Mixed Message

Any artist who paints improvisationally is a bold and adventurous spirit. Starting with a spontaneous, abstract beginning, the experimental watercolorist still must deal with all the principles and elements of design to make a good painting. The ambiguous forms created from the natural flow of the medium onto a wet surface are magical, but it’s the refinement and development of those forms that will capture the imagination of the viewer.

In a realistic painting, there’s an obvious subject and, thus, an automatic dialogue with the viewer. The abstract artist, however, must ensnare the viewer by more circuitous means. Donald L. Dodrill’s painting Venturing Out strives to create a marriage between abstract and realistic properties. The trick here is in integrating these opposite concepts properly.

Dodrill is obviously a masterful painter with superior technical skills and a marvelous understanding of the watercolor medium. Venturing Out displays his expertise. His composition is well balanced, he’s included a strong contrast of light and dark, and the premise—bringing a realistic element into an abstract environment——is intriguing.

The painting is the result ofan improvisational painting experience. Dodrill did not plan his composition in advance, although he had a vague concept in mind. “Many artists, myself included, reach into their imaginations to inject an atmosphere of emotion, mystery, or impact into a painting,” he says. Such was the case with Venturing Out; Dodrill used sketches and photo references only for the realistic marine life elements he included later.

Art Principles At Work
Like most improvisations, this piece developed as Dodrill applied paint. From a wet-into-wet beginning of burnt sienna, Naples yellow, sap green, sepia and Antwerp blue, Dodrill dropped in opaque whites, which created abstract patterns. Images emerged, suggesting the tangled roots of a tree near a body of water. At this point, he chose to add a frog to represent marine life in this setting.

His composition is an amazing network of linear structures and ambiguous forms, all very interesting. But what happens when he inserts a super-realistic frog—as well as a lily pad complete with budding flower—into this complex web of intricate shapes? For me, the mystery evaporates and my eye is stuck on the frog. I don’t mean to suggest that artists should never juxtapose realistic images with abstract ones. But I do believe that those realistic forms must be carefully integrated into the painting.

It’s a common problem facing most painters, no matter what the medium: How do you successfully incorporate a subject into the background without having it appear pasted on? Dodrill has a couple of possibilities for tackling the problem created by such precise rendering.

Interpret, don’t identify. Dodrill might have been able to “find” the frog amidst the paint already on the paper rather than superimposing it over the abstract design. In other words, if he concentrated more on negative painting (painting the space around the frog), the animal would perhaps appear more entrenched.

Interpretive painting calls for interpretive color. When painting abstractly, an artist can simplify things for himself by selecting a limited palette beforehand. Even now, to kill two birds with one stone, Dodrill could apply a neutral wash over the lily pads and frog to create a more harmonious experience while also incorporating the frog into the background.

Minimize value differences. Another option would’ve been to make the values very close so that the subject stands out less against the surrounding areas. This isn’t about color; remember that all colors have a value (darkness vs. lightness) as well as a temperature (warm vs. cool). Squinting at a scene will tell you very quickly where the value differences lie.

Paint through boundaries. It’s also possible to soften the edges of your subject here and there to create a connection between it and the background. So if, for example, you’re painting a man wearing a white shirt, you can simply wash an edge or two of that shirt into the background. Integration would be complete.

Tone down the details. The late great Ed Whitney expounded on “the fatal futility of fact.” Keeping this quotation in mind, I suggest “washing out” some of the more rendered, illustrated aspects of the frog. A simple silhouette of the animal’s shape with an array of interesting color diffusions would be much more in keeping with the spirit of the painting’s origin—spontaneous, loose and intuitive.

Lessons Learned
Spontaneous beginnings give us carte blanche to create mystery in our paintings. When adding a realistic subject into an abstract background, the subject must be subtly connected to its surroundings—not separate from them—to ensure the integrity of the painting. Losing edges and suggesting, rather than illustrating, forms will keep you from giving away the whole story. And that will keep the viewer intrigued.

About the Artist
Donald L. Dodrill, of Upper Arlington, Ohio, wrote the watercolor book The Transparent Touch (Watson-Guptill Publications). He’s been painting for almost 50 years and has won more than 100 awards in nationwide exhibitions.

Maurice Sapiro, of North Haven, Connecticut, returned to his first love—oil painting—in 2000 after a 40-year hiatus brought on by allergies. Odorless mineral spirits and the use of Liquin in place of linseed oil allowed him to return to his easel after he retired from teaching instrumental music. His work has been exhibited in Connecticut and New York, including The National Academy of Design, and is in the permanent collection of The New Britain Museum of American Art. He’s represented by the Cooley Gallery in Old Lyme, Connecticut.

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