Moving From Realism to Abstraction

I can’t tell you how many times people tell me, “I LOVE your old work!” Sometimes I wish I still loved doing what I used to do, but I don’t, and here is why.

The subject matter of my early work was attractive to me as a vehicle for reflecting my personal emotions: The horizon as the unrealized or the unattainable; empty landscapes as the isolation of the human condition, the hill in front of the viewer reflecting my sense of the Sisyphean struggle of life, etc. I was a biology student and a naturalist. I saw myself as “a speck of dust on the skin of creature earth,” and the landscapes and figures I painted were really self-portraits. I felt compelled to paint but I wasn’t very technically proficient.


A neophyte painter spends a lot of time just learning to master the medium and experimenting with its limits. For example, seeing a color and wanting to accurately translate it into a mixture of paint takes concentration and practice until that skill finally becomes second nature. Over the years technical proficiency did become second nature. I remember the sense of accomplishment I felt when I was able to make distance look distant, or to make a shadow look real, or to capture clouds, or perspective and composition. I also remember how quickly the satisfaction ended. The steps of painting began to seem to be: 1. Get a good idea 2. Commence the long boring execution of previous thought. 3. Wonder if a photo would do the trick instead. Painting had begun to lose its mystery and completing a piece felt like a long series of boring, linear steps to perform. My painting practice began to feel like typing instead of writing but I had not yet developed skills besides painting “accurately.” You could say I was stuck without knowing it. Everything seemed to be going so well in terms of my career – I got a lot of kudos and made a lot of sales, but I wasn’t feeling very inspired anymore.

I started to notice that the paintings I was admiring at that point had some element of controlled accident or spontaneity in their brushstroke that I really admired and I started trying to incorporate that into my own work. The places I depicted became increasingly indistinct and universal. People see any horizontal line as a landscape and the landscape was still present in my work largely because it was my vehicle, not because the scene itself meant something to me. Since the paintings were not at all about place, but about life, the word “landscape” didn’t feel like it fit me anymore, but I was still described as a landscape painter. I felt misunderstood, but perhaps it was me who misunderstood that I was being anchored by my dead relationship to a vehicle.

At that point I still did not have any attraction to abstract art. I did not understand it. I would look at something by Joan Mitchell or Milton Resnick (powerful inspirations now) and think that old cliché, “a kid could paint that!”

I wanted to be open minded, but trying to like abstraction was like trying to love a book that was written in a language I couldn’t read. It felt phony to have an opinion about something I hadn’t really experienced. Maybe being a realistic painter myself made the process harder, because I did understand some of the alphabet and ran what I saw through the filter of my own formal artistic vocabulary, while an onlooker could take all art in equally as if they were reading Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, understanding nothing and everything at the same time.

Artistic growth stemmed from that dissatisfaction. (Doesn’t all growth come from something unpleasant?) Over time, marks that once looked like mistakes began to look compelling and so I tried to focus on them. It was much harder to move forward without a road map, so to speak, but knowing where I was supposed to end up was what was killing the creativity in the first place so I learned to embrace the process. The most wonderful part of this different approach was that each step of the piece was informed by the last mark made instead of some final vision of how the work should end up, lending a give and take to the creation of each piece that lasted from the first mark until the very last. Making each painting felt like solving a puzzle or a riddle, or slowly discovering what is there to be discovered. Naturally the horizon was left behind in this process, as was the need to reference anything real and external. The painting became a map or testament to the dialogue of the process.

A wonderful thing about this transformation is that now when I see other’s work through my own experience I have a platform that is much broader than, “a kid could paint that.” The randomness of “scribble” art used to bother me, for example, but now I don’t see it as random at all. I see the genius of an artist who never got bogged down in formalism in the first place. All sorts of art seems more accessible now. A world of appreciation has been opened up to me.



I still love painting with skill: showing effects of light, of distance, of mood… carefully mixing colors, and caring about composition. I don’t think I could paint the way I do now without all those years of working on technical skill. I still grapple with the idea that there is no right and wrong, and I still feel weighted down by a burning desire to move forward without exactly knowing how. In twenty more years I will probably look back with clarity about this phase as well.