The shape of a walk with Mark Surridge

Tuesday Night Painting #23

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Mark Surridge
Map Walk #1, Acrylic and ilmenite on canvas, 59 x 47 in

Hello painters, 

For the past couple of weeks I've been enjoying a walk around the neighborhood every morning. This sets the tone well and I recommend it to the other morning habit I engage in often, which is reading the news and reading the tweets. 

Walking gets my energy levels up and it gets my brain on track to look and think about looking. I like being out and about and doing so gives me a chance to refresh myself on visual inspiration. Painting from the photos I take while I'm out gives me a chance to experiment with colors and compositions, and it also serves as a kind of diary or journal.

But recently, I've been really falling down on my Seinfeld Method and I wasn't able to check a box labeled "painting" all week. I want to come up with an excuse for why but there's no good one other than a vague "being too busy". If I can't spare thirty minutes to get out for a walk around the block then I'm probably going to be too busy to paint for four hours (I like to work in big chunks of time and have difficulty sitting down for just a quick couple of brushstrokes).

Mark Surridge
Map Walk #3, Acrylic and ilmenite on canvas, 59 x 47 in
That said, I'm going to use this collection of paintings by Cornwall, UK based artist Mark Surridge as motivation to hit the streets once again. Surridge recently launched an exhibit of new works titled "Walking the Stone" that draws inspiration from the time spent exploring the Cornish landscape on foot.

Surridge's paintings reflect "a distillation of his experience, searching for aspects of emptiness, calm and simplicity". I love how being out in the landscape or being tucked away in the studio both can provide opportunities for the artist to live and relive those experiences.
Mark Surridge
Map Walk #7, Acrylic and ilmenite on canvas, 59 x 47 in
Surridge often visits the ancient sites of Cornwall, walking among the stone circles and "menhirs" while tracking his progress using a GPS device. The artist then takes the shape that he's traced with his walk, and uses that for inspiration to begin his lyrical abstract creations.

The landscape, both exploring it and painting it, has always been a strongly felt part of the artist's Cornish identity. Surridge looks to the landscape not to create a literal representation of what he's seeing, but rather he uses it as the starting point for his abstract experiments. He is seeking to create tension and then resolve it through the use of line, shape, and color.

Mark Surridge
Map Walk #11, Acrylic and ilmenite on canvas, 59 x 47 in

Mark Surridge
Map Walk #22, Acrylic and ilmenite on canvas, 71 x 59 in
In 2007, the St. Ives branch of the Tate Museum (located on the north coast of the peninsula of Cornwall), included Surridge in their exhibit of 28 contemporary Cornish artists.

Quoting from the museum's text:

"Surridge studies the landscape not for its own sake as a retrogressive representational source, but sets out to look beyond it to elicit a simplification of form, resulting in the creation of a painting which lives as an object in its own right."

And as the writer Neil McLeod puts it: 

"The gesture is witness to the physical, the assimilation through action. It testifies to the glimpse, the movement of the mind... A brush on a stick; an archaeological gift for the future."

Mark Surridge
Map Walk #22, Acrylic and ilmenite on canvas, 59 x 71 in
Mark Surridge
Map Walk #17, Acrylic and ilmenite on canvas, 16 x 12 in

Of course, we don't all live within a stone's throw of ancient Bronze Age burial grounds that we can wander through whenever we'd like some inspiration. Luckily, you don't need to, in order to create compelling abstract paintings.

If you set out to work like Surridge does, then the colors and visuals you gather from your walks can form the basis of your compositions. Simplifying is the key, and then your goal is to build up color, pattern, and texture on top.

I will also tell you that I find it very difficult to collect visual inspo while driving. First of all because you should keep your eyes on the road. And second, I think things go by far too quickly in the car. You need to be out on foot or on bike in order to give yourself a chance to slow down and drink it in when something catches your eye.

You can read more about Mark Surridge and view more of his artwork on his website here.

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Ben Hanawalt
Pacific Grid 98, Collage, acrylic, gouache on panel. 2015. 8"x 8".
Surridge's work brought to mind a few other artists. Surridge begins his canvases with the landscape in mind, but quickly simplifies, buries, and obscures the initial inspiration with formal compositional decisions.

Ben Hanawalt is a painter and mixed media artist who also works connections to the landscape into his pieces. Sometimes it's made explicit in his collages, when a landscape or cityscape photo is merged with splattered and swooping paint strokes.
Ben Hanawalt
Pacific Grid 65, Collage, acrylic, gouache on panel. 2015. 8"x 8".
Ben Hanawalt
Pacific Grid 1, Collage, acrylic, gouache on panel. 2015. 8"x 8".
Hanawalt also makes good use of the landscape in his oil paintings as well. Little strips of land are bookended by more dramatic and expressive abstract gestures. To be honest, I enjoy this approach slightly more than Surridge's flat out, total abstraction.
Hull, Oil on panel. 2017. 18″x 24″.
Simple Smoke, Oil on canvas over panel. 2017. 11.75" x 16.5".
I like seeing hints of where the artist began: for Hanawalt, something caught his attention in this yellow patch of grass by the side of the road. I like seeing the black tar of the road echoed down below in the bottom third of the canvas. I like seeing the very muted fuchsia in the top third and how that rosy pink color plays off the realism of the scene below it. 
Untitled (small abstract no.5)
oil on canvas over panel. 2019. 9.5 × 12.75 inches.
Evinrude, Oil on panel. 2017. 18″x 24″.
What kind of compare and contrast games can you play with Hanawalt and Surridge's work? Both artists enjoy a dramatic, sweeping, swirling gesture with the brush or with the scraping tool. And both artists work as collage artists in some fashion: Hanawalt's mixed media approach carries over into his oil paintings, and Surridge combines abstract shapes based off of symbols and ideas with his views of the Cornish landscape.

However, the color palettes of the artists are one point of departure. Surridge relies more heavily on the earth tones, with sandy neutrals occasionally enlivened by brighter yellows and blues. Hanawalt makes use of some tan and gray neutrals but also makes good use of pastels and knows when to bump up the saturation of his brighter colors.
The second artist brought to mind by Mark Surridge's paintings are those of Christian Rosa, a young Brazilian artist who leans heavily on the influence of Joan Miro in his spare abstract works.

I like to think about Rosa's pieces in the context of Surridge's. What if Rosa created his paintings, like Surridge, after recreating a walk that he took? I imagine it would look a little bit like when Billy from the Sunday morning cartoon Family Circus would meander about his neighborhood.
One thing I like to talk about with students is creating a visual vocabulary, and it's easy to see what that means with Christian Rosa's work. Rosa covers his large, unprimed canvases with an array of marks and movements, but which look consistent and confidently recreated from painting to painting. There is always a thick black line that loops and meanders across the canvas, along with some smaller squiggles, accented with shapes of primary colors.
Discovering your own visual vocabulary is part of the process of maturing as an abstract artist. This doesn't mean making the same painting over and over again and establishing your "personal style" as unmistakable from another artist. And besides, the idea of "personal style" can cause trouble for you if, like Rosa, you wind up imitating your inspirations a little too closely.

Rather it means figuring out which building blocks of color, line, and shape you enjoy creating over and over again, and then reconfiguring them into different compositions. If you look closely at a range of work from a specific artist, you can begin to see the techniques and strokes and colors that they return to again and again. 
So when you're looking at the work of these three artists try to figure out what it is that makes their work uniquely identifiable. And then you can do the same with your own work the next time you step back into the studio. Just ask yourself what kind of formal elements you enjoy using in your own paintings -- what kind of brushes or tools or paints you enjoy using. And then continue carrying those elements throughout your work.
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One final Ben Hanawalt painting for you
And so we reach the end of another Tuesday Night letter. There is no rhyme or reason to the music selected for today. You'll just have to click on and see if you like listening to em.

Ten-Twenty-Ten by Generationals
Theme from Black Orpheus by Paul Desmond
Ayonha by Hamid Al Shaeri
Esma by Menahan Street Band
Cascavel by Antonio Adolfo

Check em out, and I'll see you next time!
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