In the spring issue of Acrylic Artist, we profile working artist Suzanne Yost McCourt. McCourt’s art is not of one genre. She moves, it would appear, effortlessly from one style to another. Her life’s story reveals her inspiration for her golf-centric art, but what about abstract art? Where does she find inspiration? How does she shift from representational to abstract? And most importantly, what can she teach us when we want to explore painting in abstract but have yet to take the first step?
When we asked McCourt for some advice, she shared the best advice—you learn by doing. Her response is part advice, part assignment.
SYM: I recently finished a class that took me on a journey back to the basics and forced me to let go of creating a finished piece of art in order grow my work.
STEP 1: Begin with no concept, no goal and certainly no ego. Let go of your own style and the preciousness of the surface.
STEP 2: Fold and cut three sheets of 22×30 BFK Rives paper into 12 equal sizes. You will have 12 sheets that are 15×11. Put together a grab bag of supplies: stencils, pen/ink, acrylic paint, charcoal, pastels, dirt, text, found objects, metal, anything! Make a viewfinder (5×7 or 4×6) or buy a small mat frame
STEP 3: Experiment by just making marks: doodles, pattern, lines, scrapes of paint, etc on the 15×11 sheets. Let dry. Now add more marks. DO NOT think about an end product, yet.
STEP 4: Now the fun part—the ongoing ‘end’ product—creating abstract painting.Take your marks and use on a background surface. Choose cheap cardboard, panels, canvas, papers, etc. or BFK Rives paper cut to same dimensions as in step 2. When you are working focus on Elements and Principles of Design. Elements; color, shape, texture, space, form, line and value. Principles; unity, balance, scale, contrast, rhythm and repetition.
Use any or all of the following:
1) Using viewfinder, find special elements within the marks you have created. Cut or tear them out. Place on your background surface.
2) Choose portions of the other marks to be used on the same surface.
3) Create a series of 3 – 5 paintings from various marks.
4) Paint into the marks creating designs. Tear or use entire image on surface
5) Cut or tear odd shapes from your marks
6) Tape off and 8x 10 section of 11x 15 BFK Rives. Design within the lines, or push a few marks out of the lines
STEP 5: Your abstract world is your oyster now!
AA: What is your inspiration for Sapphire and Marmalade?
SYM: As I was working more with mixed media, I found myself making more abstract marks. I gave myself permission to ‘go with the flow’ rather than adhere to the original concept. Sapphire and Marmalade came from a series of 20 works on watercolor paper that started with one element that was used throughout the 20 works—in this case, line. For each of the 20 pieces I worked on I changed one aspect such as color or texture. At the end I created abstracts with a cohesive composition that looked nothing like the original piece
AA: What advice can you give an artist who is thinking, for the first time, of seriously exploring abstract work?
SYM: I’ve come up with a saying that fits me, “I must always be open to learning in order to stay out of my own way.” There is so much more to learn, and if I am open my work will expand. Take a class that looks interesting, especially if they are out of your comfort zone. Every time I take a class, I stay open to instruction rather than creating what I already know. This allows me to propel myself forward.
AA: Where do you find your inspiration?
SYM: I’m that curious person who sees something visually unique out the car window, and jerks my family awake by saying “stop the car!” in order to take a photo. I am a sponge perusing museums, the internet—anything visual. I love pattern and texture, so imbedding handmade papers into my work is a natural for storytelling work. Recently I came to realize that my love of pattern came from fabric as I loved to sew at an early age.
AA: When painting a scene there are queues to follow- i.e. a house, hillside, a figure. With abstract- it can all evolve from a feeling, a color, shape you see on the sidewalk during walk. How do you start a painting?
SYM: Get out of your own head, and let go of creating the next great Picasso. Explore, make mistakes, make it pretty, make it ugly. My successful Guitar Man series came from a photo my friend gave me. I’ve painted him at least 60 times in different poses, colors, textures, papers and compositions. I cannot emphasize enough how painting in series catapulted my work forward. The image is the scaffolding and structure freeing up creating new ways to paint. Last week I made a 10 stencil drawings from shadows on my wall created by the architecture of a bannister and orchids intersecting. I will use them as lines or shapes of color in the background within a completely different painting as the cohesive structure.
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