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Finding Spontaneity in Still Life: A Demo

A setup is just a suggestion for Carolyn Marshall Wright as she embraces an unpredictable approach to bring her abstract acrylic art to life.

By Stefanie Laufersweiler

Follow along in the demo below to paint a recreation of Evensong (acrylic and oil pastel on paper, 20×26) by Carolyn Marshall Wright

For Carolyn Marshall Wright, few things kill a painting’s potential quicker than a formulated plan or concrete goals. “Aside from wanting to create a successful painting, I’m not setting up a specific outcome,” she says. “Instead, by working the way I do and getting caught up in the process of creating, I frequently end up with something that’s more — and better — than I could’ve ever imagined.” Here we’ll learn how her abstract acrylic art informs her work. Then follow along in the demo below as Carolyn Marshall Wright embraces an unpredictable approach to bring her vibrant florals to life.

By July the Pansies Get Leggy (acrylic, collage, graphite and oil pastel on paper, 20×26) by Carolyn Marshall Wright

Inspired by Abstraction

For a long time, Wright kept her representational watercolor work and her abstract acrylic art completely separate. “I enjoyed both, but I didn’t see them overlapping,” she says. That changed about five years ago when Wright left her corporate career to pursue art full time. “It was at that point, when I could work more regularly and from real-life setups rather than photos and imagination, that the melding of the two — representational and abstract acrylic art — began,” she says. By July the Pansies Get Leggy (above) is an early example of the genre mash-up. “I was working hard at creating a pure abstraction and wasn’t getting anywhere,” Wright says, “so I added some collage materials, turned the surface sideways and suddenly there were the pots calling out for the very flowers that were growing on my front porch.”

Unpredictability is more characteristic of Wright’s painting method than planning. She likes having setups of fairly simple shapes, with the exception of the flowers themselves, and no expectations. “I don’t actually know whether a painting will be a still life, a floral or an abstract,” Wright says. “I may be thinking I’d like to work bigger or that I need to incorporate more blues, but otherwise, with this style of painting, I begin with an open mind.”

Consider the Lily (acrylic on canvas, 36×48) by Carolyn Marshall Wright

Trust the Process

Wright begins a painting by applying gesso to the paper, usually Mohawk Superfine 90-lb. While the gesso dries, she makes a 3×4-inch value study of the still life setup. “I look for lights and darks, repetitive shapes and relationships between objects,” she says. “I may or may not refer to the study again; it’s just a way to begin to focus.”

A gestural type of contour drawing comes next, followed by color. “I want to have surprises in my paintings, so that’s one reason I begin with a lot of rich, bright color,” says Wright. (See the Blooming Wild demonstration below.) “Much of it may get covered up, but some will peek out.” The first layers are often warm ones. “Based on my watercolor background, I know that an underpainting of yellows or reds can lend a glow to the final painting,” she says. “I put in some darker colors, too, knowing that, with acrylic, I can come in with lighter colors on top.”

Wright rotates the paper a number of times as she progresses, building up color and structure until she sees
a painting emerge — sometimes representational, other times more abstract acrylic art. She uses Gator Board as a support, and working on an easel allows her full movement as she creates. “I work freely, intensely and intuitively, without necessarily looking at the still life itself, just referencing what I remember and feel,” she says. “I’m making chaos — I’ll be the first to admit it — but I have to trust the process.”

Girasoles 2 (acrylic, graphite and oil pastel on paper, 40×26) by Carolyn Marshall Wright_WO

A Visual Path

As Wright works, she keeps in mind various lessons she has been taught about composition. “Don’t place something smack in the middle. Don’t have arrow-type shapes leading off the corners. Add a visual path. Think about the golden mean; does that have any bearing here? Consider the picture plane as a whole: Is the eye moving around it, or is there one shape or mark that stops the eye? Don’t lock in a shape, but keep shapes interlocked — that’s a challenge,” Wright says. “If I’ve done all of those things, or at least most of them, I’m pretty sure I’ve got a good composition.”

Range of Motion (acrylic, collage, graphite and oil pastel on paper, 26×40) by Carolyn Marshall Wright

Creating Marks and Shapes

Wright primarily uses Golden heavy-body acrylics — she likes their creamy consistency and intense color — and Liquitex’s brilliant blue. She doesn’t use fluid acrylics often, but has taken to the fluid phthalo turquoise she received from one of her three daughters as a gift. “Fluid acrylics are great to use at the beginning of a painting,” Wright says. She sprays them to encourage movement on the paper.

Wright steers clear of black and most earth-toned paints, removing them from her standard acrylic palette in favor of bolder, purer hues. “I love all the cadmiums,” she says. “There isn’t a painting I create these days that doesn’t feature at least two of them.”

She rarely uses flat brushes in her watercolor work, but they’re her go-to brushes when working in acrylic to achieve the shapes she wants. “I’ll use a round brush with acrylic for making lines,” Wright says. “I also paint frequently with a palette knife to scrape out lines and shapes. I’ll use whatever will give me the shape I want, including sticks.” She enjoys adding marks using other media, including any kind of pencil, from water-soluble to woodless.

“Caran d’Ache watercolor sticks are great, too, especially in the beginning when I’m making a foundation of color and marks,” Wright says. “Toward the end, I may pull in some oil pastels, too.”

Syncopation (acrylic, graphite, watercolor and oil pastel on paper, 26×40) by Carolyn Marshall Wright

From Still Life to Something More

Wright considers still life setups more closely when painting flowers so that she can best capture their essence.
“I want to know the curve of the stem, how the flower attaches to it, where on the petals the light falls, what shape the flowers take as a group and individually,” she says. “I may make just a few brushstrokes and then go back to look again. I’m not painting everything I see, but it’s being distilled down so that, hopefully, the personality of the flowers is manifesting itself.”

It’s the appeal of the more ambiguous areas in her paintings that keeps Wright intrigued and her viewers involved. “I’ve always loved a good mystery, and painting this way is, in a sense, like being inside the mystery,” she says. “Which way will it go? Will it be completely abstract? Will there be some elements of representation? Or will it be highly representational?”

Wright hopes her efforts to reach beyond the conventions of traditional still life stir curiosity and emotion in her viewers and that they’re drawn in as their eyes travel through her work to make new discoveries. “It’s kind of like standing on the edge of something,” she says, “and jumping in.”

Demo: Blooming Wild

By Carolyn Marshall Wright

Follow along as Carolyn Marshall Wright uses this reference photo for a unique approach to her acrylic abstract art.

Reference Photo

The floral still life setup features a lot of items. The peonies are past their prime, but I like the droop of their heads. At this point, I’m not sure how much of this information will appear in the final painting.

Step 1

While looking primarily at the still life and not the paper, I make free-flowing gestural marks in my first sketch. I love the feel of the graphite pulling across the gessoed paper. I like using Golden gesso for its smoothness.

Step 2

I’ve got quite a bit of a foundation going, using watercolor sticks and water-soluble graphite layered with paint. I add plenty of yellows and a diluted cadmium red light to give warmth to the underpainting. I’ve also turned the paper sideways.

Step 3

I determine that my main focus will be the peonies in the vase; I’m not going to include the rest of the still life items. I add deeper values to create a feeling of depth, and I start painting the flowers. Notice that I’ve turned the painting 180 degrees.

Step 4

I continue to add deeper values while also painting the flowers, working on the painting as a whole. While looking at the actual bouquet for reference, I adjust reality — adding as many flowers as I want and placing them on the picture plane where I want — to create a compelling composition.

Step 5

I paint into the deep green shape that cuts across the bottom of the central peony, enlarging and developing the volume of the flower while eliminating the “mustache” it had earlier. I cool down and simplify the lower-left corner with a lighter blue, which enables me to define the lower edge of the far-left peony using negative painting.

Evensong (acrylic and oil pastel on paper, 20×26) by Carolyn Marshall Wright


Using the warm glow of the underpainting to its best advantage, I create a feeling of the beginning of twilight. In the end, it wasn’t necessary to include the vase. The flowers in Evensong (acrylic and oil pastel on paper, 20×26) appear as though they’re blooming in a bountiful garden.

A version of this story was originally published in Artists Magazine.

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