Sunday, 21 May 2017

Agnes Martin - fathoming out by experimenting

A lot of modern art, especially abstract expressionism, leaves me cold - literally. A room full of stripes has me shivering! Mind you, so does the work of John Constable. It's me, I know it is.

So in an effort to try and understand and make life a richer thing, I've been doing a search on You-tube for inspiration. I could read about it, but I find a lot of art books a bit hard work.

I recently found a video about Agnes Martin, who said (and I'm quoting the Tate's website)

‘Without awareness of beauty, innocence and happiness one cannot make works of art’.

Not sure I agree, but I'm told that Agnes Martin is perhaps most recognised for her evocative paintings marked out in subtle pencil lines and pale colour washes. Although restrained, her style was underpinned by her deep conviction in the emotive and expressive power of art. Martin believed that spiritual inspiration and not intellect created great work.

OK, so here's the experiment (thank you MOMA for your explanations and processes)

My finished pieces


I started with the yellow version.

I didn't use a canvas for this but 2 A4 sheets of mixed media paper. I put 2 layers of gesso spread thinly and at 90 degree angles. This was topped with a layer of acrylic paint.

I marked the aperture of my mount, and then put a layer of masking tape around the marks about 1/4" in from the edge. I then used a ruler to mark on the masking tape a grid. This was drawn at 2cms x 1 cm in soft pencil (Martin used all sorts apparently. The marks are part of the painting)

I then sanded the grid very lightly. This smudges the lines slightly in places. Martin often did this.

 I mixed a bluish grey by using the base colour with white, black, ultra marine, burnt umber, and gloss gel medium.

 I used a round brush and made strokes half way across each box on the grid. I believe the idea is to concentrate on the grid and the strokes, but not to rule out any mark making. It is what it is, and the paint shouldn't be fussed with.

I then went through the painting again to mark the other side of the grid. (nb turn the paper - don't try and paint with the left hand!!) I reloaded the brush every second stroke.

The Blue Version

I then reversed the colours and did the blue version. I mounted them in white mount board frames.

Click here if you'd like these 2 pieces.


  1. I love your methodology! Earlier this morning I drew a grid and penciled in a series of curves which will become koi in almost the same way! thank you for posting this article - it has given me confidence that planning should be part of art in the same way as spontaneity!

    1. Hiya, and thank you. Not sure I'll be managing to do curves, but I like the process of painting this and found it very meditative - relaxing and intense at the same time! Certainly I'll play around with grids and see about taking this further.

  2. Sounds like a very meditative process if nothing else. Did you find yourself making each stroke slowly and deliberately as I am imaging or in rapid succession?

    1. Hello IB, sorry for the delay in replying! Yes, I did it very slowly and deliberately concentrating on each stroke. I wasn't aiming to make each the same but the grid demanded it of you, so I ended up trying to do that. I think that is probably what Agnes Martin must have wanted to achieve, and such a meditative process must have given as much back to the artist as it gave to those viewing the work. Very interesting experiment! I learned a lot x