How to paint like Agnes Martin – with Corey D’Augustine | IN THE STUDIO


Okay, so let’s start working in
the process of Agnes Martin here. I’ve stretched a simple 12 by 12 inch
canvas, this is cotton duck canvas, which Agnes Martin worked on periodically. Also, working on linens here and there,
so feel free to do which ever you prefer. I’m going to start by priming this canvas,
and in Martin’s markets, it’s really interesting to think
about the fact that she never used more than two coats of priming, and
she never sanded between coats of priming. And the reason for that is, she actually wanted
some roughness in the canvas surface. Now usually,
most painters when they’re priming, they go through great pains
to stretch out the primer. You don’t want to have any lumps and
bumps etc, in fact Agnes Martin liked those lumps and bumps, she used those lumps and
bumps, as we’ll see shortly, to her advantage. So I’m not going to be too
particular about stretching out this priming coat here. If I leave some streaks,
if I leave some impasto, if I leave some texture, that’s actually
going to be all to my advantage, once I get to the graphite step,
shortly here. So I’m going to put on two coats
of this priming, and you can see, I’m not really being too concerned
about exactly how this is going on. I’m just covering up the canvas here, and
leaving a little bit of texture here and there. All right so that priming layer is more or
less dry, not 100%, but that’s fine. I’m going to add a second priming layer, again
to give a little more tooth to the canvas now. And I’m going to turn the canvas
by 90 degrees, in other words that second coat is going perpendicular
with respect to the first one. And just like that first coat, I’m not going
to be too concerned with exactly how this priming layer goes on. Because a little bit of texture
is going to be just fine, Okay, good enough, so
I’m going to let that dry, as well. All right, so we’re here and
we have two applications to ground here. The thicker,
more absorbent layer to paint on now, and it also has a little bit of texture. I’ve painted in orthogonal directions, or
perpendicular directions with respect to one another. So I have a nice,
heavy nice primed layer to work on top of. Now what I’m going to do is add
an all over paint application here to change the color of the ground. But I’m going to work quite
translucently because I want to keep this painting looking mostly white. But I’m going to work very thinly, now what
Martin would do, later in her career after moving to New Mexico. Is to work in acrylics and
to really highlight the translucence, the water white so to speak, the clear
translucent quality of those paints. Building up layer upon layer,
sometimes as many as eight or ten different layers
of paint applications. So let’s start small here with just one, another
thing that Martin often did is to use acrylic priming as a paint. So I’m going to add a little
bit of that to my palette here. [SOUND] I’m going to
tone that color yellow, and I’m using an AZO yellow. This a acrylic paint, and a synthetic pigment
here, a nice bright translucent yellow. And, I’m going to add some water, because
I’m going to make this a very thin application of paint here. Just lightening the color
a little bit here, think I’ll lighten it even a little bit more. Then I’m going to thin that
out again with some water. Painting very lightly here, letting
some of that white shine through here. And here, we have a nice light,
quite translucent glaze, if you will, of this yellow. With that base toned layer dry now, I’m now
going to work on the graphic path, the drawing of this painting. But first I’m going to add a border, and the
easy way to do that is just to use some simple masking tape. This is one inch wide, I’m simply going to
run a band of this all around the painting. To make sure that these pencil lines
are not going to cover the very edges. Now, it’s important when you start
making this grided composition, that you not only use a ruler,
but you do some arithmetic too. Use a calculator, what have you,
because once you start making these marks it’s going to be real difficult for
you to do any editing. But you want to figure
out how big your grid is, what are the dimensions, vertically, and horizontally. In other words you should have an idea for
what this painting is going to look like before you start making it. Now it may not work and you can always change
these all over layers one after another. But, once you lay down the drawing
the editing becomes a little bit more difficult here. So, I’ve decided here to use a blank
one inch border around my drawing, and then I’m going to make a grid. So that each box here is going to
be a horizontal rectangle one quarter inch tall and
one full inch wide. Now, the other nice thing about using that
masking tape here is I can draw right on it. And I’m going to take that off afterwards,
so there’s no real problem here. So what I’m going to do here
is simply to notch each inch. So that first inch is right
where the tape ends, and then two, three, four,
five, six, and so on. Same thing on the top edge,
and by the way, Agnes sometimes used these blank borders. Other times she made these little
lines right on the edge of the canvas. And the next time you go to a Agnes Martin
exhibition, take a look at the edges, and you’ll often see these small pencil lines. And you’re just peeking over her
shoulder as you are mine right now, as to how she was able
to make these grids. So we have the top and
bottom axis marked with every inch. Now the lateral axis, excuse me,
I’m going to mark every quarter inch. Now it’s really importantly you do this
exactly, otherwise your grid is going to be pretty far from rectilinear,
pretty far from geometry. Now to draw the grid,
what kind of pencil to use? Agnes used every kind of pencil imagined,
lead, graphite, colored pencils, sharp, dull. These are all variables that she explored,
again we’re talking about an artist who’s often called a minimalist. I’d prefer to think of her as
a maximalist, she refined her means to a quite narrow margin and then really
found the maximum expression with it. So what am I working with here? These are two b’s, in other words,
a pretty dark lead pencil here. It doesn’t matter how hard you try,
and don’t try too hard, you’re not going to make a perfect line,
because the canvas is bumpy. It has not only bumps of
the canvas itself, but all these waves of the brush strokes,
so if you look closely, my lead is going to be bouncing
around from peak to peak. Bouncing over the valleys
of this canvas weave, skipping over some of the brush
work of the priming layer. And that’s fine,
in fact as we are going to see that’s actually part of what makes
these paintings so wonderful. Agnes sometimes used rulers,
she sometimes used masking tape. She sometimes used string, actually,
tacked to either side of the canvas that she then just passed over,
following that string line. What’s important here is that
I’m not pushing down too hard. because if I push down too hard,
the canvas flexes and my line’s not going to be linear any more. It’s going to have a little wave to it. So it doesn’t have to be perfect,
but we don’t want it to be so far away from a straight line either. Let’s make a lot more of them. If you really zoom in
here you can see that, that line is actually jumping back and
forth and back in forth, and back and forth in addition to skipping forward,
forward, forward, forward. In other words it is not
continuous it is not complete. There’s all of this beautiful
little whispers of yellow in there. And this is a gorgeously imperfect line. Okay. So the pencil line completed here
within this masked off border here. You can see all of these gorgeous
irregular lines jumping around over the weave of the canvas. And as you look closely, you’ll notice
that the fact this grid is not perfect. Because this is not math class. And although Agnes used the grid as her
principle template for so many years, she never made one mathematically
correct grid in her entire life. In fact, what I’ve allowed to happen
is a little bit of imprecision, a little bit of error, and that’s fine
because it’s equally informed everything. Now if you get carried away and
you start having crooked lines or lines that are really irregularly
spaced well then it just looks sloppy. So there is a threshold that you can’t
really pass and you’ll find out in your own studio practice very likely
you’ll miss it a couple times. And actually she did too, she spent her entire
career exploring this kind of manual geometry. And I have it on very good
faith that she threw out more paintings then she actually saved. So she’d finish a painting that
didn’t work because the lines weren’t quite right, because the paint
didn’t quite take in the right way. Garbage, start over again. So if you’re having that same
experience in the studio, don’t worry, you’re on a good track. So, let’s take off this masking tape. All right, what I’m going to I’m going to
do next is to give the entire surface a really light sand, now don’t overdo it because you
can sand the pencil right off here. Just to give it a little bit of smudging,
a little bit of smearing. A little bit of this kind of thing,
some nice rubs there, some more complications in the surface. Now, overall, I really like that effect. I like somebody’s really faint marks here. But I overdid it a little bit here. In fact, I got this strange zigzag. That’s a little bit too loud for me. So fortunately, what we can do here,
just using a Q-Tip, just moisten it a little but and you can rub some
of those marks that you don’t like. Now, be careful, because you can
rub your drawing right off with it. This kind of smudging,
is actually kind of nice. And any time you find yourself being
a little bit too fussy, as I am right now. Just stop. Because the name of the game here is to
allow these materials to do their thing. And in fact,
I got a dark line right there. It’s going to lighten a little bit
as it dries but this is interesting. This is the kind of stuff as they happen,
let the painting carry through, finish off your plan and then take a look. Now maybe it worked, maybe it didn’t. But when a Martin type painting works,
it’s because everything comes together. All of the little errors,
all of the little mistakes here and there all kind of equalize of normalize
in the entire flow of the painting. So let’s see if it happens. Now I’m going to start thinking about
the next color to apply to the canvas. And what I’ve done is to use the same
exact paint I use for the ground here. And to give myself just
a little blank here to test the kind of blue-ish grey
that I’ve chosen to work over it. So in the pan here,
a little bit of acrylic emotion black, a little bit of ultramarine, little
bit of our old friend titanium white. And a little bit of gloss medium here. Now this looks white, right now,
but that dries clear so don’t be confused by that I’m using
a Golden product here, polymer medium. This is the same kind of stuff
that’s already in the tube and it comes in two flavors, glossy or matte. Here I’m choosing glossy because I want
the marks I’m about to make to really leap off of the canvas. And what I’m going to do to make
this painting rhyme a little bit more visually is to start off with
that same yellow as my base coat. This is a nice easy way to guarantee
that the color that I’m about to mix has something to do with
the color that I’ve already used. So I’m going to take
a little bit of black, Then I’m going to cool it off
with a little bit of blue. I’m going to ensure that
this gets nice and glossy. Now by the way, not only does this make it
glossy, it also makes it more translucent. So be careful, don’t add too much. You may say, I want it really,
really glossy. But suddenly it becomes
really translucent, and you get that color underneath it too much. Now I’m going for something that
actually has a nice body here. And I want to cover up that yellow,
so I don’t want to overdo it and make this too translucent. So, I’m making this nice and
homogeneous here. I’m going to lighten it up
a little bit with some white. I’m going to add just a little bit of
water here to make sure that this doesn’t dry out on me. So, I’m just going to pick up
a little of that paint here and lay it on that color that
I put out beforehand. I like this. You have a nice neutral cool gray over
this really light hot yellow background. It’s a nice push pull relationship
hot colors, cool colors. In fact the cool colors
on top of the hot colors which allows them to kind of
sandwich around the picture plan. Remember the push pull color theory
that we’ve talked about previously in the course. So what I’m doing here is using
a round and as you can see here, the beginning of each brush stroke is
going to have the profile of that brush, which is quite round, just the left
of each one of these brush strokes. But when I pick it up,
I can pick it up flat. And working from left to right, starting
round with a full load of paint and then trailing off flat to the middle,
eventually I’ll turn this around and come from the other side. Another rule that I’ve kind of self
imposed here is that I’m reloading every other brush stroke. And I do that one and I’m going to flip it
over and paint with side of the brush for the next stroke. And then reload. Now, I want to do this
the entire painting So that there is a logic there to
how this painting should work. However, you can see all of
these marks are not the same. In fact, some of them aren’t even close. Now I’m breaking the rule here and
fussing a little bit. Try not to fuss too much,
because the more you fuss, actually, the further away you get from this fresh,
direct, spontaneous type of painting that we’re after here. Now, if you really screw something up,
then by all means try to save it. But again, Agnes herself,
the way she would deal with screw ups is usually just to chuck the entire
painting rather than to fuss. So essentially what’s happening here,
is we’re really playing with this tension between the geometric
determinancy of the grid, platonic geometry, something that our minds know is perfect. But the tension between all of that
perfection, that conceptual perfection and manual imprecision that we have because,
well, face it, you’re human. You make lots of mistakes,
that’s what we are best at. And really, this is what makes Martin’s
works tick, is the fact that humans are filled with errors, yet
we know the concept of perfection. In fact, where the hell did we
invent the idea of a triangle from? Where in nature have you ever seen
a triangle, a perfect triangle? But we all know what it is. Why is that? I don’t know either. But it’s pretty interesting that geometry
is something that is extremely human, yet it’s some that we’re extremely
bad at actually making. In fact this grid is not a grid,
it’s filled with errors. These brush marks here,
nothing complicated here, but I haven’t been able to make
two of them identical yet. So what’s going to happen
if we pull this off right, Is that we’re going to have this beautiful
tension in the entire painting between exactly those two variables,
perfection and imperfection. I’m going to come back and fill in
the right half of that first column, but I’m going to do it from the other side. So I’m going to flip the painting
over by the time I get there. The reason is, I’ve decided,
and this is arbitrary, there’s a million different approaches
to make an Agnes Martin painting. No need to copy mine. But I’ve decided that these brush
strokes are going to go from the outside in, both of them. You could do the opposite and
go from the inside out. So here, I’ve finished my first pass. I’ve worked on the left side
of each one of these columns. With a brush stroke working
from left to right. I’m not going to work on the right side
from right to left, but rather than try to paint with my left hand,
I’m just going to flip the painting over. The reason I’m doing this is that symmetry
is very important to Martin paintings. Symmetry is very easy on the eye, and
her paintings are certainly that. All right, so just finishing up
that pass of brush strokes here. And to my eye, we have a pretty nice looking
painting that we’re looking at here. A couple things I want to bring your
attention to, first of all, the edges of the grid I left open, whereas the top and
the bottom of the grid I closed off. This gives the painting a little bit
more horizontality, and a little bit of a floating feeling, which is nice,
rather than boxing it off that way. You also could open up the top and bottom
to really give a lot more air into the entire composition. As this painting is reaching completion,
one thing that Martin often did, that you may also want to do,
is to varnish the painting. You’d likely want to use some kind of
a synthetic, probably an acrylic varnish. But you would not want to brush on
this varnish because if you did that, you’d lose almost all of your drawn grid
here as that graphite would just get dissolved into the water of that
acrylic varnish and be dispersed. In other words, you’d probably
want to use a spray varnish on this, or just leave it with this
very fine matte surface. It’s a beautiful matte surface. The only problem with leaving it
matte is that it is quite fragile, it is quite vulnerable. So if we’re to wrap this painting with
something directly on the surface or if we rubbed it and
touched it with something, that graphite line would be smudged and
eventually rubbed right off. But there we have it, a beautiful little painting
in the style of Agnes Martin here. Working with acrylics, some cool colors
and this broken brush work on top, working with graphite and
this broken line in the background, and then working with this very nice,
nebulous, warm yellow ground.

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