First Impressions & Gut Reactions - From Reality to Semi-abstraction

First Impressions & Gut Reactions - From Reality to Semi-Abstraction

As we first come upon a landscape whether it be in real life or via printed images our initial feelings need to be captured immediately.

Our first subconscious response needs to be recorded somehow as this will be the prime motivator for everything else that we do as artists wanting to render that scene.

Always make sure that you are in a fully focussed and receptive state before you contemplate a scene.

Get rid of any "shoulds" that you have about how a landscape "should" look. You are on the brink of freedom now to perceive and envisage as a child before the social standard of your culture imprinted upon you. Let's dig deep and bring up something you, new and honestly unique and joyful!

Clear your mind of distractions, do some deep breathing or anything that you know will ground you.

Then - consider your landscape.

Try it now with these 9 landscapes below.

Flick your eye across and just jot down your immediate reactions - maybe just 3 adjectives - whatever. Get used to allowing yourself to do this. If you don't know how you feel about a scene how can you convey it or express it?

This is your work as an artist. VALUE your feelings and NAME them. You will know your inner-self better!

Think what is your gut reaction - what moves you - how does the landscape move you - what do you want to say?

Make sure you are not falling into a safe and dutiful literal recording of what is in front of you.

Do you want to express the feelings that a panorama may stir in you? Here are a few prompts to help you name the often unnameable!

power, calm, awe, humility, gratitude, joy, peace, energised, love, regret, nostalgic, exhilarated, inspired, dejected, gloomy, amazement, connected, reverence, dreamy, mesmerized, bliss, wonder etc...

What are the initial feelings and reactions?

What does it do to your mood? What are you motivated to express?

These are your key considerations for this course.

Jot down buzz words or perhaps make marks in colour or sketch immediate and raw shapes.

Do whatever it takes to grasp the essential emotional response you had.

Nobody else can react like you and the more attuned you get to the exact personal feeling you have the better you will render your scene down the line.

As a musician can call upon low or high key notes so semi-abstract artists can call upon shape, tone and colour to create very different moods. Shapes can appear pleasant and balanced or agitated and gloomy. Colour can lift, energise or sadden and calm. Tone can invite joy and expansion or imbibe silence and reflection.

We have all these tools at our disposal and playing with studies is the best way to hit the right note!


Keep in mind, strong paintings usually are limited to 3-4 values, and 3-5 shapes.

In this image we have those 3 basic values (light - mid - dark - then we broke them down further into 9) and we have roughly 5 shapes.

A semi-abstract landscape is a landscape that is distilled into its fundamental elements, shapes or colors. We can see it is a landscape still but we now see beyond the actual physical look of it and into a deeper perception.

Abstract art can be tricky - not because of its complexity, but because it is deceptively simple. We are so used to creating art whose main aim is to create realism and fine detail that it can be a hard mindshift to break away and work in the opposite direction!

Most painters cannot bring forward a new vision from nothing they need a starting point for their vision but you as an abstract artist are all about that. Bringing forth a view of the landscape that has never existed before!

Study your subject before you paint and make a series of small paintings or sketches in any medium (we will do this) so you have time to play and the freedom to explore the image in a medium, as well as your emotional response to it. Forget about accuracy. This process is to help you explore and identify the most visually appealing parts of the image as YOU see them. At the end of the day you must decide what about your subject that your painting will focus on and what will make the most impact on the viewers and give you the most satisfaction both while you paint it and when you look at the finished piece.

A semi-abstract landscape is creatively messy. Although the overall bones of the landscape are there as we see in the limited number of 3-5 suggested major shapes, emphasis is not often given to faithfully recording anything! It focuses on the bigger image within the landscape, and celebrates your artistic peculiarities. While painting, let go of yourself and your impressions of the image as a real landscape - ie stop thinking in terms of named things like "birch trees", "mountain streams", "flowery meadow" etc and venture into the painting as paint, not as a reflection of reality.


1 play music that relates to a landscape you want to paint. Read books, poetry about it.

2 Eat food that people living in the landscape you want to paint would eat. Learn about landlore and mountain myths. Play folk music of the area.

3 play white, brown or pink noise to blot out everyday distractions to help you get into the zone of how you want to morph into your panorama.

4 burn incense, candles or use fairylights to carry you into a more enchanted, subconscious realm if you need to. Working in semi-abstractionsim requires us to release reality as we know it and work with the unnameable, the amorphous and the as yet unmanifest. Go as deeply int this as you wish.

5 can you feel like the mountain you want to paint? can you empathise with a lone craggy peak? Do you sense the breeze as if you were that stand of trees? Why not try shifting your mind into another being and thinking like a mountain for a while?!

6 If you are working on say an aboriginal landscape try playing digeridoo sounds (all on Youtube) and when painting that desolate scene of Glencoe how about the plaintive strains of bagpipes playing softly in your art space? A soundbite of a lone wolf calling may evoke the wildness of that Alaskan snowscene you are working on too. Give yourslef every sensory aid you can think of to transport your mind away from the here and now...touch, taste, hearing, sight and smell are our means to holistically experience a panorama - indulge each one of you can.

Always give the painting time to gestate in your mind and whenever possible - break off and leave it - coming back to it with clearer perception.

As your painting is only partially grounded in reality it will need strong colour, tone and forms to carry it so you could try looking at it upside down or on one side so that your brain and perception see it from many angles. Finally - as this will be a semi-abstract painting it is up to you how far from "reality" you travel!

Enjoy the adventure into paint and home to yourself.

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