The Challenge of Becoming a Non-Representational Painter

"State of Mind" Oil on Canvas 16" x 12" © 2009 Marilyn Fenn (work in progress)
“State of Mind” Oil on Canvas 16″ x 12″ © 2009 Marilyn Fenn (work in progress)

Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others. – Jonathan Swift

Abstraction is real, probably more real than nature. – Josef Albers

I am getting very excited about my upcoming solo show. I’m painting like mad, and I’m beginning to be very happy with some of the results. I think I may just have a future in this wonderful world of painting!

When I made arrangements many months ago to do this show, I had no fear about filling a gallery with my work, as I had just come off of a long period of intense and successful creation, and was (and still am) very happy with the work I had created. And there was plenty of it…more than enough to fill the gallery.

But creatively I was ready to move on to the next thing, though I wasn’t sure what that was.

So I began this year by doing lots of tiny sketches and many small paintings, searching for a satisfying direction. To date, I have completed more than 70 pieces this year — which is a lot for me — though most of the pieces are the sketches and small paintings through which I’ve been exploring a wide variety of ideas.

I must say, this journey from representational to non-representational painting has been a long one and a bit daunting.

You may wonder why I would want to move away from representation. Sometimes, I wonder that, too, as I find it far more challenging to paint abstractly than representationally (what do you paint, and how do you know when you’re done?).

But the thing is, when I go to look at art, it is the abstract and non-representational work that really thrills me. I am interested in the beauty of color relationships, the juiciness and materiality of the paint, and the ability of an abstract painting to take me to places that don’t exist (as far as we know).

I’ve had one foot in the world of abstraction since I started art school, but I kept working on developing my representational “chops” for years. I kept thinking I would paint still lifes and landscapes and the occasional abstraction until my own thing presented itself. I didn’t realize until recently that, at least for me, I was going to have to really work at discovering what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it, and that it would take hours and days and weeks and months and years of looking, thinking, drawing, sketching, painting, over and over and over…in fact, it may never end, and I may never feel like I’m finally “there.”

A sincere artist is not one who makes a faithful attempt to put on to canvas what is in front of him, but one who tries to create something which is, in itself, a living thing. – William Dobell

Much representational work, while it may be technically proficient, does not elevate one beyond the ordinary — or does not usually elevate me — YMMV. And even with those representational paintings which are astounding and really well-painted, the representational-ness (not a word, I know, but you get my meaning) can interfere with my enjoyment of the qualities of painting that only a painting can display.

Additionally, if the painting is primarily about something outside the surface of the canvas, I may be further removed from my enjoyment of the painting as painting. There’s nothing wrong with that, and many of you may feel quite differently, but I want my paintings — as with the paintings I love to look at — to be purely and simply primarily about painting. I guess I’m old-fashioned that way.

I don’t want the distraction of some kind of everyday reality. I get too much of that every day. That’s what cameras are for.

So, basically, I want to paint the kind of paintings that thrill me the most. Will I achieve with my new work the goals I have set for myself? And in time for my solo show? It is probably too soon for me to answer that question, but I do feel that I am on my way. If I don’t break on through in the next two weeks, come to my show anyway, but also check back with me in about a year.

“Wait a minute,” you say? “Your statement says your work is inspired by life at different scales. Isn’t that something outside the canvas?” Let me add another quote to answer that:

There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. – Pablo Picasso

So I start with the things in the world or the universe that I love to look at, that fascinate me in the details of their existence. Essentially, all my work is inspired by nature — some of it by human nature — and I can only hope that through the materials of my work and through the passion of my process, I communicate to the viewer my response to the wonders of this universe. Not a recapitulation of what is, but a creation of what else could be.

2 Replies to “The Challenge of Becoming a Non-Representational Painter”

  1. Hi Marilyn,

    Your description of your process in finding a direction is a universally shared process by most artists, I believe, no matter what their medium, style or direction happens to be. That is so pleasing to me, to know how much artists share this quest, and hopefully learn from each other to remember that the journey is so very worth the trip. Planning, scheduling, and deciding how we are going to travel as artists is where we show our individual spirit and personality.

    Thank you for sharing.

  2. Hi Marilyn,

    Really nice painting. And my favorite is your last sentence: "a creation of what else could be." An allowing of potential as opposed to expecting the predictable.

    I wish you would show your art in Houston or the Woodlands…..ha,ha….that also means come visit any time!

    Love to you and Terry.

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