An Art Process: Making 25 Squares

25 Squares

25 Squares, mixed media on bristol board, 9x12in

When I first had aspirations of being a “real” artist I never thought I would get into making abstract art of any kind. It wasn’t something I really understood and even now it’s something that makes a lot of folks roll their eyes. Of course everyone’s definition of a “real” artist is something different. At the time I was in my teens and all I wanted to do was draw comic books, specifically Marvel’s The Amazing Spider-Man. So I’m a little surprised at myself even now that I’ve learned to be a little flexible.

So what are we looking at here? Before we get too involved in this red and white and black rendition, let’s go to one of the original works.

25 Squares, black and white

25 Squares. Black marker on cardstock, 8.5 x 11″

The original version of this image was a deep black marker on bright white cardstock. It consists of twenty-five squares in a five by five grid spaced evenly. By definition a square is a quadrilateral with four right angles and sides of equal length. Each square has a drop shadow to give it some artificial depth and illustrate that these are in fact two dimensional squares floating in the air and not perhaps cubes that we are looking at head on. Each square consists of four lines segments as does each shadow. If we do the math that’s 4 x 25 (twice) for a grand total of 200 line segments. I know that each square is three-quarters of an inch by three-quarters of an inch, the visible part of each shadow is one-quarter of an inch to the right and below each square and there is a one-quarter of an inch of space between each shadow and the adjacent square. We’ve just taken a very simple black and white image and made it sound pretty complicated. But wait, there’s more!

If you look carefully you’ll notice these aren’t perfect squares. The line segments aren’t perfectly straight. Now if you handed someone a ballpoint pen and a notebook and asked them to draw a square you might get something like one of those seen here. However, if you handed an engineer a ruler, a T-square, and a technical pen and asked them to draw a square, you might expect something a little more precise. Although the basic structure is meticulously laid out, the structure is softened with hand drawn line segments and we have this juxtaposition of perfect geometry and imperfect art.

Now if you read all of this so far and you’re thinking, “John Morton, you are so full of shit,” you’d be mostly right.

The truth is that I have no idea what possessed me to draw the first 25 Squares. I do recall at one point I had an idea of doing a series of works that would somewhat challenge the traditional fine art. The idea was to use regular office supplies instead of “fine art” papers and inks. I bought twelve dozen black Sharpie markers and a ream of regular bright white cardstock and used those basic materials to draw dozens of images. By using cost effective materials I hoped to make works of art that I could afford to sell at a lower cost and make available to folks that might not otherwise buy original artwork, the catch being that the artwork wasn’t created on archival paper and might not last several generations. Some of these works are a little over ten years old now and are starting to show signs of yellowing (and in a way I think that’s kind of neat).

Back to the squares. Although all that stuff about juxtaposition and line segments may not have been my intent off the bat, maybe you could argue that those are reasons I like the piece on a subconscious level or after the fact. I couldn’t tell you with a straight face that I believe it is an important piece of work, but I do like it. If I didn’t I wouldn’t have made so many of them and continue to make them. And if I can’t put my finger on exactly why I like it, I do know that the process of creating it is cathartic for me. Perhaps one day it will lead me to something else and in retrospect it could be considered important.

I’ve experimented with slightly different methods of constructing the layout, but most involve using a ruler and lightly making lines with a pencil or plotting out the corners and connecting the dots freehand. At one point I tried using a light table to trace a finished work, but I found the result to be less genuine and like making a copy of a copy I feel that the layout would slide around and be less true in little time.

In the red example shown at the top of this post I didn’t even know I was going to be making another 25 Squares at first. A friend of mine had suggested I do some art that was “more messy and less neat,” so I took out a sheet of bristol board and started going at it with waterbased poster paint pens. I started with yellow making small circles. Then with blue I started making triangles. In red I made large streaks across the paper that intersected and the more red I put down the more I realized I liked the red best. I added red acrylic paint, red block printing ink, and drops of water mixed in with paint and ink. At some point I decided the squares were coming in even if the neat layout conflicted with the messy surroundings. Each square got a few coats of white acrylic paint and the outlines and shadows had to be reworked several times. Had I known how layered this piece was going to be in the beginning I might have used something other than bristol board as it is a little wrinkled now, but it will look great flattened out in a frame.

It never occurred to me to do 25 Squares with anything other than cardstock and marker. Since this piece I’ve done a couple others.

25 Squares, pencil

25 Squares. Pencil on drawing paper. 6x8in.

This small pencil version was done with pencil in a small pad of drawing paper. The challenge here is that the squares are 9/16″ making the whole composition 25% smaller than most.

25 Squares

25 Squares. Mixed media on bristol board. 9x12in.

This is the latest version and oddly enough it came to me as a result of trying to document the process of making these images. I got to thinking about the grid layout that I sometimes use and thought about featuring it prominently instead of erasing it or covering it up. The blues and blacks are a water based screen printing ink diluted with water. I masked off the white squares prior to laying down the color, but still gave them a light coat of white paint. As cliché as it sounds, I feel like this complements the red version. Red is angry. Blue is sad. A version in yellow to complete the primary circuit now feels obligatory. Would that look happy? Anxious? After that I think I’ll try to give squares a bit of a rest.

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