Have you ever yearned to move your realistic work towards a more abstracted, looser look? Well, this month’s guest is going to show you a surefire way to get there! Debora Stewart shares her story about how she moved towards creating more abstract florals and in doing so, shows you how you can do the same.
I wrote about one of Debora’s glorious pieces in a monthly round-up. You can read that here.
Don’t know Debora’s work? Have a look!
Before handing the blog over to Debora, here’s a wee bit about her!
Debora Stewart Bio
Debora Stewart is a Master Pastelist with PSA (Pastel Society of America) and in the Master’s Circle of IAPS (International Association of Pastel Societies). She is author of Abstract Art Painting: Expressions in Mixed Media and a series of videos on abstract painting by Northlight. She has taught many workshops throughout the US for artists.
You can find out more about Debora Stewart by visiting her website.
And now, I’m delighted to let Debora take it from here!
Beginnings of floral abstractions
Floral abstractions are not a new theme for me. I’ve been incorporating flowers and nature into my work since the early ’70s.
I’ve always had the tendency to look for abstract shapes in something more realistic. Even though I drew very realistically when younger and was able to render an accurate portrayal of the subject, I was always attracted to bold abstracts works like those by Franz Kline. It took me many years to become frustrated and brave enough to create my own abstracts.
After my years in college, I no longer had a model so I turned to plants and flowers. I tried to draw and paint them, but I was never satisfied. I started looking for artists who incorporated flowers in contemporary art. I purchased a book by New York artist Pat Steir and enjoyed her large experimental works of flowers. In the book, she also took a classical painting and divided it into different areas and painted each in a different style. Each section appeared as if an abstract painting. This fascinated me. I did a lot of searching and experimentation.
At this time, I was drawing from black-and-white photos of plants and flowers. I created large charcoal and graphite drawings of flowers. I also painted grids, in watercolors, of flowers. I became very frustrated and cut up the photos I was using as a reference. This act of frustration resulted in my finding a different way. I had one of those “ah-ha” moments.
I realized that I did not have to focus on an entire photo of drawing of a flower. Instead, I could use a small section. And this began my explorations into abstraction based on nature. I created many small charcoal drawings of small sections of black and white photos. I also realized that what felt good and what came natural to me was making marks on paper with charcoal. This felt great. I began to incorporate pastels in limited colors into the charcoal drawings. I realized this had to be my direction and I needed to leave other mediums alone and focus on one.
Progress and finding a style was not an overnight process. It has come with a lot of experimentation and small changes over time.
Finding my way with papers and techniques in pastel
I didn’t have a “style” and had no idea what would develop. I look at it as peeling away the layers of an onion to find deeper and deeper layers. I’m still in the process. In the beginning, I used Wallis paper almost exclusively. I covered and washed off a lot of Wallis paper!
I discovered the technique of underpainting and using pastel ground through reading blogs by other artists. Painting paper and applying ground was a game-changer for me. I began to incorporate drawing with charcoal into the mix. That has led me to my current way of working with pastels. It’s so important to try different surfaces and techniques of applying pastel to find what feels right for you.
Exploring Gardens and Flowers in Pastel
In warmer months I draw directly from nature. When I travel, I take a sketchbook with me and draw. I collect drawings of plants and flowers to use later in my pastels. I seldom work from photographs. I say that I am not a plein air artist, but I do draw outside quite often. I take a sketchbook and graphite or charcoal outside to a garden or setting in nature and use a blind contour approach to draw what I am looking at.
Drawing is the beginning of everything for me. Just the act of drawing settles and calms me. It is a type of meditation. I am feeling the need for this in our current state of the coronavirus. I think I will spend much more time drawing this spring and summer!
Working in Two Mediums
I now work almost equally in pastel and acrylic painting. I don’t have enough space to work on both at the same time so I will work on acrylic paintings for awhile and then put those away and work on pastels. Many of my pastels are completed in spring, summer and fall. I am outdoors more and am inspired by what I see and experience and this is translated into pastel. The pastels later inform the acrylic paintings.
One medium influences the other. My mark-making with pastel teaches me a variety of ways I can move my brush to achieve the same feel with acrylics. That doesn’t mean I am attempting to make my acrylic paintings look like my pastels.
Colors of my pastel paintings often inspire an abstract acrylic painting that follows. I can take a section of a pastel painting to inspire a new acrylic painting. I learn about color and value through pastel.
Mixing paint has taught me more about neutrals and this has resulted in my realizing how important neutrals are in my pastel paintings. Each is its own separate medium with different characteristics. One is a reflection of the other. Many of my pastels are obviously inspired by nature. This reference may not be as obvious in my large acrylic paintings but it is there.
I enjoy working on large acrylic paintings. I draw with charcoal and other mark-making tools on canvas. I can create a stain and underpainting on canvas with pastel and mat medium, inks, and fluid acrylics. I put my body into a large painting in order to create movement.
When a painting is large, I have a feeling of being inside of the painting. Moving from one side to the other, working with large brushes and long handles, dripping, scraping, washing, and other methods have allowed me to be experimental. Does this carry over to pastel? I would love to be able to do five-foot pastel paintings! Maybe someday I will!
My process in creating abstract florals in pastel step-by-step
1. I draw from nature and use a blind contour approach. This allows me to focus on the subject and not my paper. I am only concerned with looking carefully. I put my graphite pencil on the sketchbook and as my eye moves so does my hand. I follow the curves and folds of the flower and allow lines to overlap as I go. I slow down. It is very meditative.
2. When I get ready to create an abstract floral, I ask myself what color of painting I want to create. I don’t think about realism. This is where the abstract comes into play.
I create a bold and expressive underpainting with fluid acrylics, inks, or gesso on a sheet of Rives BFK paper. I tape it all around since it will buckle when it gets wet. I use wide brushes and apply very quickly, and I leave open areas and drips. These areas will be incorporated into the final pastel.
I dry this with a hairdryer. It will also flatten as it air dries.
3. I recreate my drawing on the underpainting. I may use portions of various drawings in one pastel. I move portions around in different compositions. I usually put this drawing on the underpainting using compressed charcoal.
4. I use a wide bristle brush and apply Liquitex clear gesso over the drawing. I apply in various directions and give it a liberal coat of gesso. It does smear the gesso as I don’t apply fixative. I like this effect as it blurs the edges and helps to loosen the drawing. I dry again with a hairdryer until it is flat.
5. The final step is to apply my soft pastels in a color range. I usually choose colors based on a complementary color scheme with additional neutrals. The pastels I like to use are Unison Colour, Mount Vision, Diane Townsend, and Girault. I do have a wide assortment, but these are the typical choices with an emphasis on Unison Colour pastels.
This process works for me and has allowed me to bring back some more realistic images into the abstracts that I have painted. I realized that I missed drawing from observation. Flowers give me the opportunity to draw from life.
Here are some of my thoughts on abstracting flowers or other subject matter.
How to Abstract Flowers or Any Realistic Subject
- Experiment with underpainting. Try creating a very expressive underpainting in one or two colors with large brushes. Allow paint to drip and don’t try to overthink it. An expressive underpainting is the foundation on which the subject will rest. This will allow you to abstract the subject further.
- Don’t think realistic colors. Flowers, figures, faces, and landscapes can be any color you want them to be. Don’t get stuck on the actual color of the subject. Choose the opposite color or something totally out of the ordinary.
- Draw the subject first. I like working from my drawings and rarely use photos. The drawing loosens up the subject and eliminates detail. I love a “blind contour” approach to drawing. This is the type of drawing where you hardly look at your paper and use one continuous line. I love this because it’s like meditating. I focus and do not concern myself with accuracy only with looking. You can also draw the gesture of a subject. Draw the mass of the subject. Anyway, create a drawing and use the drawing as your guide instead of a photo. It will result in a much more unique work.
- Simplify. Simplify your color choices. Simplify the shapes. Keep it loose and don’t focus on details.
- Think of any subject as shapes, line, and value. Don’t think “I have to make this look like a flower.” If you do happen to be using a photo, turn it upside down. For me, creating a non-objective painting and an abstract flower are much the same. I may create a blue abstract pastel garden that has references to flowers. I ask myself what color of painting do I want to create? I get my drawings out and use several for one painting. I take bits and pieces from various drawings and move them around. I never think of creating a realistic depiction of a garden or flower. Only a reflection.
- Draw and paint from memory. Look at a flower or garden and then look away. Try to draw or paint what you remember seeing.
Create with no end in mind
Right now, we are in a very uncertain time. I don’t know what the future holds. It can be difficult to stay motivated and inspired some days. I am used to always looking ahead and having goals to strive towards. I have been very fortunate and blessed to do what I have been able to do. It’s been a blessing to be part of a wonderful group of pastel artists. I’ve had the pleasure to get to know so many wonderful artists and feel a real sense of comradery. I will continue to create because I must. My teaching will probably be on hold for a while. I may resume teaching in 2021. I will spend the spring and summer drawing, painting pastels and acrylic paintings with no end in mind. Sometimes the best work is created without thought of a future show, competition, or sale. It’s created from pure inspiration and desire.
Gorgeous or what?? And doesn’t Debora make her technique look easy? So, are you going to try it out? Let us know in the comments! And please do share your thoughts and questions too. We want to hear from you!!
Until next time,
PS. Check out my short interview with Debora Stewart at the last IAPS convention by clicking here. (Just scroll down to find Debora’s interview.)