From Realism to Abstract- My Stay at The Torpedo Factory Art Center
Updated: Oct 11
The weeks, and even months, leading up to my stay at the Torpedo Factory Art Center were feeling gray and dull. I hadn't been creating consistently and it felt as if I had no direction to take with my art. I was making a lot of excuses as to why I couldn't create; I don't have the right set up, the right schedule, my kids need my attention, I don't have the money, I don't have the mental capacity, I am going through a lot right now, I need time to process my emotions, I am not in a happy place mentally therefore I can’t create happy work.
As you can see, I was not feeling inspired and some of those excuses, I am coming to understand, are valid and okay. But at the same time I was craving the energy I had felt before, the same energy and inspiration I had been feeling a year prior when doing the 100 portraits challenge. Everyday that I did not create felt like a waste of potential and would increase my anxiety about not creating which would, in turn, make me not create. I was stuck in a cycle and could not find a way out.
When I came across Brandi Couvillion’s email about her studio being available for subleasing in the month of September, I quickly disregarded it. To my understanding, I would not be able to sublease it since I decided to not reapply to be a part of the Torpedo Factory Art Center back in April.
If you are unfamiliar with the Torpedo Factory Art Center, it is a building located in Old Town
Alexandria, right off of the Potomac River. It consists of three floors full of artist’s studios, 7 galleries, and The Art League School. I applied to have a studio at the Center back in April of 2022. At the time, I was painting everyday exploring portraiture through my 100 portraits challenge and I felt ready to move forward with my artistic career. The call for entry comes up yearly at the Torpedo Factory, and the jurying process is a lengthy and suspenseful one. It consists of three stages where the artist applying is given points by the jurors depending on what they are critiquing in that stage. The points given are then ranked and the higher the ranking the more likely the artist is to receive a studio. There were only 20 studios available and I ranked 36 out of nearly 80 artists that applied that year. I was given an artist pro tem title, which means that I am able to sublease if a studio becomes available, and I am also able to participate in any event and shows the Art Center hosts. The feedback that I got from the jurors about why I did not rank higher was that I needed to participate in more gallery shows, my artist cv needed work and so did my website.
So when the call for entry came back around in April of this year, I decided to not reapply for the reason that I hadn’t worked in the areas I was told needed improvement. Therefore I thought I could not sublease the studio.
It turns out that my artist pro tem title is good for three years, and thanks to Gregory Dunn, a fellow artist at the Torpedo Factory, who encouraged me to get in touch with Brandi, I was able to move forward and sublease the studio for the dates Brandi would be absent.
My sublease was from September 2nd through September 21st and in that time, I would have to average 4 hours a day. My plan was simple: place examples of my portraiture work for people to see in case they’d like to commission a portrait and paint some of my film photographs that I had been meaning to turn into paintings. I had come across videos from artists swearing that the book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron had changed their creative lives for the better. The book is supposed to be for any creative person going through a creativity block and because I was deep in one, I saw it as a sign to buy the book and read it through my stay at the Factory. And so that is what I did. I had no idea what impact my subleasing period would have on my art and on me, but I knew it would be a good one! And it was!
At first I was just excited to be there, surrounded by artists and people who were walking around looking to purchase artwork, or at least admire it. The view from the studio was also very calming and inspirational, I could just sit there and look out at the movement the waterfront held. On my first day I touched up a black and white portrait of my son Saya, that I had held on to for years since he was 2 ( he is about to turn 7 now). The painting had been scratched up from multiple moves and needed to be refined in order to be displayed. When that was done, I decided to paint a portrait of Nomari, my daughter, also in black and white from a picture I had taken of her and had been meaning to paint. The portrait took about 3 days to complete. And when I was finished, I felt the need to paint something bigger, more eye-catching for anybody passing by. I decided that a big pet portrait of my boyfriend’s dog, Kiba, would do the job.
I chose to paint Kiba's portrait in oils, because at first, I was wanting to make it realistic. As I was painting though, my mind changed and I instinctively started painting like I do with my acrylic work. Which is very colorful. Keep in mind that I had never painted this way with oils before. My perception of oils was that it was for rendered realism work, not colorful and styled work. It was so exciting and interesting to see that I could use oil paints in the same way that I did with acrylic paint. I know that this was only possible through my practice of painting with acrylics and learning about color mixing because before, I’d make my colors too muddy and I’d overwork the painting. This to me, was the start of a new era.
The first “chapter” or week of the book, The Artist Way, talks about an inner critique we all hold inside and how to acknowledge it and see its effects on our creativity. And so it got me thinking, what is something I’ve told myself I could not do and perhaps is just my inner critic telling me I can’t. The answer was, abstract painting.
I had the option of taking an abstract painting class back in college, I decided to instead take a surrealism class on the counts of wanting to paint like Rene Magritte. I could have sworn back then that I would be a surrealism painter for life. I had talked to classmates who took the abstract class, and they always seemed so happy about it and told me it was fun and liberating. I would tell them that I didn’t think I could do it, because I wanted to paint objects or landscapes and people. And I wasn’t all that interested in abstract works that I had seen. I felt like I didn’t get it and it wasn’t as impressive as a realism painting. This notion has changed in me over the years. My son is the number one reason. He’s been painting since he was a baby, and I find it fascinating how he comes up with these great compositions of color and doodles, I am not sure if it’s because he’s my baby that I appreciate them, but I truly believe they are good.
The magic of realism has also slowly disappeared as I’ve learned that if you follow certain painting rules, you’ll be able to achieve the illusion of 3D on a 2D surface. I am now more impressed by an individual's ability to create a visual language which could not be taught prior to them creating it. I find that to be true talent and I have been struggling for years to create my very own. I visited the East Wing of The National Museum of Modern Art with my boyfriend in the second week of September. He was visiting from Los Angeles and wanted to go with me since he had visited it before on his own and loved it. I had walked through it with my son when he was very little, but at that time I wasn’t impressed. This time around, I was excited to view the works with my new mindset which held admiration for ingenuity and creativity.
I walked around the museum, looking and analyzing each painting that I really loved. My questions were; why do I like it? What do I like about it? What makes this painting interesting? How would I recreate this? What would I try to do first? And so on.
I fell in love with this painting located on the third floor of the museum. It's called Baby (Cradle) by Gustav Klimt. I loved the movement of it and just how sketchfully Klimt applied the paint. Up close it looks very rough and the surface holds blotches of paint here and there, and even though it looks disorganized, it works! The colors are vibrant and you can tell all the different fabrics with their unique patterns. I am not confused by what I see. What a skill this is!
I had started a plein air painting (without the plein air part) from the window at the studio the day before the museum. I decided to finish the painting with this skill in mind. "Don't over work it," I'd tell myself,"it's fine, leave it alone, it holds some vibrancy and movement." The finish product is a cute little 8x10" painting that records my stay at the factory and the evolution I was going through.
I had a small 8x8” wood panel that my boyfriend had gifted me a while back. It was laying on my desk waiting to get painted on. I had about 10 minutes left after completing the landscape, and I thought, why not give it a go at abstract. I had nothing to lose since I had already accomplished finishing the painting, why not play with the paint on my palette.
My conclusion from the museum visit was that if I was going to try and paint an abstract painting, I'd have to start with a single color and work around it and see what other colors would go with it. I started with simple shapes and I placed them according to where they would go best compositionally. I kept movement and texture in mind. By the end of the 10 minutes
I had a rough little abstract painting that I could work with the next day.
I was feeling a bit emotional the following day, and thought about channeling those emotions onto the abstract painting I had started. It worked! And as I painted it I was flowing and realizing that the painting would be called Ocean of Emotion , corny I know, but so perfect.
I had another panel laying around, a bit bigger, 8x12" to be exact. I thought it'd be a perfect way to go bigger on the abstract paintings. I tried replicating that flow that I had been able to achieve ln the previous painting. The emotions weren't there though and so I think it resulted in a less enriched painting. What do you think?
I went looking for bigger canvases I may have had that I could paint over, and I found a couple. I decided to continue with the abstract and created one of my favorite abstract paintings yet.
I really love the movement in this painting, and I believe the colors work well with eachother. It is almost soothing to look at. I enjoy it very much. I haven't given it a title , but it reminds me of a brain, so maybe I'll call it, My Brain.
My next painting would be much more difficult to create. It was on a bigger canvas, and I believe I made the mistake of starting it while I sat down. This might be the reason for how busy it looks since I was much closer to the surface and was looking at the canvas in sections, verses as a whole.
I still persisted, trying to have no judgement for what I was creating. And so I ended up with a completely different painting than what I had previously done. It was very rendered and less interesting in the texture side, but still full of movement and color.
Now that I look at it here, I can admire it more for what it is. I was a bit disappointed when I finished it because I wanted to recreate the brain painting that I loved that so much. This was not that, but it was its own unique thing, and that's great!
I think that's what's beautiful about abstract paintings. It's that you discover new things about it everytime you look at it. You might be feeling differently one day and interpret a small speck of color as something completely different than what you had interpreted it the day prior. It's ever changing just as our minds, perspectives and moods are.
The end to my time at the factory came so quickly I could not believe it. It was one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever experienced. I was able to talk to so many people I would have never come across otherwise. I met artists and collectors and enjoyed the energy that Old Town Alexandria holds daily. I am continuing this journey of discovery through art as I work on other paintings in my own art space. I feel that I have a new perspective on art. I must go back and study the modern art masters and their techniques. I will pursue the discovery of my own visual language. I have no idea what that looks like, but i know that it will appear at some point, all I must do is paint!