Putting Design Over Subject

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.”

by Jean Cauthen
by Jean Cauthen
by Jean Cauthen
by Jean Cauthen
Design - oil painting of lifeguard stations
Jean Cauthen, “No Guard on Duty,” oil on panel, 8 x 10 in.
by Jean Cauthen
by Jean Cauthen
by Jean Cauthen
by Jean Cauthen

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.’”

This article was originally published in 2017


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