Painting a square study

I don’t think I’ve ever painted using a square surface before, and never for a plein air painting. I decided to use a tiny square board for a study quite randomly, and the results are interesting.

As soon as I started painting in the spot I had picked, my focus was on describing visceral and bodily recollections of a childhood memory – a vast, luscious summer canopy tree, that used to live opposite where I was painting. I have hazy, fuzzy memories of playing under it in the middle of summer, of feeling welcomed under this immense canopy of rich yellows and oranges. The feeling of the heights of the tree seemed best described with the red that hangs at the top of the painting. I didn’t expect these memories to come to the surface, but once they did I fully embraced them in the painting.

There were also somethings that I recorded in the painting which cannot be separated as either memory or present experience, but tangle and blur of both:

– The feeling, in both my memory and present impression is of garden grass on on the right that lets loose down the hill, sending you down there with it, and so the grass curves down rather sharply on the right of the painting.

– Visceral current impressions mingled with memories of the house on the left, leading me to paint using reds, pinks and purples. Which, side note, aligns with colours I’ve used in other studies, but more on that soon.

This painting certainly has a soft, hazy quality to it, this softness I think makes it feel to me like the painting is a bodily impression and an imprint; as if another painting which was done at the time my memories were being made, was taken whilst still wet and pressed onto this board, leaving behind a mono-print of what once was. And mono-prints can have this pressed, slightly sparse quality to them, especially if the same print has been printed multiple times. That’s a strange analogy to come up with, but an interesting one!


Painting a square surface rather than a landscape or portrait removes the assumption that the abstract painting suggests the view of a landscape. This is because a landscape shaped painting emphasises the horizontal line- horizon, travelling /implied to travel across the width of the painting, defining the painting as a view of a place. Similarly, a portrait shape emphasises the height above and/or below the horizon line.

With a square painting these expanses relative to the horizon line are removed. At first glance a viewer has fewer expectations of what the painting will describe. Furthermore, a square shape means the eye is contained; not welcome to roam left or right, up or down into lengthier edges of the painting, but is constantly met with even sides, which bounce the eye back in constantly, to return inwards to a clear centre point.

As a result of this movement of the eye, this square painting feels like an emotional snapshot, because the movements of the eye inwards seem to suggest a turn emotionally inwards too.

I am suggesting here that the shape of the painting surface affects the kind of marks I put down and/or how your eye roams across a painting, which affects how expansive a painting feels, and whether therefore the painting translates an internal issue of the artist’s, or an external observation beyond the artist, and open somehow beyond the edges of the canvas.

Let’s do an experiment. If I crop the image of this landscape painting of mine below, does the painting suddenly feel more internal like I said it would above? Or, because I painted the work with the attitude of a landscape shape, would cropping it make no difference? Since the paint marks were made to suite a landscape shape, and perhaps it is in the painting process where the marks are impacted by the shape of the surface.

Original painting
Square cropped, in the middle

Even though the original landscape wasn’t very wide to begin with, the cropped version does feel less expansive than the original. The light blue sweeping curve on the right does a lot to keep the right side of the painting open, even when it is cropped, so the image doesn’t feel quite as closed as the other actual square painting.

Let’s try cropping another study:

Original
Square cropped, in the middle

This painting certainly loses its expansiveness once it is cropped. Your eyes cannot roam outwards left and right, seemingly into some kind of distance. The painting goes from seeming like a vista of some abstract kind, to being a description of something specific and focussed when it is cropped.

There is less space for wandering once the painting is cropped. The square shape is saying for the artist to the viewer ‘look, there’s something very specific I want you to focus on in this picture’! Rather than in a landscape, where the shape is saying for the artist to the viewer ‘here is a scene with multiple animacies going on, do with that what you will’. The square is less playful somehow, more intent, focussed, steady, serious.

It’s amazing how much of a change a compositional shape can make! And looking at the examples I cropped, the wider the scene, the more expansive the painting is. I hadn’t explored this that much before. I’ll be more careful next time when choosing a shape! I’ve got another little square board to paint on today, I’m interested to see how that goes now.

The question is, when can a square shape be used to help my intentions?

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