Abstracting from a Photograph

Recent watercolors

My watercolors have recently been about the distance between my autistic brother and me. Mike is profoundly retarded, autistic and has never spoken. In addition to the physical distance between us (I’m on the Wes Coast, he’s on the East Coast), there is a communication gap that I have never been able to breach. I developed some icons to use in my ‘Barrier’ paintings (Back to Abstract?, Variation, My Niche, Sketching, Barrier #5 Completed).

Today’s experiment

The study I prepared for today is still about that barrier, however, I tried something a little different. I am primarily a photographer and have shot many a roll of film of my brother. I posted many of these photos early on in my blog. Some of my photos can be seen in these posts: A Walk with Mike; Those Moments; Mike and Dad; Mike’s Moods; Photography Assignment Revisited; Familiar Relations; My First Show.

I chose one photo today, which I decided to represent in a watercolor. Hopefully I abstracted the most important features of that instant in time pictured below:

Picture of Mike in his classroom at his day program

Mike at his Day Program

Here is the painting based, not only on what the photograph depicts, but the communication gap between us. I suppose there is more than one way to interpret the photograph, but I tried to extract the essence of what I saw and felt for translation into the study below.

Watercolor painting abstracted from photo of brother in his day program

Painting abstracted from Day Program Photo
4″x10″ 140# Cold Pressed Watercolor Block

I minimized the use of my icons and instead tried to show our separate realms, without too much symbolism.

I think the study succeeds to some degree, but it still needs some work – perhaps some unification in the left half of the picture.

9 thoughts on “Abstracting from a Photograph

  1. Morning Jack!
    I think your composition looks complete as it is. There is importance in not overworking pieces sometimes. To me it looks very cohesive, and although I comprehend your sense that there should be more unification in the left half, I think actually that lends itself to the expression of the separation in communication that you feel exists between you and Mike. I can feel the intense sense of awareness in the eye central to the piece and representing your brother, although I can’t help feeling that it is a reflection in part of your own awareness and desire to establish communication. I also find it fascinating that you have depicted your own perspective as being almost a patchwork of knowledge and experience, assimilated through years of trying to mesh together relations pertaining to your family and your brother. It almost looks like bunting at a parade. However, you depict Mike’s half of the painting with much more fluidity, and perhaps in more simple and direct terms, as if expressing how much easier you feel his life is in some ways.
    i am really enjoying your exploration of your artistic talent, it inspires me to return to it myself. It’s been a while.

    Warm Regards,
    Your friend,


    • Dear M. Thank you so much for your support. Your comment was enlightening to me, as I had not made the connection of the more complex meshwork on my side of the barrier versus the relatively simple design on Mike’s part. After finishing the painting – before reading your comment – I was thinking that I should have put some kind of checkerboard on Mike’s side, because that was what was in the background of the photo. But this wouldn’t be right, since I am the one who sees Mike’s background and the painting is correct in having a quasi checkerboard on my side. I was actually going for the contrast of dull colors on his side vs brighter colors on my side, Mike’s glance veering away from my attempt to reach out to him and intersecting with the continuation of the lines emanating from his head, picked up by the dotted lines on my side are what creates the patchwork. The only object that looks out of place to me is the hot dog-looking object nest to my hand (not sure the correct term used in England for frankfurter). I didn’t intend for it to look like it does.

      As for your artwork, I don’t know how you could do any more that your are doing. You are so prolific. But I am really glad that I am inspiring to you!

      Thanks again, my good friend.

      Warmest regards,


      • Thank you Jack and I’m pleased that I have helped shed a little more light on your marvellous photographic interpretation. You are probably right about my struggling to fit the artwork in as well, of course I would have to forsake something for a short while, but I miss playing with different mediums and having that contact with real paper or canvas. The photography fulfils much of my artistic needs right now, but received a lot of canvases, brushes and other such painting paraphernalia over x-mass so I really ought to put it to good use.

        I did wonder what that odd object was in the left part of the image. A hot-dog in a nest? Might I venture in saying that despite the already abstract nature of the painting itself, that in and of itself it might represent the abstract of the outside mundane world, almost bridging the two domains, and emphasising once again the dynamic between you and Mike? Just a thought.

        Any time my equally good friend.
        Warmest regards


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