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Abstract Art Techniques by Laura L. Leatherwood


I am Laura L. Leatherwood, an abstract artist. Let me share my process of design. With a background in fine art and digital art, I love to combine these mediums together. It results in a unique design with a magical twist.

My painting surface is the first most important item in my project supplies. When I first started making abstract work, I made a box gelatin plate in a baking dish. But, it did not work for me. The gelatin smell put me off and it took up a large space in my refrigerator. I quickly purchased a permanent product that can be stored at room temperature. Now I use whatever suits me, whether it be a professional item, a silicone baking mat, or even another sheet of paper.

The second most important tool in my abstract process is a roller, called a brayer. I use this tool to spread my paint smoothly and evenly. After that, all additional mark making instruments are a free-for-all. I use paint brushes, sponges, onion bags, bubble wrap, and even toilet paper rolls to mark through the paint on the plate surface. I am always looking through my recyclables for containers with interesting shapes or textures.

Because I am on a budget, I throw any acrylic paint I already have on my plate. I’ve used professional paint, craft paint, and even poster paints. Now, I don’t recommend this to everyone. Professional quality acrylic paints are professional for a reason. They have a richer saturation of color, light steadfastness, and archival qualities. If I do have a little money to splurge, I use a good cadmium red and cadmium orange to add pop to my work. Because I scan my work and process it further, I do not have to necessarily depend on a professional grade.

Anything goes when it comes to paper too. However, I tend to use a lot of paint. So, when I tried copy paper and scrapbook paper first, I had less than optimal results. Forget tissue paper. That falls apart right on the plate. I quickly changed to cardstock. It was heavy enough for me to be abusive with it. I can continue to layer on it and it does not fall apart. I love to use all the different colored cardstock to set up my background layer. Later, I discovered deli paper for ghost prints. Ghost prints are the second print I can pull off the plate, before loading it with more paint. It pulls off a fine layer of paint with an incredible amount of detail. The deli paper works great in collages too since it is semi-transparent.

In college, I learned the color spectrum as Roy G. Biv. These letters represent the colors of the rainbow. First, I start with the warm hues. I have the colors red, orange, yellow, and move toward the cools with green. The cool hues are blue, indigo, and violet. If I look at any color wheel, these colors will fill the same places around the perimeter of the circle.

The color value demonstrates the intensity of the color. In computer graphics, I would probably refer to it as the saturation of color. The best demonstration of color value is most easily seen between the colors of black and white. Black would be the full saturation of color and white would be the opposite. The gray scale, making up the colors in between are the value of black. Each color around the color wheel has its own value. In another example red would be the most saturated and pink values would lighten as it approached white.

The biggest complaint I see on the Internet regarding painting is getting muddy colors. In order to keep colors pure, I use analogous colors on my surface. I choose colors that are side-by-side on the color wheel. For instance, I combine warm colors, like red, orange and yellow. Or, I might want to use cool colors together instead.

I often use the subtractive method of design. I use my tools to remove paint from the paint surface. Once the design is complete, I choose a complimentary color and pull a print. A complementary color is a color on the opposite side of the color wheel from the one you used on the plate. I lay the cardstock over the surface and gently press with my hands to help transfer the paint to the paper.

I can not believe it when I see people clean their plate between pulls. I would rather be creating, not cleaning. I just chose the next analogous color and go for it. I either go clockwise or counterclockwise on the color wheel to choose my next color. I might go with a blue-green next. This color will blend nicely with any color residue I may still find leftover on your plate. I continue in the same direction around the wheel.

More color? Why not! No one says I can only have one color on my surface at a time. I have to remember to mind my colors on the color wheel.

I am an artist! Of course, I break the rules. After I have been around the block a time or two, so to speak, I add color as I see fit. Knowing that this is my last hurrah of the printing session, I add color pop by adding various paint colors. Sometimes I add a dab of color, and instead of using a brayer, I will smear it on the plate with the edge of a toilet paper roll. Or I can add a blob of paint and smash it down as I print on card stock. As I lift the paper, paint peaks often form with the excess paint and create a fantastic texture.

After pulling two dozen or so prints, I step away, clean my tools, and allow my prints to dry. I have an array of colors and patterns on my cardstock. However, they are all very flat images at this point. Sometimes, a simple design is all I need, but I always yearn for more. That will be a problem solved on another day.

The next day, I bring my prints inside to scan on a home office scanner. My prints are letter sized and work quite well on an inexpensive device. I scan each image at twice the normal print size. In other words, I set the scanner to 600dpi. Therefore, I have room to crop the image in the editing process and still have a substantial image to work with.

I have spoken a lot about the process of applying paint and transferring it to a printed copy. Now, I want to shift to talking about the image itself. What message am I trying to convey to my viewer? How do I place content on my page, making up the composition? Does the image have a focal point? Does my eye move around the image? What mood am I trying to evoke with the use of lines, shapes, colors, placement of objects, etc.?

The first thing I generally do is crop my image after I have scanned it. I determine what size I want the final image to be. Lately, I have been using the 8″ x 10″ ratio. That translates well when I sell my prints at 8″ x 10″, 16″ x 20″, and so on. The most common means of cropping is using the Rule of Thirds. Many digital graphics programs draw an imaginary grid on your work while you have the crop tool on. Instead of placing my focus smack dab in the middle, I center it along one of the intersecting points on the grid for greater visual impact. If I send anything small to a printer, they are usually looking for images at a resolution of 300dpi. For larger sized images, the resolution can decrease. As I stand further back from a piece, my eyes are more forgiving. To test this notion, look at a poster up close in a clothing store and you will see that it is very grainy compared to a magazine page.

I often add depth to my images while still in the painting process. The easiest way to create the illusion of depth in a 2-D space is by overlapping objects. In this case, I make another layer of paint over an existing one. The trick is to strip away areas of paint on the surface so the underlying image will be visible on the print. Larger objects in the foreground come forward and smaller objects beneath will recede. I can instantly create depth in my work by grounding it to my background. Instead of having a nondescript background, I try adding a floor, wall or ceiling. Or that could also be the ground and sky if I am are creating an outdoor scene. Again, larger overlapping objects in the foreground over smaller ones in the background will create the illusion of space. Shadows on these surfaces are also a must to create a more realistic environment.

Another method creating image depth is through the use of color theory. I take the full saturation of a color and add different amounts of white, to get various tints of a color. On the other hand, if I take the full saturation of color in a tube and add black by different increments, I get shades. Lighter colors, or tints, tend to move forward in an image. Meanwhile, darker colors or shades tend to recede. The same can be said for the intensity of color. A bright, saturated color moves forward while a muddy, or muted color, as it is called, recedes in an image.

Because I have mainly been working in the abstract, I must evaluate the orientation of the image. Does it feel better in landscape or portrait mode? I check for things like positive and negative space. It is more comforting to have the larger positive space on the bottom. Does the piece have converging lines? Which direction should the movement go? Lines that move up and to the right have a positive feeling to them. I often find it more pleasing to have a light source from above, like the sun shining down. Many different factors can decide which direction an image should face. I rotate the image accordingly.

I am having great pleasure working the last couple of years in the world of abstracts. I was introduced to painting through blogs featuring art journals. As an artist, I could never be pinned down to just one page. So instead, I have created my artwork on loose sheets. Yet, the premise of the journal is the same. I express myself with this artwork on a weekly basis and share how I am feeling on the inside by palette choices, the complexity of design, and the tone of the piece. I use a lot of experimentation based on previous results. The more you work with these mediums, the more second nature it becomes. It is a great release and an enjoyable activity.


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