2: Abstraction

Abstraction Processes

What is Abstraction?

Abstraction (from the Latin abs, meaning away from and trahere, meaning to draw) is the process of taking away or removing characteristics from something in order to reduce it to a set of essential characteristics. (

The term ‘Abstract Art’ is used to designate the art form that liberated itself from the representational, reality-oriented portrayal. Abstract Art does not illustrate concrete, visual reality, but rather abstract or abstracted movement, form, colour, structures or patterns. In doing so, the pure composition becomes the focus of artistic endeavours. (Elger 2009, back cover)

Abstract art is art that does not attempt to represent an accurate depiction of a visual reality but instead use shapes, colours, forms and gestural marks to achieve its effect

Ad Reinhardt  Abstract Art cartoon emphasises the importance of the interpretation of the viewer. Changing the question from ‘What does IT represent” to ‘What do YOU represent”

‘We Futurists […] want to carry out this total fusion in order to reconstruct the universe and make it more joyful, that is, to re-create it. We will give flesh and bones to the invisible, the impalpable, the imponderable, the imperceptible. We will find abstract equivalents for all the forms and all the elements in the universe: we will combine them according to the whim of our inspiration, to create plastic compositions that we will set in motion’ (Giacomo Balla and Fortunato Depero 1915 quoted Blazwick ed 2015 p12)

‘It is my conviction that humanity, after centuries of culture, can accelerate its progress through the acquisition of a truer vision of reality. Plastic art discloses what science has discovered: that time and subjective vision veil the true reality…It has become progressively clearer that the plastic expression of true reality is attained through dynamic movement in equilibrium. Plastic art affirms that equilibrium can only be established through the balance of unequal but equivalent oppositions. The clarification of equilibrium through plastic art is of great importance for humanity…It demonstrates that equilibrium can become more and more living in us.’ Piet Mondrian 1941 quoted Blazwick ed 2015 pp. 12-13)

‘if pictorial expression has changed, it is because modern life has made this necessary.’ Fernand Leger 1914.

Abstract prints check and log

Compare the two abstract print projects: 2.1 Formal Abstract Prints and 2.2 Random Abstract Prints. What are the advantages and disadvantages, similarities and difficulties of each? Which do you prefer and why?

The formal abstract print produced a very clearly structured image where a lot of thought and pre-planning was required. However at the inking stage many different and accidental chance effects are possible. This would be a possible way of producing some of the colour field effects, particularly those of Clyfford Still – trapping lines of ink between blocks of colour and even letting them overflow. The embossing also produced interesting textural effects, particularly when rotated and overprinted.

The random abstract print is more intuitive and subject to chance and accident – sometimes ‘happy’ sometimes not so happy. With printmaking there is even less control over the final image than with paint because it is often unclear which ink has dried and which has not, and which ink will ‘squish’ and what will retain its mark with different pressures. But I particularly liked the effects of Akua inks and Schminke water-based inks and images produce by printing from old ink marking on the plate.

I like both approaches for different types of effect. The one can also inform the other. And – as in Assignment 2 – it is possible to take advantage of both approaches and use random ink effects on a structured collagraph plate.

How does the Alan Bowness quotation below relate to your experience of abstract painting? What abstract elements are missing from this writing?

“Colour remains the dominant interest, but there is less insistence on it than the past, and clearly now composition, form, even line are equally the concern of the painter. There is no ground in the paintings: shapes are held suspended across the surface, colours are made to advance and recede in a constantly changing relationship. The meeting place of one coloured area with another has a new importance, and one is now aware that the edges form a line that twists and turns, describing a new kind of shape. Drawing assumes again that crucial role it played in Heron’s very early work. Altogether there seems to be a much greater richness in the new pictures: they have gained in complexity without losing their directness and simplicity. They show a direction in which this kind of art can fruitfully move, at a moment when, as we have seen, there is a tendency to feel that all lines of progress have been tried and found exhausted.” Alan Bowness 1972

Colour is only one among many other elements – line, shape, tone, texture.

Find examples of the sorts of abstract prints you like and make notes on them.

Evolution of approaches to abstraction

Abstract art uses a visual language of shape, form, colour and line to create a composition which may exist with a degree of independence from visual references in the world. Abstraction exists along a continuum.

  • All art is in some degree abstraction. Even figurative art  involves varying degrees of selection, interpretation and  transformation of the ‘reality’ as perceived by the artist into an image that is then subject to further interpretation by the viewer.
  • Partial abstraction through obvious alterations of eg colour or form. The artist selects a form and then progressively simplifies it until the image bears only stylized similarities to the original, or is changed almost entirely beyond recognition. 
  • Total abstraction bears no trace of any reference to anything recognizable. This may be the end product of an abstraction process, or the art may not have started with any specific external reference.

Abstraction has been evident in the art of many cultures throughout history.

In Western art it emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century as part of/reaction to the social, intellectual and technological upheaval that took place at the turn of the century. Science was creating very different perceptions of the world with discoveries like X-rays and quantum theories that were outside our visible world. Motorcars and airplanes gave a new speed and freedom of travel to those who could afford them. “Artists sought new ways of responding to the world around them, sometimes by rejecting it, or by pursuing strategies of dissolution, flux and fracture in place of Western notions of aesthetic unity and wholeness…”(Moszynska 2004 p7) Theodor W. Adorno –  abstraction is a response to, and a reflection of, the growing abstraction of social relations in industrial society. Frederic Jameson sees modernist abstraction as a function of the abstract power of money, equating all things equally as exchange-values. The social content of abstract art is then precisely the abstract nature of social existence – legal formalities, bureaucratic impersonalisation, information/power – in the world of late modernity. (Wikipedia)

The emergence of abstract art also relates specifically to changes that were occurring within painting itself.

  • the development of photography from the 1840s led to a re-evaluation of the artist’s role as depictor of reality. But also a freedom to focus on depiction of more subjective, interior realities, and of emotions…. Gauguin’s advice to ‘paint by heart’.
  • the commercial availability of wider range of paint colours from mid 19th Century (photography being only monochrome) and discoveries about the nature of perception of light and colour encouraged artists to focus on qualities essential to painting: colour and surface texture. Maurice Denis 1890 ‘a picture…is essentially a plane surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order’
  • increasing awareness of non-Western art in which spatial perception and artistic depiction were based on different premises.
    (Moszynska 2004 p8)

Blaswick (2015 p9) makes a distinction between biomorphic abstraction, geometric abstraction and abstract expressionism, although these categories are often fluid and individual artists may not easily fit into any one ‘school’ and/or may combine more than one approach.

Biomorphic abstraction

Bases itself on forms found in nature and the psyche. This type of abstraction is seen in many ancient art traditions including simple, geometric and linear forms on pottery, textiles, and inscriptions and paintings on rock which had a symbolic or decorative purpose. In the twentieth century European artists developed a range of abstraction styles including:

  • Impressionist paintings like the water lilly paintings of Claude Monet
  • Paul Cézanne began as an Impressionist started to experiment with still life in multiple perspectives and landscapes based on flat areas of modulated colour
  • Cubism Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso further developed this focus on multiple perspectives in analytic Cubism. Synthetic cubism and Dada practised by Braque, Picasso, Fernand Léger, Juan Gris, Albert Gleizes, Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schitters produced abstract collages of  different textures, surfaces, papier collé and a large variety of merged subject matter.
  • Picasso went on to more emotional and shaped forms of abstraction like his paintings of Guernica and female nudes, notably the painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon 1907 and his paintings of 1932. These drew on cubism and also African art. This abstraction was reflected in his many monoprints, linocuts, lithographs, drypoints and etchings.
  • Expressionists and Fauvists explored the bold use of paint surface, drawing distortions and exaggerations, and intense colour and to produced emotionally charged paintings that portrayed psychological states of being. Fauvist paintings of André Derain, Raoul Dufy and Maurice de Vlaminck were “wild”, multi-coloured, expressive, landscapes and figure paintings. Woodcuts of the German Expressionists produced powerful abstracted portraits and landscapes.
  • Henri Matisse uses expressive colour and free and imaginative drawing in French Window at Collioure, (1914), View of Notre-Dame, (1914), and The Yellow Curtain from 1915. Then takes this expressive use of colour and shape further in his cut-outs.
  • Futurists and Vorticists: with their preoccupation for speed and energy of modern urban life. The Italian poet Marinetti published ‘The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism’ in 1909, which inspired artists such as Carlo Carra in, Painting of Sounds, Noises and Smells and Umberto Boccioni Train in Motion, 1911. These then influenced Vorticists like Wyndham Lewis and printmakers like Sybil Andrews , Claude Flight and Cyril Power of the Grosvenor School.
  • Georgia O’Keeffe‘s highly abstract forms based on flowers.

Geometric abstraction

Characterised by pure forms based on mathematically defined systems and monochromatic and non-representational surfaces.

Geometric abstraction has characterised Islamic art for many centuries – deriving from both development of geometric theories themselves, and the banning of figurative art in certain Islamic religious cultures. Geometric abstraction has been further developed by contemporary  Arab artists as part of identity and political art.

In the West geometric abstraction originated in the late 19th century in Eastern Europe mysticism and early modernist religious philosophy as expressed by theosophist Mme. Blavatsky, Georges Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky who popularised for a Western audience the sacred texts of India and China. They proposed that certain universal and timeless geometric forms like the circle, square and triangle and colours had intrinsic spiritual meanings as fundamental systems underlying visible reality, pointing to a ‘higher truth’.

Geometric abstract artists include:

  • Wassily Kandinsky, and Hilma af Klint who were heavily influenced by theosophical theories.
  • Piet Mondrian whose interest in relationships between geometry, colour and balance was also influenced by spiritualist ideas.
  • Paul Klee
  • St. Ives group in Cornwall including Barbara HepworthBen Nicholson, Naum Gabo, Patrick Heron.
  • Constructivist and Suprematist artists like Malevich and artists of the Russian Revolution who saw geometric abstraction as a way of promoting Utopian social change.
  • Sonya Delaunay with her interest in colour
  • Bridget Riley and Op Art

Abstract Expressionism

Emphasises the existential act and process of producing the image (see post).

  • Gesture artists:  Jackson Pollock focus on gesture.
  • Colour field artists: Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, Barnett Newmann and Clyfford Still focus on the emotional impact of colour fields.
  • Gerhardt Richter
  • Willem de Kooning
  • Robert Motherwell

Abstract artisis in the 21st century


Women abstract artists


Anfam, D. (ed.) (2017) Abstract Expressionism, London: Royal Academy of the Arts.

Antiff, M. & Green, V. (eds.) (2010) The Vorticists, London: Tate Publishing.
Ball-Teshuva, J., (2017) Mark Rothko 1903-1970: Pictures as Drama, Koln: Taschen.

Barringer, T., Devaney, E., Drabble, M., Gayford, M., Livingstone, M. & Salomon, X. F., (2013) David Hockney: A Bigger Picture, London: Royal Academy of Arts.

Blazwick, I. E., (2015) Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915-2015, Munich, London, New York: Prestel and Whitechapel Gallery.

Borchardt-Hume, A. & Ireson, N. (eds.) (2018) Picasso 1932: The EY Exhibition, London: Tate Publishing.

Brighton, A., (1966) Francis Bacon, London: Tate Gallery Publishing.

Clark, H. (ed.) (1993) Picasso: In His Words, San Francisco: Collins.

Cocker, M., Dunmore, H., Hare, B., Jacobson, H., Mabey, R., Marsden, P., Mooney, B., Packer, W., Taylor, J. R., Smit, T. & Tooby, M., (2010) Kurt Jackson: A New Genre of Landscape Painting, Farnham, Surrey: Lund Humphries.

Dow, A. W., (1997) Composition: A series of exercises in art structure for the use of students and teachers, California, USa: University of California Press.

Edwards, S. & Wood, P. (eds.) (2004) Art of the Avant-Gardes, New Haven and London: Yale University Press and The Open University.

Eik Kahng, Charles Palermo, Harry Cooper, Annie Bourneuf, Christine Poggi, Claire Barry & J.C.Devolder, B., (2011) Picasso and Braque: The Cubist Experiment 1910-1912, Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

Elger, D., (2008) Abstract Art, Hong Kong, Koln, London, Los Angeles, Madrid, Paris, Tokyo: Taschen.

Harrison, C., Frascina, F. & Perry, G., (1993) Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction: The Early Twentieth Century, New Haven and London: Yale University Press and The Open University.

Kandinsky, W., (1977) Concerning the Spiritual in Art, New York: Dover Publications.

Moszynska, A., (1990 reprinted 2004) Abstract Art, London: Thames and Hudson.

Nickas, B., (2009) Painting Abstraction: New Elements in Abstract Painting, London and New York: Phaidon Press Ltd.

Rothko, C. & Bishop, J., (2017) Rothko: The Color Field Paintings, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Storr, R., (2009) Gerhard Richter: The Cage Paintings, London: Tate Publishing.

Exhibitions and Galleries

Royal Academy: Abstract Expressionism  (24 September 2016 — 2 January 2017)

2: Abstraction InProcess

Abstract Expressionism: Research Point

Abstract expressionism is the term applied to new forms of abstract art developed by American painters in the 1940s and 1950s, mostly based in New York City, and also became known as the New York school.The name evokes their aim to make art that while abstract was also expressive or emotional in its effect. They were inspired by the surrealist idea that art should come from the unconscious mind, and by the automatism of artist Joan Miró.

Within abstract expressionism were two broad groupings:

  • Action painters : Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning who attacked their canvases with expressive brush strokes. They worked in a spontaneous improvisatory manner often using large brushes to make sweeping gestural marks,  or pouring paint over the surface directly placing their inner impulses onto the canvas.
  • Colour field painting : Mark RothkoBarnett Newman and Clyfford Still who created simple compositions with large areas of more or less a single flat colour intended to produce a contemplative or meditational response in the viewer.

Several important female Abstract Expressionists from New York and San Francisco like Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner now receive credit as elemental members of the canon.

Key Ideas

  • influenced by Surrealism’s focus on mining the unconscious, interest in myth and archetypal symbols, understanding of painting itself as a struggle between self-expression and the chaos of the subconscious.
  • influenced by leftist politics, and value an art grounded in personal experience.
  • emphatically American in spirit – monumental in scale, romantic in mood, and expressive of a rugged individual freedom.

See my print experiments in the style of Abstract Expressionist Painters:


Women artists in abstract expressionism


Anfam, D., Ed. (2017). Abstract Expressionism. London, Royal Academy of the Arts. Book from the 2017 exhibition.
Tate Gallery
The Art

and see sources on posts for my abstract expressionist experiments:

Galleries and Exhibitions

Royal Academy: Abstract Expressionism  (24 September 2016 — 2 January 2017)

Tate Modern: Rothko  (26 September 2008 – 1 February 2009) and permanent exhibition

2: Abstraction


To be edited further as the course progresses with more analysis of my own examples.

In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is – as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art.

Albers  Interaction of Color 1963 p1

Key colour issues in printmaking

  • Tone is perceived first, then colours (yellow first), and then the image. This means that the underlying tonal shape structure of an image is of primary importance. Using flat primary colours will detract attention from the image – making colour the subject.
  • Hue is inherently problematic. The effects of mixing different pigment hues will vary depending on issues like transparency, saturation, value. Artists may choose to focus on local or optical colour. In printmaking, particularly relief prints, there is clear colour separation on the printing plate. This can use either layering and mixing, or optical mixing through juxtaposition.
  • Optical mixing occurs as the brain interpretes colours, successive and simultaneous contrast. So perception of hue will depend on the relationship between elements in the composition.
  • Colour responses in terms of perception, meaning and emotional response is a complex combination of hard-wiring of human perception, biological variation (eg colour-blindness) between different viewers and cultural associations.Or use completely arbitrary colours to impose their own feelings and interpretation onto the image.

Digital colour experiments for Assignment 3 Still LIfe

Basic Colour Theory

Colour can only exist when three components are present: a viewer, an object, and light. Our perception of colour depends on both physical factors relating to the way the eye registers light and more psychological and cultural factors that affect the way the brain reacts to and interprets colours and their relationships to each other. Artists and designers have used and experimented with complexities and ambiguities in interactions between physical and psychological dimensions of colour to portray emotions and question the nature of perception.

Physical properties of light

Light consists of rays of different wavelengths. When light strikes a surface, certain wavelengths are absorbed and others are reflected by its pigments. Different combinations of reflected wavelengths form all the observed colours.  Although pure white light is perceived as colourless, it actually contains all colours in the visible spectrum. When white light hits an object, it selectively blocks some colours and reflects others; only the reflected colours contribute to the viewer’s perception of colour.

Prism: White Light and the Visible Spectrum

Virtually all our visible colours can be produced by utilizing some combination of the three primary colours, either by additive (eg digital) or subtractive (eg printmaking and painting) processes.

Additive Primary Colors
Additive Primary Colours: Additive digital processes as in computer monitors add light to a dark background based on RGB primaries. All three colours make white.
Subtractive Primary Colors
Subtractive Primary Colours: CMYK.  pigment colours. Subtractive processes use pigments or dyes to selectively block white light. All three colours make black.









Naturally occurring colours are not just light at one wavelength, but actually contain a whole range of wavelengths. A colour’s “hue” describes which wavelength appears to be most dominant.

Pigments used in printmaking and painting are not ‘pure’ colours’ but contain many different wavelengths that interact when pigments are mixed.

Human perception

The human eye senses this spectrum using a combination of rod and cone cells for vision. Rod cells are better for low-light vision, but can only sense the intensity of light, whereas while cone cells can also discern colour, they function best in bright light.

As light passes into the eye it strikes the retina at the back of the eye which consists of layers of cells including:

  • rods – that perceive black and white and allow us to see dimly lit forms
  • cones – that help us perceive hues. The cones in the eye only recognise red (long wavelengths), blue-viiolet (short wavelengths) and green (middle wavelengths). They relay these colour messages to the cones of the fovea, an area at the centre of the retina, whose cones transmit to the brain.

The brain then assimilates the red, blue-violet and green impulses and mixes them into a single message that informs us of the colour being viewed.

There are many factors affecting our perception of a colour, such as the surroundings of the object, its surface texture, and the lighting conditions under which it is seen. How much of a colour is used, whether it is bright, dull, light or dark, and where it is placed in relation to another colour are also crucial factors in our perception.

  • local colour: the wavelengths that are reflected by a surface under consitions of white light
  • optical colour: the combination of local colour with light striking it and other surrounding colours

Subtractive processes like printmaking are more susceptible to changes in ambient light, because this light is what becomes selectively blocked to produce all their colours.

Dimensions of colour

A colour without any black, grey, white or complementary is called a pure hue and occurs in Newton’s light spectrum. Primary colours are those which cannot be mixed using other colours, secondaries the result of mixing two primaries and tertiary colours, the result of mixing secondaries with one of their adjacent secondaries. Broken hues are the result of mixing these pure hues with their complement to produce browns and greys.

However there is significant variation between colour theorists as to how they identify primary colours, and also between additive methods (RGB used where light is added and where white is the result of mixing all light wavelengths) and subtractive methods (CMYK and pigment mixing as in printmaking or paint where black is the result of mixing all colours).

Moreover pigments are rarely pure. The results from mixing also depend on the relative colour temperature of each of the colours being mixed.

Pure hues vary in value from yellow (lightest) to violet (darkest) This means that when mixing them it will also alter the value. If you squint when looking at two hues of similar value they will merge together. When pigments of equal value are mixed together this gives a darker value because more wavelengths are absorbed and fewer reflected.

Value changes convey texture, are used for shadows and form. Sharp contrasts in value produce the effect of precision, firmness, objectivity and alertness. Close values produce feelings of haziness, softness, quiet, rest, brooding etc. Dark compositions give feelings of night, darkness, mystery and fear. Light compositions of illumination, clarity and optimism. Middle values are relaxed and often go unnoticed.

Discords: when the value of a hue is altered by the addition of black, white or another colour opposite to its natural value order eg adding violet and white to make lavender.


(also termed saturation or chroma) defines the degree of purity or brightness (as opposed to light) or how dull (as opposed to dark) a colour is. Pure hues are those where there is no black, white or complementary colour added.

  • When pure black or pure white are present they are notices before the other hues and colours present.
  • Pure hues differ in chroma strength – lighter hues have stronger chromatic strength.
  • Pure hues can be dulled to coloured greys through adding grey of the same value. Or mixing with complementaries to produce a shade.
  • Neutral greys can be obtained through mixing false pairs – orange and green, green and violet, violet and orange. But they tend to favour one of the parent hues and are less powerful than those made by combining complementary hues. They can also be produced through layering.

Intensity can create effects on objects in space.

  • high intensities make an object seem large and pushes it forward in the visual field
  • light pure values like yellow advance most on a dark background and least on a white background
  • pure hues have a relative strength. if balance is required, they should be used in the right proportion.


Temperature refers to the warmness or coolness of colour.
– Warm hues are yellow, yellow-orange, orange, orange-red, red and red-violet.
– Cool hues are blue, blue-violet, green, blue-green, green-yellow

Colour temperature affects the emotional and psychological response to colours. Certain colours relax us, others stimulate us.

Colour temperature also affects the ways in which we perceive space in an image. Aerial perspective means that – all else being equal – warm colours advance and are seen first, appearing nearer to us in the picture plane. Cool colours appear further away.

Cultural factors

Memory, experiences and cultural background all affect the way a colour’s impact can vary from individual to individual. Factors such as linguistic distinctions can even affect perception of colour – in some languages there is no distinction between blue and green and so although people can distinguish when questioned they do not make an immediate distinction. Even where colours are perceived similarly, they may mean different things – in Asian cultures white is associated with death. Red is associated with happiness and luck. In Western cultures black is associated with death and white with purity. Red is associated with danger and blood.

Colour associations

  • influenced by the types of pigments available and their value.
  • blue   lapis lazuli for the madonna
  • purple   mollusc in ancient greece so royalty
  • ochres and earth colour
  • red vermillion  marriage and luck in asian cutures
  • black  terry frost absorbs all other colours. means a kind of depth. malevich black square
  • white purity. turns away other colours.

Artistic interpretations

Artists may choose to focus on local or optical colour. Or use completely arbitrary colours to impose their feelings and interpretation onto the image.

Colour harmony

The advent of digital colour and design websites and software like Adobe Color have made exploring different colour mixes and combinations much easier and potentially more systematic. This has led to a trend towards creativity in colour combinations rather than adherence to conventional harmonies. But it is still useful to be aware of distinctions between (in reverse order of contrast):

  • Monochromatic: a single hue with its tints and shades produced by mixing with white, black (or its complementary?)
  • Analogous: three or more hues that are next to each other on the colour wheel. Analogous schemes are most emphatic when the common hue is primary. They are most harmonious when the middle hue is primary (eg red-orange, red, red-violet rather than orange, red-orange and red).
  • Complementary: colours that are opposite each other on the colour wheel. Variants include: double complementary where two complementary colours are used; Split complementary where the colours on either side of the complementary colour are used.
  • Triad: equidistant on the colour wheel. These result in a dominance of warm or cool.
  • Quadrad: where the hues are equidistant on the colour wheel.

Colour interactions

Itten and Albers studied the interaction between hues and the ways in which our perception of hues and tones is altered radically by the other colours surrounding them.

Successive contrast
Simultaneous contrast

Vibration where certain hues meet.
Bounding with white or black.

Disappearing boundaries: where analogous hues meet
Dissolving boundaries: where broken hues meet
This can be used to create mysterious effects. Or combatted using sharp edges.

Discords play a supportring role – they are easily overshadowed by colours that are not discorded, but they stop the tendency of hues to spread visually. Large areas in discorded colours should be avoided as they weaken a composition. But small areas reduce monotony. Light discors also produce the best highlights (because they are unexpected and attract attention??) The discord chosen should be based on the primary colour closest to the object featured in the hightlight, or the next closest primary on the coliur wheel.

When colors or shades of grey are sequenced in a composition eading from ligt to dark or dark to light then the eye is comfortable. But when the esquence is broken eg gray background, followed by white then black then the effect is jarring eg dramatic skies. El Greco View of Toledo.

Rhythm, repetition and movement

Repeating colours can lead the eye through a composition and create a sense of movement.

Emphasis can be accomplished by using colour in a number of ways
– colour contrast: bright/dull, light/dark, warm/cool
– area size: large areas of a colour versus small
– texture: rough versus smooth
– use of arbitrary colour
– unusual detailing
– contrast with surroundings

Harmony can be achieved through:
– repetition
– similarity
– use of tonality
– surrounding a colour with a neutral colour


  • Albers, J. (1963). Interactions of Colour. New Haven and London, Yale University Press.
  • de Sausmarez, J. (2008). Basic colour: a practical handbook. London A&C Black.
  • Feisner, E. A. Colour: How to use colour in art and design. London, Lawrence King Publishing.
  • Gage, J. (1999). Colour and Meaning: Art, Science and Symbolism. London, Thames & Hudson.
  • Hornung, D. (2005). Colour: A workshop for artists and designers. London, Lawrence King Publishing.
  • Itten, J. (1961). The Elements of Color. New York, Chichester, Weinheim, Brisbane, Singapore, Toronto, John Wiley and Sons.
  • Jennings, S. (2003). Artist’s Colour Manual. East Sussex, Harper Collins Publishers.
  • Wilcox, M. (1987). Blue and Yellow don’t make Green. NA, School of Colour Publications.
  • Zelanski, P. and M. P. Fisher (1999). Colour. London, Herbert Press.

Useful links

Cambridge in colour – technical notes on colour perception, colour harmony and colour management for photographers.

2: Abstraction

Approaches to Design and Composition

Design and composition are a subject of much debate, with both overlaps and differences between different disciplines like graphic design, fine art and photography. These ideas have underpinned all my printmaking work on this course and have been explicitly explored in:

See also:

What follows in this post presents some of the main approaches, elements and principles underlying print design and composition.

Design approaches: rules, exploration and experiment

Rule-based approaches

Conventionally design is seen as the application of rules of composition, based partly on cultural tradition – with very different conventions for example between Western and Eastern art. More recently use of graphic design in advertising has led to a lot of psychological research on viewer reactions to elements like line, shape, colour and texture. And the degree to which these reactions may be hard-wired in the human brain, and how far they are learned and hence culturally variable and changeable over time.

Breaking the rules: design as exploration and experiment

de Sausmarez, principles of art and design

Design should be:

  • A an attitude of mind, not a method
  • B primarily a form of enquiry, not a new art form
  • C not only an enquiry about the marks and structures which appear out of the materials used, but also enquiry about the sources and terms of personal expression and reaction to the world around us
  • D concerned with form in a fundamental sense in every field, it is not exclusively abstract or non-figurative; there is as much a need for intensive rethinking and reshaping of our attitude to ‘realism’ and figural studies
  • E emphatically not an end in itself but a means of making the individual more acutely aware of the expressive resources at his [sic] command; a fostering of inquisitiveness about phenomena, great and small, on the paper or canvas, in the external world or the internal world of visions, personal reactions and preferences.

de Sausamrez Basic Design: the Dynamics of Visual Form 1964 p15

Basic Elements of Design

Design elements can be explored in their own right as part of markmaking and media experiments. The following are just some dimensions for exploration, taken from a range of sources and experience/thoughts on previous courses in art and photography.

  • Point: a simple dot – but think about positioning on the page, size, shape and relationship, colour etc
  • Line: the visual path that enables the eye to move within the piece – think about edges, quality of line, direction and relation to the frame
  • Shape: areas defined by edges within the piece, whether geometric or organic
  • Form: 3-D length, width, or depth
  • Colour: hues with their various values (brightness) and intensities (saturation) See post on Colour
  • Tone: shading used to emphasize form (See Chiaroscuro )
  • Texture: surface qualities which translate into tactile illusions
  • Space: the space taken up by (positive) or in between (negative) objects (See Notan)
  • Depth: perceived distance from the observer, separated in foreground, background, and optionally middle ground.

Combining these insights gives a very exciting set of visual elements to experiment with and explore in search of one’s own approach and style.


“The simplest unit, a spot, not only indicates location  but is felt to have within itself potential energies of expansion and contraction which activate the surrounding area. When two spots occur there is a statement of measurement and implied direction and the ‘inner’ energies create a specific tension between them which directly affects the intervening space. Freely used spots, in clusters or spread out, create a variety of energies and tensions activating the entire area over which they occur. All sensations are increased if difference in the size of the spots is allowed to enter” de Sausmarez ‘Basic Design’  p25

Placement options for one point:

  • Central: this tends to be very static and dull, and needs clear justification.
  • Slightly off-centre eg on the thirds lines is moderately dynamic, without being extreme and can feel balanced. The choice being in what direction. This is affected by the type of movement in relation to the aim of the image.
  • Close to the edge: markedly eccentric and needs justification.

There are two important relations:

  • movement – created by drawing attention towards the point from the sides. The strength of this sense of movement is in proportion to the distance from each side.
  • division – a point implies a division. This is easier to see if you draw horizontal and vertical lines through the point.
  • Line: the visual path that enables the eye to move within the piece
  • Shape: areas defined by edges within the piece, whether geometric or organic
  • Form: 3-D length, width, or depth
  • Colour: hues with their various values (brightness) and intensities (saturation)
  • Tone: shading used to emphasize form
  • Texture: surface qualities which translate into tactile illusions
  • Space: the space taken up by (positive) or in between (negative) objects
  • Depth: perceived distance from the observer, separated in foreground, background, and optionally middle ground

With several points relationships and also predictable. A group of objects implies a network of lines, and can also create a shape – again by implication.


“A line can be thought of as a chain of spots joined together. It indicates position and direction and has within itself a certain energy; the energy appears to travel along its length and to be intensified at the other end, speed is implied and the space around it is activated. In a limited way it is capable of expression emotions.”
de Sausmarez ‘Basic Design’  p25

Lines as edges: Literal lines do not exist in nature, but are the optical phenomena created when objects curve away from the viewer. Straight lines add affection and can make it look more detailed and challenging. It is the quality of lines that makes them stand out. This may be because of: the type of line itself eg delicate, ragged, torn etc. and what this says about the object of the image. It may be because of contrast eg the edge of something bright against a dark background or vice versa. Or contrast of colour, textures, between shapes etc.

Lines in relation to the frame: Particularly when the frame of an image is itself constructed of lines, these invite a natural comparison of angle and length. Lines can also direct attention towards the main subject of picture, or contribute to organization by dividing it into compartments. Horizontal, vertical, and angled lines often contribute to creating different moods of a picture. The angle and the relationship to the size of the frame both work to determine the influence the line has on the image. They are also strongly influenced by tone, colour, and repetition in relation to the rest of the image.

  • Horizontal lines are the baseline in composition – explicit or as an implicit reference. This is partly because of associations with the horizon/gravity. Our frame of vision is horizontal and our eyes see more easily from side to side. Horizontal lines tend to give a sense of stability, weight, calm, restfulness and space.
  • Vertical lines are the second primary component of the frame. A vertical line is naturally seen in terms of alignment with the frame. Without horizontal lines to give a supporting base, a vertical line usually has more of a sense of speed and movement, either up or down. Several vertical lines may have the sense of a barrier. They can express strength, power, height and grandeur. A single vertical line sits more comfortably in a vertical format. A series of verticals may require a horizontal format which allows more to be made of the series.
  • Perpendicular lines: energies are perpendicular and each one acts as a stop to the other. Can create a primary sense of balance because of the underlying association with standing upright supported by a level surface. If used strongly this can produce a solid, satisfying feeling. Alignment to the reference point of the frame is important.
  • Diagonals and zigzags  give a sense of motion and tension. Of all lines they introduce the most dynamism into a picture and are highly active, with greater expression of direction and speed than verticals. Represent unresolved tension and lead the eye along most easily. They have associations of depth and distance which can be manipulated to increase depth. By changing the perspective only by some degrees or some centimetres lines in images can change tremendously and a totally different feeling can be transported. Tightly angled convergent lines give a dynamic, lively, and active effect to the image whereas strongly angled, almost diagonal lines generally produce tension in the image.
  • Tangents force the eye to look at the point of contact.
  • Curved lines are generally used to create a sense of flow within an image. Compared to straight lines, curves provide a greater dynamic influence in a picture. Curves are inherently attractive to most people, particularly when they undulate. They carry the eye along. Curves make a more substantial contrast with straight lines than do the different types of straight lines amongst themselves. Useful contrasts can be made.
    Curves have associations with smoothness, grace and elegance.
  • Lines by implication : Lines are often by implication, our imagination making connections between points. The brain often unconsciously reads near continuous lines between different elements and subjects at varying distances. Even irregular groupings of things can become resolved into lines when seen at a distance.
  • Counterpoint: don’t have lines leading out of the frame that are not led back, if all lines are in the same direction a composition can look dull. Futurist movement versus balance.


A shape is defined as a two or more dimensional area that stands out from the space next to or around it due to a defined or implied boundary, or because of differences of value, colour, or texture. A shape is therefore both an outline and an enclosure, although the extent to which it appears as one or the other depends very much on the subject and the lighting. Contrast either of tone or colour, also helps to decide whether shape will be important in that picture. Definable shapes organise part of the picture and provide structure to an image. It helps groups of things to cohere. All objects are composed of shapes and all other ‘Elements of Design’ are shapes in some way.

Regular, mechanical or geometric shapes are the shapes that can be drawn using a ruler or compass. Mechanical shapes, whether simple or complex, produce a feeling of control or order.

Triangles occur more frequently than other any other shape because they are the simplest shape of all. Because they always have at least two diagonals, they tend to create a sensation of activity and dynamism. Even two sides will give the impression of a triangle, provided they penetrate far enough into the picture. The natural tendency of linear perspective is for lines to converge on the vanishing point and form two sides of a triangle. Distinction between:

  • real triangles – actual triangular objects all triangles created by perspective.
  • implied triangles where planes encourage the eye to imagine a line to connect them. Emphasising the triangular structure is principally a matter of removing from view other distracting points, lines and the sidelines.

Irregular or organic shapes are freehand drawn shapes that are complex and normally found in nature. Organic shapes produce a natural feel.

Turbulent shape arrangements.

Repetition with variety: pattern, rhythm

Active, passive mix giving a place for the eye to rest. Notan

Odd number groups – maybe we like to see things in pairs, so we look for completion? Variety in threes.


In design, space is concerned with the area deep within the moment of designated design, the design will take place on. For a two-dimensional design, space concerns creating the illusion of a third dimension on a flat surface:

  • Overlap is the effect where objects appear to be on top of each other. This illusion makes the top element look closer to the observer. There is no way to determine the depth of the space, only the order of closeness.
  • Shading adds gradation marks to make an object of a two-dimensional surface seem three-dimensional.
  • Highlight, Transitional Light, Core of the Shadow, Reflected Light, and Cast Shadow give an object a three-dimensional look.
  • Linear Perspective is the concept relating to how an object seems smaller the farther away it gets.
  • Atmospheric Perspective is based on how air acts as a filter to change the appearance of distance objects.


Form may be described as any three-dimensional object. Form can be measured, from top to bottom (height), side to side (width), and from back to front (depth). Form is also defined by light and dark. It can be defined by the presence of shadows on surfaces or faces of an object. There are two types of form, geometric (man-made) and natural (organic form). Form may be created by the combining of two or more shapes. It may be enhanced by tone, texture and color. It can be illustrated or constructed.


Meaning the way a surface feels or is perceived to feel. Texture can be added to attract or repel interest to an element, depending on the pleasantness of the texture. Types of texture:

  • Tactile texture is the actual three-dimension feel of a surface that can be touched. Painter can use impasto to build peaks and create texture.
  • Visual texture is the illusion of the surfaces peaks and valleys, like the tree pictured. Any texture shown in a photo is a visual texture, meaning the paper is smooth no matter how rough the image perceives it to be.

Most textures have a natural touch but still seem to repeat a motif in some way. Regularly repeating a motif will result in a texture appearing as a pattern.

Design elements may be explored in their own right, but are generally considered in terms of relationships between one or more element. The following are just some things to think about, taken from a range of sources and experience/thoughts on previous courses in art and photography.

Principles of relationship between elements

Design elements may be explored in their own right, but are generally considered in terms of relationships between one or more element.

  • Unity/Harmony 
  • Hierarchy
  • Scale/proportion
  • Dominance/emphasis
  • Similarity and contrast
  • Repetition, Rhythm and Pattern: 
  • Viewpoint (leading the eye) and perspective
  • Creating movement
  • Simplification

Unity/harmony:When all elements are in agreement, a design is considered unified. No individual part is viewed as more important than the whole design.

  • Symmetry
  • Asymmetrical produces an informal balance that is attention attracting and dynamic.
  • Balance: It is a state of equalized tension and equilibrium, which may not always be calm.
  • Radial balance is arranged around a central element. The elements placed in a radial balance seem to ‘radiate’ out from a central point in a circular fashion.
  • Mosaic form of balance which normally arises from many elements being put on a page. Due to the lack of hierarchy and contrast, this form of balance can look noisy but sometimes quiet.

Hierarchy: A good design contains elements that lead the reader through each element in order of its significance. The type and images should be expressed starting from most important to the least important.

Scale/proportion: Using the relative size of elements against each other can attract attention to a focal point. When elements are designed larger than life, scale is being used to show drama.A subject can be rendered more dramatic when it fills the frame. There exists a tendency to perceive things as larger than they actually are, and filling the frame full fills this psychological mechanism. This can be used to eliminate distractions from the background.

  • Cropping
  • distant cropping, close cropping
  • boundary  relationships

Dominance/emphasis: Dominance is created by contrasting size, positioning, colour, style, or shape. The focal point should dominate the design with scale and contrast without sacrificing the unity of the whole.

Similarity and contrast: Planning a consistent and similar design is an important aspect of a designer’s work to make their focal point visible. Too much similarity is boring but without similarity important elements will not exist and an image without contrast is uneventful so the key is to find the balance between similarity and contrast.

Similar environment: There are several ways to develop a similar environment:

  • Build a unique internal organization structure.
  • Manipulate shapes of images and text to correlate together.

Perspective: sense of distance between elements.
Similarity: ability to seem repeatable with other elements.
Continuation: the sense of having a line or pattern extend.
Repetition: elements being copied or mimicked numerous times.
Rhythm: is achieved when recurring position, size, color, and use of a graphic element has a focal point interruption.

Negative space: Give the eye somewhere to rest

Color: Contrast: the value, or degree of lightness and darkness, used within the picture.


Repetition has a peculiar but generally very strong appeal, particularly when it is unfamiliar to the viewer:

  • rhythm or dynamic repetition: the movement across a picture (or more properly, the movement of the eye through a picture). Rhythm can be made more dynamic by encouraging a figure or point to break the rhythm. As the eye in Western culture naturally follows a rhythmical structure from right to left to right, it is often best to place a point on the right so that the eye has time to establish the rhythm before noticing it.
  • pattern or spatial repetition: essentially static and concerned with area. Ordered rows of large numbers of things produce regular patterns, but the slight variations in detail maintain interest. If the placing is irregular, the framing needs to be tight on the objects if they are to form a pattern.

Viewpoint (leading the eye): The position of the viewer can strongly influence the aesthetics of an image, even if the subject is entirely imaginary and viewed “within the mind’s eye”. Not only does it influence the elements within the picture, but it also influences the viewer’s interpretation of the subject.

Division of space

informal subdivision

high low horizons

Rule of thirds, golden mean, rebatement of the rectangle: The objective is to stop the subject(s) and areas of interest (such as the horizon) from bisecting the image, by placing them near one of the lines that would divide the image into three equal columns and rows, ideally near the intersection of those lines. The rule of thirds is thought to be a simplification of the golden mean. The golden mean is a ratio that has been used by visual artists for centuries as an aid to composition. When two things are in the proportion of 1:1.618 (approximately 3 to 5), they are said to be in the golden mean. Dividing the parts of an image according to this proportion helps to create a pleasing, balanced composition. The intersection points on a golden mean grid appear at 3/8 in and 3/8 down/up, rather than at 1/3 in and 1/3 down/up on the grid of thirds.

Rule of odds: The “rule of odds” states that by framing the object of interest with an even number of surrounding objects, it becomes more comforting to the eye, thus creates a feeling of ease and pleasure. The “rule of odds” suggests that an odd number of subjects in an image is more interesting than an even number. An even number of subjects produces symmetries in the image, which can appear less natural for a naturalistic, informal composition. Related to the rule of odds is the observation that triangles are an aesthetically pleasing implied shape within an image.

Baselines and ground contour: foreground, middle ground and background division.ensure that you indicate the contours of the land, even if it appears flat. Use variations such as differences in soil colour, texture, vegetation, wind in grass etc. Light and shadow on land.

Overlapping forms: overlapping forms give a feeling of depth to space. If forms do not overlap there is no depth.

Tie together: If you have a distinct division of space that extends from one side of the painting to the other, tie the two divisions together by crossing the division with something in the foreground.


Images with clutter can distract from the main elements within the picture and make it difficult to identify the subject. By decreasing the extraneous content, the viewer is more likely to focus on the primary objects. Clutter can also be reduced through the use of lighting, as the brighter areas of the image tend to draw the eye, as do lines, squares and colour. In painting, the artist may use less detailed and defined brushwork towards the edges of the picture. Removing the elements to the focus of the object, taking only the needed components.Merge shapes that have similar values into larger shapes of one value.


  1. Law of Proximity. Visual elements are grouped in the mind according to how close they are to each other.
  2. Law of Similarity. Elements that are similar in some way, by form or content, tend to be grouped.
  3. Law of Closure. Elements roughly arranged together are seen to complete an outline shape. The mind seeks completeness.
  4. Law of Simplicity. The mind tends towards visual explanations that are simple; simple lines, curves, and shapes are preferred, as is symmetry and balance.
  5. Law of Common Fate. Grouped elements are assumed to move together and behave as one.
  6. Law of Good Continuation. Similar to the above, this states that the mind tends to continue shapes and lines beyond their ending points .
  7. Law of Segregation. In order for a figure to be perceived, it must stand out from its background. Figure-ground images exploit the uncertainty of deciding which is the figure and which is the background, for creative interest.

‘Grouping plays a large part in Gestalt thinking, and this is known as “chunking.”


  1.  Emergence. Parts of an image that do not contain sufficient information to explain them suddenly pop out as a result of looking long enough and finally grasping the sense .
  2.  Reification. The mind fills in a shape or area due to inadequate visual input. This includes closure (above).
  3. Multistability. ln some instances, when there are insufficient depth clues, objects can be seen to invert spontaneously. This has been explolted more in art (M. C. Escher, Salvador Dali) than in photography.
  4. Invariance. Objects can be recognized regardless of orientation, rotation, aspect, scale, or other factors.

Michael Freeman The Photographer’s Eye p38

Creating movement

Movement is the path the viewer’s eye takes through the artwork, often to focal areas. Such movement can be directed along lines edges, shape and colour within the artwork.


  • turbulent shape arrangements.
  • variety in division of space.
  • repetition with variety: pattern, rhythm
  • active, passive mix. Need place for the eye to rest. But depends on overall aim of picture.
  • odd number groups – maybe we like to see things in pairs, so we look for completion? Variety in threes.

Rule of space: The rule of space aims to give the illusion of movement, or which is supposed to create a contextual bubble in the viewer’s mind. This can be achieved, for instance, by leaving white space in the direction the eyes of a portrayed person are looking, or, when picturing a runner, adding white space in front of them rather than behind them to indicate movement.

Other techniques that can act together:

  • There should be a centre of interest or focus in the work, to prevent it becoming a pattern in itself;
  • The direction followed by the viewer’s eye should lead the viewer’s gaze around all elements in the work before leading out of the picture;
  • The subject should not be facing out of the image;
  • Exact bisections of the picture space should be avoided;
  • Small, high contrast, elements have as much impact as larger, duller elements;
  • The prominent subject should be off-centre, unless a symmetrical or formal composition is desired, and can be balanced by smaller satellite elements
    the horizon line should not divide the art work in two equal parts but be positioned to emphasize either the sky or ground; showing more sky if painting is of clouds, sun rise/set, and more ground if a landscape
  • Variety: no spaces between the objects should be the same. They should vary in shape and size. That creates a much more interesting image.

Focal point:

  • staccato focal point: a small point or line that the viewer’s eye gravitates to
  • focal area: a specific area of colour or value

focus may be achieved by:

  • directing lines,/intersection of lines or implied lines,
  • contrast in colour, saturation, temperature,
  • texture, moves to areas of high density and detail.
  • shape or relation of shape to boundary, value. Isolation. rule of thirds.

A composition may have primary and secondary focus of interest. Not all images have to have a focal point or focal area. Or focal area may be large. Or there can be more than one and the interest is in the relationship between the two.

Eye movement

the aim is to keep the interest of the viewer and keep their attention in the frame.

  • types of path: C forms, S forms, I forms.
  • entry point, often in bottom left . Avoid splitting painting in two.
  • avoid leading eye into a corner, take it back in and around.
  • avoid trapping the eye in one part of the frame.
  • repeat colour spots. Linking lights, guiding darks and lights
  • let the brain fill the gaps.



  • de Sausmarez, M. (1964). Basic Design: The Dynamics of Visual Form. London: A&C Black.
  • Dow, A. W. (1997). Composition: A series of exercises in art structure for the use of students and teachers. California, USA: University of California Press.
  • Freeman, M. (2007). The Photographer’s Eye: composition and design for better digital photos. Lewes, East Sussex: ILEX.
  • Freeman, M. (2008). Mastering Digital Photography. Lewes, East Sussex: ILEX.
  • Freeman, M. (2010). The Photographer’s Mind: Creative thinking for better digital photos. Lewes, East Susse: ILEX.
  • Kandinsky, W. (1979). Point and Line to Plane. New York: Dover Publications.
  • Kandinsky, W. (1977). Concerning the Spiritual in Art. New York: Dover Publications.
  • Pipes, A. (2008). Foundations of Art and Design. London, UK: Laurence King Publishing.
  • Poore, H. R. (1967). Pictorial Composition, An Introduction. New York: Dover Publications Inc.
  • Roberts, I. (2007). Mastering composition: techniques and principles to dramatically improve your painting. Cincinnati, Ohio: Northlight Books.



2: Abstraction Media Random abstract


A key focus in my printmaking is experimentation with different inks:

  • the range of different effects that can be achieved through different mark-making (including dripping, dribbling) and mark-making implements (including fingers, masks and palette knives)
  • how inks react with different mediums like impasto, transparency medium and also water and solvents
  • interactions of different types of ink, both used together to produce blending and viscosity effects and also overlaid
  • the effects of different types of plate like soft-foam, foamboard, cardboard and collagraph textures
  • the effects of paper texture, thickness and dampness
  • effects of different hand printing and pressures of the press

For ink experimentation with mixed inks see:

Although I also use oil-based inks, I am particularly interested in pushing the potential of water-based and water-soluble inks because I am allergic to solvents so can only use these in very small amounts. This means I also experiment a lot with inks during the cleaning-up process – rolling onto scrap paper and printing from the inking plate – in order to minimise the ink that needs to be cleaned off rollers and plates. These papers are then used in colllage.

Water-based inks

Akua liquid pigment

used in:

Schminke water-soluble inks

used in:

Water-washable oil-based inks

Akua intaglio

used in:

Holbein Duo water-soluble oil paint

Caligo safewash

Oil-based inks

Hawthorne ink

used in:

References and Resources

Graver, M. (2011). Non-toxic printmaking. London, A&C Black.
Hoskins, S. (2004). Inks. London, A&C Black.

ink comparison chart

2: Abstraction Media Monoprint Random abstract

Akua Inks

Akua Intaglio inks  are soy-based and water-soluble. They dry on contact with the paper through absorption into paper fibres, not on the plate which means they can be manipulated for a long time. But drying times are longer than water-based ink.

They can be used for drypoint, etching, relief printmaking, monotype and collograph printmaking. Blending medium gives water-colour effects. Akua inks are less viscous than standard oil-based inks, but for a stiffer ink eg for impasto they need to be mixed with Mag Mix.

Akua liquid pigments were  originally developed for monotype printmaking, but it can also used for other techniques such as Japanese woodcut and painting on paper. They have a slow drying formula which will allow for an extended working time to create images on a monotype plate. They can be mixed into Akua Intaglio Inks or the Transparent Base to create new colours, it can also be printed on top or beneath Akua Intaglio inks for multi-plate overlays. All colours are lightfast. Can be printed on dry paper.

I used Akua inks in:

Project 2.2 Random Abstract Prints (monoprints with Richter-type effects with palette knife)

More experiments planned in Part 5.

Videos with basic techniques




1: Landscape 2: Abstraction Inspiration

Cy Twombly

Cy Twombly website

The following is edited from article by on Tate website


Born and bred in Lexington, Virginia, Twombly was deeply influenced by Modern European art, particularly twentieth century European painting, and moved to Italy in 1957. Since that date he has worked in Rome and various locations in Italy and the United States as well as travelling widely around the Mediterranean.


Throughout his career, Twombly’s paintings have been based on two components – line and paint.

In such early works as Panorama 1955 (Daros Collection, Switzerland), a monotone grey canvas is covered in irregular chalk scribbles which hover on the verge of becoming recognisable as letters or ciphers.

In the 1960s, daubs, smears and drips of colourful paint applied with a brush, the brush handle and the tips of the artist’s fingers begin to supersede the crayon and graphite marks of his earlier paintings. In some paintings, such as August Notes from Rome 1961 (Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC), line is almost completely replaced by colourful patches of paint; in others, such as Leda and the Swan 1961 (collection the artist), it is a source of violent energy.

Since the mid 1970s, the linear marks frequently take the form of text, introducing a third component: written language. Clumsy capitals or scrawled cursive letters are mixed with doodled shapes and indecipherable scribbles usually in compositional balance with painted elements. The tension between the graphic qualities of linear inscription and the sensual materiality of paint is central to the impact of the work. This runs parallel to a tension between intellectual cultural history and intuitive emotional expression enacted in Twombly’s paintings. Classical mythology, literature and historical works of art are appropriated and translated into a visual response which is tactile, visceral and aesthetic. His particular reference to Greek and Roman myths evokes an archaic symbolism, a subject he shares with the American Abstract Expressionists. A generation younger, he is further connected to this movement by his expressive, ‘gestural’ use of paint.

Four Seasons


Primavera, or spring, represents the first season of the year. A column of red curved and slashed forms dominates the image. These relate to traditional Egyptian rowing boats which, it has been suggested, symbolise the journey through the underworld in the Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead’ (Bastian, p.37, note 15). Twombly lived for several months in Egypt in the mid 1980s and began to use the symbol of the boat in 1992. In Primavera, the red boat forms are smeared with patches of yellow, as though touched by the sun. In part II, Estate (Tate T07888), echoes of the boat forms in black, over-painted with white, are entirely covered with yellow, perhaps concealed by the blinding summer sun. The yellow patches in Primavera are applied in a central row, drawing the eye upwards to the top of the painting, where they culminate in a bouquet-like form containing touches of purple and pink. Strokes of white paint cover parts of the bouquet and the red boats, obliterate long dribbles of red paint and other smears and form a background for areas of text. The title Primavera, with the artist’s initials and the date ‘June 94’ written in red crayon, is followed by a fragment of poetic text in pencil referring to happiness and emotion ‘that almost overwhelms’. Twombly’s impression of spring is vibrant and celebratory.



Autunno, or autumn, represents the third season of the year. The idea for the cycle began with this season, inspired by the wine harvest in Bassano in Teverina. Appropriately for the season, the colours in this painting are the richest in the group. The title is painted in irregular, dripping brown capitals near the top of the painting. Patches of deep greens, reds and browns blend with smears of dark blue, violet and yellow. On the left, stalks tipped with berries drawn with dark crayon emerge from clusters of muddy brown paint smeared with the artist’s finger tips. Placed in a vertical line above a thickly painted green area, the clusters of brown paint and their long drips form a dark margin on the side of the painting. Other finger smears and prints in red and green appear near a central formation of mixed, smeared colours. Near this, round patches of red extend towards the right with long, horizontal projections, echoing the direction of the stalks and suggesting movement. This appearance of sideways movement across the canvas dramatically counterbalances the sense of verticality created by the long drips. White paint, used to cover marks and text, has been applied more sparingly than in other paintings in the cycle. The words ‘your blood’ may be distinguished, half concealed by streaks and dribbles. Other text is too fragmented to be legible.


Inverno, or winter, represents the fourth season of the year. In this painting, the jagged forms made up of horizontal and vertical strokes which produced curved ‘boats’ in parts I and II of the cycle, Primavera (Tate T07887) and Estate (Tate T07888), are depicted in an altered state in black. Heavily painted over and blended with one another, they are virtually indistinguishable as discrete forms. On the right side of the painting, black boat shapes beginning at the centre expand upwards into a large black patch. This is balanced by a smaller black patch at the bottom left of the painting. Swathes of white and daubs of yellow have been mixed over the areas of black, breaking it up so that it evokes pine branches buffeted by rain. Marks made by the movement of the artist’s fingers and brush across the canvas in horizontal streaks has created a sense of sideways motion, echoing that made by horizontal strokes of red in Autunno (Tate T07889). Fragments of text and other marks on the cream canvas are covered by white paint. Several layers of this have been smeared over a large proportion of the canvas in a thin wash resulting in dribbles over much of the central area. Minimal blobs of light green in the centre and a patch of pale yellow on the right soften the harsh atmosphere of the image, which conveys a strong sense of winter’s harsh winds and bleak cold

Quattro Stagioni is a cycle of four paintings representing the four seasons. Tate’s version is the second of two cycles; the first is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Both cycles were begun in 1993 at Twombly’s studio in Bassano in Teverina (north of Rome) and completed in 1994 at another house owned by the artist in Gaeta on the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Twombly’s representations of the four seasons are typical to his production of the late 1980s and 1990s in which light has become a principal theme. His prominent use of white echoes that of French Impressionists such as Claude Monet (1840-1926) for whom it was an important ingredient in the depiction of light. A series of nine paintings, Untitled 1988 (Cy Twombly Gallery, Houston), portraying the green reflective surfaces of a watery pool, recalls Monet’s celebrated paintings of his water garden at Giverny, France created between 1899 and 1926. Plant life and the sea also recur in Twombly’s imagery of this period. A single work is frequently made up of several parts, as in Quattro Stagioni which is subtitled A Painting in Four Parts.

The four seasons as symbols of the natural cycles of birth and death are a classical theme in poetry, music and painting. In Twombly’s Quattro Stagioni strong colours evoking the brilliance of the Mediterranean light are combined with scrawled poetic fragments from several sources. After pre-priming the canvases with cream-coloured gesso, the artist pinned them to the wall and applied individual colours, allowing the paint to dribble down in long, vertical lines.

Estate, or summer, represents the second season of the year. Predominantly white and yellow, the painting is dominated by the blinding light of mid-summer in a hot country. The canvas is covered with many layers of paint and text in pencil and red crayon. Echoes of the red boat-shapes, which form a central column in part I, Primavera (Tate T07887), cross the centre of this painting in a diagonal line. Originally painted in black, they have been covered by patches of bright yellow, onto which the artist has made vertical and horizontal pencil lines repeating the basic form of the boat. This relates to traditional Egyptian rowing boats which, it has been suggested, symbolise the journey through the underworld in the Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead’ (Bastian, p.37, note 15). Twombly lived for several months in Egypt in the mid 1980s and began to use the symbol of the boat in 1992. On the right side of Estate, passages of a poem by the Greek poet George Seferis (1900-71) are partially legible. Referring to the transience of youth and the passage of time, it evokes the vanitas tradition, in which symbols of mutability and mortality undercut symbols of beauty and fertility. At the top of the painting, the name Baia de Gaeta is superimposed over the words ‘Say goodbye Catullus to the shores of Asia Minor’. Twombly subsequently used these words as the subtitle for a painting in three parts begun in 1972 and finally completed in 1994. This work, Untitled Painting 1994 (Cy Twombly Gallery, Houston) shares much of the imagery of Quattro Stagioni, including the journeying boats and the focus on white light. The Roman lyric poet Catullus (84-54 BC) died soon after returning to Rome from the neighbouring province of Bithynia, Asia Minor, reputedly of a broken heart.
Further reading:
Heiner Bastian: Cy Twombly: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, volume IV 1972-1995, Munich 1995, pp.34-5 and 178, reproduced p.180 in colour
Demosthenes Davvetas, Roberta Smith and Harald Szeemann, Cy Twombly: Paintings, Works on Paper, Sculpture, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London and Städtische Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf 1987
Kirk Varnedoe, Cy Twombly: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York 1994, pp.162-5
Elizabeth Manchester
May 2003
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1: Landscape 2: Abstraction Abstract Media Monoprint Natural

Forest Moses


Forrest Moses monotype
Forrest Moses monotype
Forrest Moses monotype
1: Landscape 2: Abstraction 4: Portrait 5: Memory Abstract Figure Media

Hughie O’Donoghue

O’Donoghue was born in England but lived and worked for many years in County Kerry, Ireland. He graduated from Goldsmiths in 1982 and was Artist in Residence at the National Gallery, London from 1984-85.

His work is characterised by an engagement with the past. He uses figuration and abstraction to explore themes of human identity, memory, remembering and experience; and draws on history, mythology and personal records to create works which resonate with emotional intensity.

His printmaking includes very large carborundum plates of figures. He mixes fine grain carborundum, acrylic paste and black acrylic paint. He paints this on the plate with a thick brush, wiping off and reworking the image on the plate before it dries. This makes a complex, multi-layered texture. He often uses aluminium plates. Prints on thick Arches paper.

Hughie O’Donoghue installation at IMMA  2009


The Measure of All Things Introduction


‘The Road’


Lost Histories


‘Artists never completely control the meaning of their work’

Artist’s Laboratory Royal Academy 2005  review

The Measure of all Things Westminster Abbey 2014

bbc your paintings page

2: Abstraction Inspiration Printmakers

Angela Cavalieri

Angela Cavalieri produces very large art linocuts based on text and visual storytelling. These have a very dynamic rhythm with swirls of words and architectural forms.

Angela Cavalieri’s website:

Google for her large linocut prints

Angela Cavalieri: large scale linocut printmaking process for Guerra e Amore


Guerra e Amore is based on music of Claudio Monteverde and the architectural drawings and prints of Giovanni Battista Piranesi

She does extensive visual research to develop the basic concept.

She then works directly on the linocut  –  for Guerra e Amore she spent 2 months drawing, cutting and redrawing using ink, charcoal and chalk. Text has to be back to front and has to be drawn and redrawn many times to get the overall effect.

She then cuts the large block into different coloured block pieces and draws on registration marks on a large under-paper.

She handprints onto rolled canvas. Needs assistance eg 7 people for printing. Issues in consistent inking – takes about an hour and has to be done before dries out. Burnishes and hand prints. The whole process takes takes about 6 hours.

Touches up a bit with a hand brush. Paints in background with oil paint. Then hangs.