Paintings for a dear friend

We’ve been staying in Tampa with our dear friends Ying and Ståle, and I wanted to make them some artwork. They said I could paint anything I wanted, but I know Ying’s taste runs to the abstract, so I thought I’d try some of that.

Abstraction is hard for me. I think my approach to drawing is closer to illustration than to pure expression — my favorite subjects are people and decorations — although I’m not really interested in illustrations unless they’re also highly expressive. But even when my drawings come out stylized, I like to start with something concrete; I have a hard time just doodling. But starting with an idea can make it difficult to translate that starting point into abstraction without getting literal about it.

I told myself that for these paintings I would just experiment. I would play with colors and textures and not worry about the outcome. The office window has a lovely view of trees and grass and the neighbors’ pool, so I thought about the water, sky, and greenery I’d seen around the area, and went from there. I made a blue and green wave, sprinkled it with salt, and then washed the top part with blues and golds.


Later we decided it looks more interesting flipped, so that’s the way it’s displayed right now.


I thought that painting was too obvious — water, sand, sky — so I tried a second one, but that came out even more representational. Sometimes I think my own efforts defeat me, and it’s better if I simply don’t think about what I want a thing to look like.


For the next piece, there was an experiment I wanted to try with drips and plain water, so I played around with that for awhile, layering it with other things and trying a funny trick with plastic wrap:

process animation

I like the playfulness of it, though it reminds me a little too much of the personalized name art sold on beach boardwalks and the like.


Right after I finished that painting, Ying came home from a meeting and had time to sit for a portrait, so we did that. I find that my portraits very much show the influence of whatever I was drawing or painting right before doing one. In this case, I’m a little out of practice drawing, but I’ve been making all these abstract, colorful, experimental paintings, and I think that shows in the portrait — not just in the colorful background, but in the ease of my brushstrokes, especially in the hair.

Ying's portrait process animation

For the background, I borrowed the print off Ying’s dress, and rendered the dress itself in solid blue. The actual print is a bit different from this, but I loosened it up and made it a little more retro and tropical. I think it’s a fun look, appropriate for Ying and for Florida, and quite a change from my usual plain backgrounds.


It doesn’t entirely look like Ying, but it doesn’t not look like her either. She looks younger than this, and is always animated (in fact, she would only sit still for ten minutes at a time), which is unfortunately hard to capture in a seated portrait. I think the portrait conveys something of her beauty and intelligence, but not the unique energy that makes her unforgettable to nearly everyone she meets. Ah well. We’re talking of visiting again next winter, and if we do, I will try another portrait and we will see what a difference a year makes!

We head home tomorrow.


8 responses to “Paintings for a dear friend

  1. I liked what you did for abstraction, although I’ve never been a fan of abstract art. I really liked the portrait though. I saw the difference in hair immediately; it looks natural and soft. I also liked how you did your friend’s face. The shape of her mouth and jaw has so much character. I bet I would recognize her from this painting, if I passed her on the street. More than that though, this one has a lot of personality in it. I’m not sure if that’s because of the background, or the feeling of relaxation that comes across. I think I would have known you were having fun painting this one even if you had not said that in the narrative.

    • Thank you for all the good words on the portrait, Lisa! It’s hard for me to see my own progress sometimes, but I suspect this one is much better than even the family portraits I liked so much. I do think it has a lot of character — but then Ying has a lot of character, so that may be a big part of it. And since we were staying with her after not having seen her for a long time, you could say we were immersed in that character for weeks before I made the painting. I’m sure that has an effect too.

  2. I love abstract art. It has to be said that not all abstract art works, of course, but it can deliver an intellectual “hit” sometimes that shakes your brain a bit. (Picasso is obvious.) Your portraits are becoming quite accomplished. As a viewer of the painting it is only half relevant that the picture is representative, I think. As a painting it works fine. Where do you feel you are in the progression of portrait painter ? Are you achieving your desired balance of realism and personality coming through? I’d be interested to know. I do admit, though, that I am hopeless at portraits but I am interested in your skill and intellectual progression when representing your subjects.

    • Thank you, Alan! I’m not really sure where I think I am with the portraits. As I was saying to Lisa in the above comment, at the moment I’m having a hard time thinking about my own progress. It might be that I’m not doing portraits regularly enough… but also I think with this and that daily painting project I did in Boston, my skills have transformed so much in a short space of time that I just can’t come to any conclusions on them. Sometimes I think I’m getting really good. Other times I think I’m still hopelessly beginnerish. I still think there is a big discrepancy between what I want to do and what I can do, and also a kind of mental floundering that happens when I sit down and try to make something, that I feel like maybe more practiced artists don’t experience. But I could be wrong about that.

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