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what can we learn from abstract art?

January 11, 2011

Sometime last year, in a period where I was feeling low (which does not exactly narrow things down), I decided to participate in the Sketchbook Project 2011, run by the Brooklyn Art Library. Today I mailed off my sketchbook, in which approximately 3/4 of the pages are filled with my sketches.

Almost 29,000 people from 94 countries signed up to participate in the 2011 project. The Project’s sketchbooks will be starting their nationwide tour in March, so they may be coming to a venue near you.

After I received the blank sketchbook, I realized I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. It’s been many years since I had drawn or sketched regularly, and back when I was doing so, I drew things I saw in my environment (mostly plants) or creatures I imagined. But for the last several years, the art that I’ve created is abstract, not representational. So the first question became: what do I draw? And as I had no answer, the book sat, untouched.

Over the summer, I began painting again, and faced somewhat the same question. I was surprised at what the answer turned out to be. When I began a painting with images (or at least particular design elements) already in mind, the process was slow and frustrating, and I didn’t feel that any of the finished paintings really worked. On the other hand, when I began the painting process by looking for a color to be inspired by, and then just played with the paint in that color, as well as other colors I was interested in at that moment, … those paintings were lively and fun, I enjoyed the entire process, and without fail, design elements or motifs (none of which I had consciously created) appeared. And they were all meaningful. It was very odd, but quite wonderful.

Drawing or sketching though isn’t the same as spreading around globs of paint.

I tried a bunch of different techniques, to see if I could capture the spirit of my abstract paintings, and I think I managed to do so. (Even with the constraint I later added of trying to find methods that minimized repetitive hand motions.) Some drawings began with scribbles or doodles that created organic looking shapes that I filled with various color mixes. Some were line drawings. Several reuse favorite motifs in various configurations. I don’t think every single one is successful, but a large majority of them are. The main theme for each of them is the same, but I was surprised at how many different ways there were to address that theme.

And I don’t think you have to be interested in my philosophical musings to find the sketches attractive and interesting.

Design exercises I began doing two years ago, with paper collage, not only helped me create more interesting art in various media, but helped me conceptualize philosophical ideas that continue to grow in importance to me, some of which I’ve already written about, but others of which are still germinating.

The theme of my sketches is that every individual is a mosaic of influences, and our composition is dynamically changing all the time as we encounter other beings, experiences, and unfamiliar settings. Everyone’s voice is important, and deserves an audience. The more ideas that circulate, the likelier that we can find effective and robust ideas to put to good use in our lives. Everyone is connected, even when we feel isolated and alone. We all matter. And the sum of our influences on others can never be fully known.

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