Abstracting an Abstraction

Today I would like to show an example of the type of thinking I do when creating an abstract piece. When deciding to create a non-abstract work, the most important question I can ask myself is “what am I trying to convey?” It is only after answering this question that I can delve into the other choices an artist must make:

  • What medium do I use?
  • What size do I make this piece?
  • Is color important?
  • Is texture important?
  • What mood must I be in to make this piece?
  • How representative does the piece need to be of the subject?

This list of questions is almost endless, and typically making these decisions takes quite a bit of time. However, for an abstract piece, I find that the key is to simplify my life by choosing and answering just one of these secondary questions without figuring out what I am trying to convey, and letting the answers to the other questions come about naturally through the painting process.

Let’s take the following painting as a guide:

Rectangles, Yellow and Violet,” oil on canvas board, 11″ x 16″, Daniel A. Alfonso

This is a piece I completed about two years ago when I was mostly interested in color interactions. Here I asked myself “is color important,” and I decided that yes, I wanted this piece to be about color interaction. Therefore I made the very deliberate decision to paint this painting using just violet, yellow, and white. Everything else fell into place after I made this choice. I didn’t make textures because it didn’t add to importance of color. I made all the shapes rectangular because I believed the simplicity would highlight the color relationships, and I made the painting fairly small because the less time my eyes spend moving around the canvas, the more time I have to focus on the colors. These secondary decisions were made while I was making the painting, not before.

Then, yesterday morning, I spent a good bit of time looking at this painting and I realized that although I created the painting based on my color decisions, that wasn’t what this painting was trying to convey. Instead, I realized that this painting was about depth. It was about the interplay of positive and negative space. Are the dark violet rectangles the positive space, or the negative space?

Therefore, I asked myself another question: how can I distill the meaning of this painting? After some thought, I realized that what I needed to focus on next was texture. This was the basis for the following painting that I completed yesterday:

“Triptych: Yellow and Violet,” oil on Ampersand Gessobord, 6″ x 6″ per board, Daniel A. Alfonso

Here, I chose to paint solely with a painting knife to maximize texture, and all of the resulting decisions came about because I was only thinking about texture. I first started with the bottom panel, but then decided to add two more because I wanted to see how splitting the piece into three parts would affect a viewer’s perception of depth. Then, I wondered what could change if I left some parts blank, so I did just that. The result is a painting that explores the materiality of undiluted oil paint.

Backwards thinking of this kind is what leads to my most effective abstract pieces, and I encourage everyone to try making a piece in this manner. Let go of all but one decision and explore freely, and you’re bound to make plenty of interesting discoveries.

Until next time,




  1. I have “taken the ideas apart” sometimes when I’m working, but I never considered focusing exclusively on texture. Your description of the processes you used in these two sets of works is very provocative. In particular regarding texture as a separable expressive element, I must give that more thought.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As an art newbie, I’ve noticed it tends to feel like all the “advanced artists” are masters of juggling thousands of artistic choices at once—choices well outside the grasp of a beginner. I’m sure there is some decision juggling going on, but I love your take on this: One decision “makes the painting.” All the others “make it work.” The natural flow of it is much less intimidating. Thanks for sharing your process!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I start with a few colors and a feeling, and that’s it. I like the way you think your abstract pieces through. It seems like a better way to go about it. Love your color choices and both of your pieces. Nice work, Daniel. And I love that you work in so many different mediums.


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