Abstract Art and Appreciation of the Artists: Another Free Online Course

Photograph and art copyright Karen Cropper

Course Details

I’m doing an online course at the moment about abstract art that has a practical element of reproducing techniques of specific artists to understand their art. Today I bought some canvases and will be fishing out my paints to see if they still have any life in them.

This is the course: https://www.coursera.org/learn/painting

You can do the course for free. When you click on the enrol button, you have to set up a Coursera account, if you haven’t got one already, and you can pick the option to just do the course without paying for certification.

Although the course is about abstract art, the practical side is the basics that are applicable to whatever kind of painting anyone wants to do – how to stretch a canvas and the different types, how to prime a canvas, what kinds of paints and solvents, thinners, medium, oil and acrylics, how to clean brushes, how to cover a surface with paint, how to use masking tape.

Barnett Newman

I’ve got up to week 2 so far, which covers the artist Barnett Newman.

This lunchtime I was explaining to my husband about the characteristics of Barnett Newman’s art. How his signature look was large expanses of a single colour with a single vertical ‘zip’ or multiple zips. There are 3 ways the zips may be made:

    1. Applying a colour for the zip, then masking tape, then painting over the whole canvase with another colour that will be the majority of the canvas. Then remove the masking tape to reveal the colour underneath.
    2. Apply a colour over the whole canvas, then mask either side of the line you want to make and then paint the zip colour inbetween then remove the masking tape
    3. Apply a colour over the whole canvas, then mask a single strip and paint over the edge of the tape in a rough way, often with a palette knife, then remove the masking tape. So this leaves a zip that has a straight edge and a more loose jagged part to it.

Actually there are other variations that Barnett Newman used, such as leaving the masking tape in place and painting on top of it, and he used different ways of painting the zip. Sometimes applying paint with a brush, sometimes palette knife. Sometimes smooth and solid, sometimes rough and transparent, also some zips almost the same colour as the background, but with a different texture, others highly contrasting. He was very interested in getting a very smooth, flat, blemish free background and in the matter of scale and the interactions of the colours. The idea that warm colours come towards you and cold colours shrink away from you, and when a canvas is so large you can get close to it and be lost in the colour.

My Homage

As I was explaining this to my husband, we had shared a snack bar and the wrapper had a single red line through the centre of it on the inside, which was intended as the way of unzipping the packed, but instead I had opened it another way. I then looked closely at the wrapper and decided to turn it into a piece of art in a homage to Barnett Newman. It is the image at the start of this post.

I have used washi tape to stick the wrapper to a board. This piece has more going on than Newman’s art, but has some aspects of it. The centre red zip comes out against the neutral silver foil. The washi tape either side is like two more vertical zips, but has horizontal stripes too. The creases that are still showing in the wrapper and the slight lines of chocolate still there form more zips. It departs from Newman in the edges top and bottom are not straight but zigzag, and the background is not uniform in a single matt tone. Instead there is reflection in the metalized plastic and there is the glue texture horizontally top and bottom, plus some rippling and reflections. So there is actually a lot to look at, if you take the time to consider it, and that is what abstract artists believe makes this kind of work valid.

Image copyright Karen Cropper

Hedda Sterne

One of the artists who is not covered on this course, but who is shown in the picture of the 15 Irascibles, is Hedda Sterne. I found this out from someone asking the question in the discussion forum “Who is that lady at the back of the photo?”

The Irascibles 1950. Photo by Nina Leen

“Sterne has been almost completely overlooked in art historical narratives of the post-war American art scene.” (quote from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedda_Sterne) and by this course.

Hedda Sterne only died in 2011, aged 100. More information about her life and work is available from the Hedda Sterne Foundation website. I found a recording of an interview with her. An excerpt can be played below and the full transcript of the interview from 1981, talking about her memories of Rothko, is available at https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-hedda-sterne-13262:

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