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
by Jean Cauthen
by Jean Cauthen
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.’”

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