The Abstract Qualities in Realist Paintings

by Gregg Kreutz

What is a painting about? Within the realm of realist art, that seems like an easy question to answer. For example, if we look at a picture of a vase of peonies, the answer to the question is obvious: a vase of peonies. But if that is all the picture is about, if that is the extent of its content, then the picture lacks resonance. The flowers may be accurately painted, but if accuracy is the only ingredient, then the picture is as compelling as the illustration on a packet of seeds. If deeper content is needed, then what should that deeper content be?
In the case of the peony picture, perhaps the artist can create a resonance by developing the quality of light as it moves through the blossoms. Another idea is to expand on the feeling of airy depth that permeates the whole. The movement of color vibration that flows through and around the flow-ers might be another subject for investigation. In addition to these qualities—light, air, and color—there is also the all-encompassing abstract subject of paint.

Paint is always the other subject of a picture. How the artist uses the paint communicates his or her exact sensitivity. If the artist squeezes out paint meagerly and scrubs it on the surface, it tells one story. If the artist globs on the paint carelessly—indifferent to its effect—that conveys an entirely different message. Ideally, artists use paint to express the richer issues they are trying to communicate. If depth is one of these issues, perhaps the artist uses thick paint in the foreground, thin in the back-ground. Artists employ paint to depict something, but ideally, they also push the paint until it plays a more essential role. Ultimately, the quality of the brushstrokes, the feeling of the surface, and the way the paint interacts with the canvas combine to provide a strong subject for the painting, another element of what the painting is about.
In my teaching and in my book Problem Solving for Oil Painters (Watson-Guptill Publications, New York, New York), I recommend a number of techniques for making the paint surface more interesting. For example, I suggest using a palette knife to either scrape paint off the canvas or to apply more to certain areas. That may help open up possibilities within a picture and eliminate fussy details. Because the palette knife spreads thin flecks of paint around and exposes the dense, textured look of the canvas weave, it creates the illusion of detail without stultifying the picture. Also, by mashing everything together, a palette knife unifies the color within the picture.
Another suggestion is to adapt the traditional technique of depicting shadow areas with thinned oil paint and the sunlit parts of a scene with a heavier application. Paint is a metaphor for the illuminated world, and thick paint can simulate what light looks like in its greatest intensity. The brighter the light, the thick-er the paint. Following through on that idea means making dark, shadowy areas thin and transparent, depicting them with smooth, flat paint. It may help to add a painting medium to the mixtures of shadow colors so they remain thin, flat, and transparent.
The "about" of a painting is similar to the "about" of a great book. For example, Herman Melville's Moby Dick is about much more than someone trying to kill a whale. Melville used characters and incidents to confront issues about mankind, nature, and fate. In painting, the subject is also just a springboard to deeper, more universal qualities.

A word of caution: These deeper qualities must stay within the visual realm. It's a mistake to force a painting to project sentimental, or even worse, political, ideas. Sometimes painters get dissatisfied with what they feel are the limitations of representational painting and attempt to turn the artwork into something it isn't meant to be. Pictures that make statements about corporate greed, the importance of family life, or baby's first step are about something, but what they are about is an idea, not an image. Those kinds of subjects may push emotional buttons and stir reactions, but they pull us away from the true, more abstract aspects of representational painting: light, paint, and space. Unfortunately, get-ting one's painting to embrace these deeper issues is not always so easy. The literal is always beckoning, always trying to lure unsuspecting artists to their doom. When an artist is not
sure what to do, when no big issues are making them-selves felt, it is always tempting to generate slavish copies of photographs or repetitions of earlier efforts. How do we push paintings to a different level? How do we break through to the deeper subject matter?
Ultimately, the answer is abstraction. That word means different things to different people, and, for many, it has come to encompass anything that is opposed to reality. But for a painter's purposes, true abstraction is not an alter-native to, but a path toward, reality's core. In the sense in which I use the word, abstraction in painting means turning disparate elements into a coherent design, finding color and value themes that unify, and making the brushstrokes have a beauty independent of description.

Ideally, each painting begins as an engaging, coherent abstract statement. From the first stroke, artists move the paint around, not in a rendering, accuracy-obsessed way, but in an open, design-sensitive movement. From that point on, everything artists do is an amplification and continuation of the initial abstraction.
In my painting Chess Players, for example, I began with a broad statement that gave me a feeling of the design, color, and paint energy of the picture. As I developed the picture, I tried to intensify that initial statement. I added detail, but only as it related to the primary abstract design. Part of that design included a feeling of curving into the picture—moving from the lower left corner to the sun-lit umbrellas in the center of the picture. As shown in the finished version of the painting, I strengthened that effect by making the near chess players a little bigger and darker, massing the trees into a more coherent and less distracting unit, and intensifying the light. Often a picture strays from its abstract beginning, and sometimes, sad to say, it never has an abstract beginning. When that happens, artists need to rethink the painting and force it to become an abstract event. In my painting Market Flowers, I dutifully painted my way through all the complexities of the setup and felt that the result lacked resonance. It had a "so-what" quality. I made an effort to change that by giving the pot a greater sense of dimension and a more evocative light flowing across it. I also increased the feeling of atmosphere by putting a glass bowl in the foreground and pushing the pot back into space, thus making its placement look less formal. Finally, to clarify the distinction between objects that are near and those that are far, I put more light on the flowers in the foreground. All those changes made the painting less focused on information and more on depth, light, and atmosphere.