a canvas it’s usually in a thick, opaque, modernist way. That wouldn’t help me here so I started scrubbing color on. That’s when you have a little paint on the end of a bristle brush and scrub scrub scrub. You spread out the paint and it ends up being applied thinly. Not something I usually do but tentative enough so that I couldn’t ruin anything.

I must have put tentative scrubs down for two days. Two days of staining and two days of tentative scrubs was far longer than I thought this painting was going to take. A lot of that time was spent doing other things as paint dried but still that was a while. I’ve now worked the painting up to a point where I’m actually starting to like it. I’ve gone in a few times with line, a bunch of scrubs, and some opaque brush strokes. The stained color background and the foreground figure are one and the same in some parts and separate in others. It’s starting to be a real painting. Except I haven’t figured out how to finish it.

That’s the “I’m not really sure what I’m doing” part. As I sit here and write this I look up at the painting and am without a clue. It’s a situation I’ve been in a few times this week and it’s getting a bit annoying. What’s my next step? It gets a little harder after I figured other things out because now I have something I like so I have something to ruin. I almost abandoned this approach because I didn’t like what I was doing but I kept going because I couldn’t ruin a painting I didn’t like. Now I’m at the end and I have to pull it off.

I have confidence that I will be able to pull off a good ending and finish this painting but I still don’t know how or when I will be able to do it. Until then I’ll scrub a little more paint on being careful not to mess up what I like about things and stare at the painting until something comes to mind. After all something has to eventually come to mind. Doesn’t it? And I have five more of these canvases? What have I gotten myself into?