To be flat


Dear Artist,

Examine the work of an accomplished painter in any genre and you’ll likely witness the understanding and employment of flats. By this I mean those unsung, unapologetic saturations of colour without shine or impasto. Flats acknowledge the painting surface as a flat thing and at the same time enhance other features that give the painting its delicious illusion of depth. Good flats are technically difficult to execute — steady swatches of evenness must dodge the textural momentum of brush strokes in acrylic and oil. Most of the time, louder surface energy is the desired effect and it becomes the usual spotlight of the picture plane. But, oh, to be flat.


“Mountains and Sea”
charcoal and oil on canvas, 1952
by Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)

You need only devote a section of your painting to the idea. Think, for example, of a gradated tidal pool cutting through a rippled sandbar or imagine an inclement strip of rain-sky or shadow. Your flats function as the counterpoint to neighbouring hot zips, complementary blots, free-association scumbles and other energy moments. They cut valuable negative shape in and around your subject: a thicket, a nude, an apple. Two equal intensity opaques, flat and side-by-side, will create quiet rhythm, vibration and after-image. This is where calculated form and edgemanship go to work. Framed by brushy meanderings, flats are the cornerstone of eye control.

“Desert Pass”
acrylic on canvas, 1976
by Helen Frankenthaler

Keep things flat by thinning paint with medium. If you use just water to thin acrylic paint, the pigment will not adhere. And if you use only turpentine or mineral spirits to thin oil paint, it will, over time, break down. With no gesso or sizing, supports are prone to rot. Flat painting requires a flat brush and a clean sweep. Mix and liquefy, then load and stroke, and pay attention to your edges without overworking it.

For abstractionists, flats are the golden egg. A beauty will invite the eye to swim in a pool of saturated light, the painted ground at once the whole story and all but a void. Flats as watercolour, woodcut and graphic design dance between these visual realms easily. On canvas, the illusion gains power with scale, contrast and texture. The fantasy is born of flats.


acrylic on canvas, 1988
by Helen Frankenthaler



PS: “I have always been concerned with painting that simultaneously insists on a flat surface and then denies it.” (Helen Frankenthaler)

Esoterica: Twentieth Century American modernist Helen Frankenthaler pioneered a technique for flats she called, “soak stain.” Working on the floor, she poured turpentine-diluted oil paint onto a tipped, unprimed canvas, spontaneously “drawing” while allowing the paint to fuse to the substrate as it dried. These paintings began to disintegrate and she switched to acrylic. Frankenthaler’s large-scale compositions borrowed the poetry of watercolour and dyeing, while lionizing the principles of abstraction. Over six decades, Frankenthaler explored Cubism, gesture and action painting, symmetry, Fauvism, colour field and printmaking, circling back in her seventies on muted, linear works of soft-edged abstraction. While at times punctuated with high key daubs, drawing, sculptural mountain forms and turbulent seas and sky, she did it all, mostly, in flats.


“Snow Pines”
woodcut, 2004
by Helen Frankenthaler

“Women of Abstract Expressionism” opens June 12, 2016 at the Denver Art Museum. Curated by DAM’s Gwen Chanzit, it brings attention to 51 paintings by 12 trailblazers of the American mid-century: Mary Abbott, Jay DeFeo, Perle Fine, Helen Frankenthaler, Sonia Gechtoff, Judith Godwin, Grace Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Deborah Remington and Ethel Schwabacher.

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“I had the landscape in my arms as I painted it. I had the landscape in my mind and shoulder and wrist.” (Helen Frankenthaler)



  1. Come to Denver! Visit our fabulous Libeskind and Ponti designed Art Museum. Next door is the Clifford Still Museum. The Graves Library is also next to the Art Museum. Our new Colorado History Museum is across the street. Denver’s Golden Triangle- which houses the Art Museum- also houses many galleries. The Art District on Santa Fe Blvd is a few blocks away. The MCA is in lower downtown. Denver continues to grow as an art and culture hub- centrally located in the middle of the country. Our summer’s can be hot- but it rarely lasts for more than a few days. And of course- our mountains are just as active in the summer as they are in the winter. Oh yes! And I’m here too! Like anybody cares…

  2. Thank you for this perfectly timed letter Sara. First, as I continue to explore my move into abstract expressionism in my own work I am totally captivated by putting colour on the canvas as flat surfaces ……. so these comments will keep me thinking and playing for the next while. Also, thanks for introducing me to Helen Frankenthaler [ I admit not knowing her work] ; I will explore her work more as a result of this letter…. and yes,,,, perhaps its time for a summer trip to Denver to see this exhibition ..

    All the best . Robin

  3. I first saw Helen Frankenthaler’s work about forty years ago on my first visit to the Guggenheim. As a second year art student, I was surrounded by hard edge acrylics and Pollock-type drips and splatters. I was overwhelmed by her transparencies and glorious colours, and came back to Winnipeg with new energy. That first encounter stayed with me, so thanks for recognizing one of the best artists of the twentieth century. And also the reminder about flats. I was puzzling about a stalled painting and I now see that’s what is needed.

  4. Emily Carr thinned her paint with turpentine. Now curators of her work try to save it. I’ve always been intrigued by the uniqueness of painting: the copy of a painting does not have the status of the copy of a printed book. But is there any salvage technique by which paintings can be “re-mastered,” not just photographically reproduced, to save them from destruction?

  5. Sarah, I love seeing flats, especially in Helen’s work. However, If you put an isolation coat and varnish, won’t the flat disappear? Please forgive my ignorance, but do you need to varnish?

  6. The God of New York Abstract Expressionism was critic, writer, CLEMENT GREENBERG. Mr Greenberg did indeed promote FLAT, FLAT FLAT !!! Mr Greenberg promoted Jules Olitski , as the greatest living artist in America , Mr Olitski spray painted his works ,that could easily be misconstrued as WALLPAPER in an wall paper stores. Years later Mr Olitsky painted FIGURATIVE EXPRESSIONIST paintings with IMPASTO PAINT SURFACES .

    Mr Greenberg has since gone on to be thrown on the trash heap of art critics by Modernist Artists and Critics .

  7. Dear Sara
    YES, biggest truth , you have to have flat areas to bring out texture, greys to bring out colour, quiet to bring out motion,
    I miss your dad, all best. Adolfo Mcque

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