Philip Guston ???

These Oil and Medium Calligraphic studies were my homework assignment.


From the outset it didn’t seem as though there was any way I was going to be able to relate to Guston. On a quick survey of his work I realized he was an artist of continual change on style, not many of which I felt connected to. His early work was very figurative and quite political in narrative, whether it was the influence of his father’s suicide when he was only 11yrs old , or political reference to the Klu Klux Klan movement of the time. His figurative paintings had imagery directly linked to the subject matter he was painting. For example there are works that reference a noose and the white pointed hood of the KKK. Later came the addition of boots and boot straps along with rubbish tin lids. These symbols ran as a theme through out his early and again in his later work.

Although there was a symbolic language that ran throughout the years of change in Guston’s style of painting, there were most certainly distinct era’s of style changes.

He started with figurative work, moved to abstraction and then into a comic book style of figuration combined with an abstraction. The early work and latter work held no interest for me. I just don’t like the paintings. I was quite relieved to find that his middle era of abstraction was appealing. It makes it so much easier to spend the week painting in another artists techniques ,if there is something you can identify with and enjoy! Guston’s abstract work began quite methodically, with short, sharp brush strokes, executed with what comes across as quite deliberate placement. The brush was heavily loaded with paint and the strokes quite luscious and rich.

His palette was based in low chroma colors, meaning they were not eye popping colors but muted tones. Bluntly, they were colors mixed with grey. This is the week in which I learnt the technical difference of tint, shade and tone.

Basically, a Tint is a color with white added to it, a Shade, is a color with black added to it and a Tone is a color with gray added to it. When you see the colors laid out in front of you, it is easy to see where different artists sit in relation to which of the variations of color they use. Guston’s work was about Tone.

Actually, I found the spectrum of color using Tone to be quite elegant. The muted vibrancy of a color allowed it to bounce off the other tones of color in a way that raw color does not. There is a blending in the eye. It is a softer transition.

His early abstraction (late 1940′s) as mentioned was considered, a toothpaste consistency to the paint and applied using mainly knuckle movement, short, sharp strokes. As his abstraction progressed ( 50′s to 60′s) he began to add medium/varnish to allow a greater fluidity in his brushwork, less of a highly textured finish and more of a gloss. The Oil and Pigment study at the end of this post is the homework assignment influenced by this era of Guston’s work.

The strokes got larger, even though his brushes were still relatively small brushes for the size of the canvas, but the fluidity of his lines involved more action. His wrist and full hand gestures were used to sweep across large parts of the canvas in one application. He made elegant lines involving abrupt turns and stops that left their own mark to be read.

His composition was nearly always centrally based, the color defined more in the middle, as if a remnant of figuration, ghosting from his early work remained. The surrounding muted palette building to highlight this central zone. Some of the outer edges of the later work of this era, was actually scratched or knifed back and the almost bare canvas, left as a measure of the build.

This is the era of Guston’s work I like the best. It coincides with the period he was studying Zen Buddhism with Suzuki and the philosophies he was studying seem to read out in the almost calligraphic markings in these paintings. These were the paintings that inspired me most!

Guston’s final era of change was his almost comic book character return to figuration, although it most definitely still played within the realm of abstraction. His symbolic language returned in these later works and a dark, satirical humor, that poked fun at everything from politics and politicians to himself.

He received a lot of negative feedback from fellow artists and audience alike, for his change to this style as many thought he had ‘thrown away’ all that he had achieved with his abstractions. His attitude was more along the lines of thought, that nothing is ever solved in painting, it is a continuous flow of detours and inquiry, full of possibilities.

I don’t like his latter work but it had a huge influence on the art of the 70′s and 80′s. I have to admire the man for his altruistic nature. He definitely painted for his own purposes and didn’t cater to his audience.


This is the Oil and Pigment Study: (Red/Orange Cadnium/Titanium White/Pthalo Green)