North Carolina painter Jean Cauthen says she seeks out “the places between or in back of places,” by which she means finding a strong design rather than painting a portrait.
“I don’t know if it makes sense to put it like this, but a big reason I paint en plein air is to sharpen my sense of abstract design,” she says. “I know the best plein air painters achieve strong abstraction no matter their subject matter. But I find, like many things, I have to trick my brain into seeing a bit differently. One easy way to do that is to divorce subject matter from the composition, or throw it toward the edges of the painting. In this way, I can concentrate on a pleasing arrangements of shapes without getting seduced by a single subject.”
Cauthen walks us through a typical scenario. “While at first I might think I’m drawn to the light that falls across the light yellow house, I shift a bit to see if that bit of yellow might be more interesting as a shape on the edge of the painting, rather than the central subject,” she explains. “A dark shape becomes a bit of geometry and not a shutter on a house. Now, I look for those spaces between. Even if it seems more complex, sometimes, it becomes easier to think in terms of shapes fitting together. I often recall the Claude Debussy quote that, ‘music is the space between the notes.’”