Mark Lewis Professor, University of Tulsa, Class Questions 2021

Ken Kewley - Collage

Melanie O

Overtime have you noticed a change in your 

working process? Why? Was is a mentality change, physical change?

kk: Increasingly I have constructed/composed my work, whether representational or purely abstract, with shapes. Less marks and more shapes. And more definite shapes. Like the wooden blocks in kindergarten, abstract shapes that can be used to build whatever you want. Composition is just the arranging of shapes. It’s much more difficult to arrange marks. Mentally and physically one finds overtime more efficient ways of doing things.

Shapes get you there faster. Overtime I went from all brush, to palette knife, to collage, and then in painting, the use of the straight edge and assorted shaped stencils and templates. 

The greater skill is placing shapes not the exact following of contours and the mimicking of surfaces. 

Angel O

How did you start as an artist?

Did you face people going against your creativity?

kk: It was a slow process that continues today. I had no one for or against me. I did not know any artists. I drew cartoons and household objects. Went to furniture stores to see pictures.

It was in college when I first went to an art museum and bought my first art book (George Inness).

ao: How can we make more people see more of the value that is in artwork?

kk: Valuing art gets messed up in grade school along with the first art instruction, with the teaching of rendering based on correcting, where one is pushed to get the proportions, the color, the anatomy right. Things that the preschooler does not worry about. They know that those things are not as important as their own sense of abstraction. When this is taken from them, and so-called correctness does not interest them, and therefore can be difficult for them, they come to believe that they have no talent. This last into adulthood and effects how they look at art. One must turn things around, start again. The art teacher can start with abstraction. Collage is wonderful for this. Arranging cut shapes. The number of ways a few shapes can be arranged is infinite. Once the student has gotten back their sense of abstraction, they can take those same shapes and use them to build representation. It is very hard to force the necessary abstraction into figuration that was made by copying obediently what one observes. Abstraction and figuration must work together from the start. You see a shape out there, you put it where it fits best (that can be a little different than what was out there).


Zoe E

What first catches your attention when looking at a scene that you’re going to paint or collage? Where does your attention move throughout the painting/collage process?

kk: Take for example a house and some trees. If one can see a few shapes in that scene, that is a good start. If one only sees the house and the trees, that makes composing more difficult. Shapes can be compared and contrasted and related to other shapes. How does one compare a tree to another tree and then to other things? It’s better if one can find a shape in a tree, not the whole tree, and relate it to a shape in the house, not the whole house. If these two shapes together form a new shape that the eye sees first, that is a good place to start. The viewer sees this shape first, before they see the house and the tree. This is where the viewer enters the work. Through the abstraction and not through the house and tree. It is slowing down looking. Beyond this the mind loves to find things that rhyme. The first shape will lead to other shapes on a journey through the work.

ze: After I watched your process of collage works, I feel so curious about your measurement method about each collage; how did you make these measurements before you start to make a collage? (Karsh J.)

kk: The measuring, where I made all those little notations, was something I only did for those complex collages. I was mechanically reproducing/copying, for example the Matisse, as a way to move beyond the subject, with my main interest being the hundreds of small decisions that using solid color shapes with straight edges made necessary. Using straight edges was my rule. It kept me from copying Matisse’s brush marks.With collage you cut out the shape, only definite shapes are possible. Cutting out the shape is the secret. If you start trying to cut out, copy an artist’s brushstroke, you would likely be in trouble. 

One shape at a time, adding a definite shape to other definite shapes.

kk: I would not do what I did then now. Copy so closely. It was only the hundred decisions that made it mine. Today I would measure less and let distortion enter more freely. What might be lost could be more than made up by relating, gathering up, and strengthening shapes.  

If you are building a house you need careful measurements. In art it is the distortions that make it yours. Let the distortions happen, but don’t intentionally make them thinking you are being creative. Never try to be creative. That usually does not turn out well. 

Cailie G.

Would you say you prefer the process of collage to the process of painting? And why?

kk; I love both collage and painting. I think of collage as painting with dry paint. Painted shapes.

cg: What would you say is the most important step of your artistic process?


Finding shapes is the most important step. Then the arranging/composing of these abstract shapes either into representation or pure abstraction.

With collage you can actually move the shape around to find the best place for it. 

But as long as you are aware of shapes this can be done as well with painting. 

It was the use of the small palette knife, when I worked with oil paint, using it to mix/blend colors, and then using the straight edge of the knife to make clean shapes that made the transition/jump to collage easy, where shapes are cut from solid color. For too many years before this I made a lot of marks, one for each detail seen. With the knife, and then collage, the marks were replaced by shapes.

Once I started using acrylic, which dries fast, I was able to paint up against a straight edge, a thin cardboard strip. In a sense cutting the paint, then moving it around, to each side, to make a shape.

Shapes suggested by the subject. Once there were shapes, things were relatable and comparable. Compare and contrast.  

Jennifer C. 

What do you like about working on a more intimate scale? Do you feel there are any disadvantages creating collages in such a small space? 

kk: Whatever size one works there must be a focus on the whole. In working small one does not need to turn one’s head, therefore you can be very precise. 

Pinky R.

What do you hope the viewer gets from your work and since you mainly work on small scale collages, do you use an x-acto knife to cut so precise?

kk: I hope the viewer gets a similar thrill/excitement that I do in making the work. 

I use scissors. The cut shape does not need to be precise. It is the placement of the shape that is important. 

Maggie G.

When you create volume with your shapes and colors (Hans Hoffman )do you plan that out first or does the subject  come first and then color shapes?  Reference - Bouquet 1,  2015 acrylic on board 24 x 18

kk: No planning. With Bouquet 1, my only thought was that it would be a bouquet. The shapes were made with straight edges and circle templates. In the collages, the circle shapes are made with hole punches. I have an assortment of circle templates and hole punches. The shapes gather into clusters of shapes that are either in front of or behind other clusters. So overlapping and creating space. Together they represent something, in this case a bouquet, existing in space, with depth. Things can be a little ambiguous as long as the composition feels right. 

Advanced studio

Sarah L.

"When creating a work from start to finish, how long does it take to finish a collage versus a painting, especially when working from a similar subject?”

kk: Those complex collages could take months. Much longer  than I would spend on a painting. The recent collages are quicker than the paintings. The shapes in the collages are more definite, the relationships between shapes, easier to see. The paintings stay in flux longer. There are more options/choices. The larger size of the paintings is a factor also. I tend to spend longer making final decision. Things go through more changes. 

Lately I’ve been collaging more than painting but plan to get back to more painting and I’m going to try to follow what I do in the collage, even more than have, definite shapes and definite decisions, placing one shape followed by another. In a word less tentative. 

Isabelle B.

1. Do you like to get your paper scraps from specific sources (like magazines and books) or do you take whatever you can get? Is the sort of paper you use something you consider when making your collages?

2. From what I understand, your pieces are all relatively small. If you were to work on a larger canvas or collage, would your consideration for the measurements and color planes drive you to add more detail, or would you have the same approach as with your previous works?

kk: 1. The early collages were made with color from magazines. It was very enjoyable to cut out color from these. I now regret having done so much work with color that can easily fade and change color. What was green, with the yellow ink fading, can turn blue. 

Now I only use painted paper. Acrylic paint on regular 20LB 8 1/2 x 11 inch copy paper.

I love painting the paper. I paint a range of colors from light to dark. No particular colors. A good range of values is more important. I love color, but color is only right if the value is right. Value is only right if the composition is right.  Painting paper, cutting, and arranging shapes into abstract compositions is all the color theory one needs. Making charts and wheels are a waste of time. 

kk: 2. Working bigger usually means more detail. I love detail as long as it does not weaken the shape. If you can find a pattern to represent details all the better. Pattern will not break down shape as fast, and pattern can be moved, shifted, and compared to other patterns easily. 

I try to make things easy in order to concentrate on what matters more. The composing of the shapes. 

Sophie V.

Is there a specific way that colors are set up in your workshop? Is it just places where you can grab them, or is there a pattern for where every color is relative to yourself when working?

kk: In my studio, which for the latest collages, is my kitchen table, I tend to grab any color, cut a shape, and then find a place for it. While placing shapes I’m looking at the large shape that a few shapes are making. They may be touching or not. The Hawaii Islands are separate but together they make a shape. In the work there are collections of light shapes and dark shapes. A collection of dark shapes might be surrounded by a collection of light shapes. In a sense the light shapes are holding the dark shapes. Shapes need to hold and be held. They cannot just sit there. 

Megan L.

How did you decide on the style and expression of your art? Was it influenced by another artist or by an event/something you saw at some point in your life?

kk: One should never decide on a style or think about expression. Those things will enter your work naturally, and truer, while you are adjusting the shapes. 

You look at great things. If they excite, they will enter your work without you having to think about it. 

The most important events were working events. Those times when I’ve had an extended concentrated period of work. One collage, or one painting, after another, with little interruption. These wonderful periods effected all the work that came after. 

ml: Were you always interested in this medium? And do you have other mediums that you like to experiment with?

kk: It took awhile to be ready for collage. For the collaging of shapes. I did a collage in second grade but I don’t think I was thinking shapes. It was more hundreds of little specks of paper making a camel in the desert. 

Collage is painting with shapes. Not the shape of things but the shapes in things. And not the things. It is describing without mimicking (avoid mimicking things with collage where collage pieces become details more than they are shapes). 

Collage shapes stays separate, not obediently following contours and surfaces.

kk: This is also the case with corrugated cardboard when one keeps it flat and makes straight cuts. The planes of the cardboard, placed in space, does the describing, like talking with you hands. The hands move in space describing and not hiding the fact that they are hands.

When copying a masterwork in collage, with straight cuts and solid color one cannot reproduce the brush stroke of the master and one is more likely get to the structure within the work. In transcribing a painting into a cardboard sculpture one actually builds the structure. Then working from the sculpture back into two dimensions it’s likely that more of that structure will be retained. 

ml: What inspires your work? Does it come from real-life perspective/people/events?

kk: I’m both inspired by the visual world and by past and present art. Music is composed sound. The world, nature, is like sound that needs to be composed in order for it to become art. When working from life your instincts do a lot of this for you. Comparing and contrasting, adjusting, nudging shapes slightly this way or that. This happens if you are excited by the subject. More than likely you are excited because of the abstraction. Too much thinking, measuring, correctness can get in the way resulting in a pale reproduction of the world. This is to be avoid.  

I keep my life separate from the composing of shapes with the understanding, or the trust, that I, my life, will still be there. 

Hayley R.

In what ways do you feel your painting practice is influenced by your collage practice?

kk: The use of the straight edge and stencils in my paintings comes directly from what the scissors and hole punches enable me to do in the collages. 

hr: What is the most difficult part of painting for you, and what is the most difficult part of collage for you?

kk: Neither is difficult. I don’t think in those terms. I place one shape after another until they excite. Since I don’t have an outcome in mind, I cannot fail to get there. Or have trouble along the way, I’m only placing shapes. I tell students that it is easy to do a good painting. You just adjust the shapes till it’s good. 

I do believe in pushing the work, in not being too happy with it, too quickly, that it can go from good, to not good, to good, several times. I once heard the painter Lennart Anderson say that if something is overworked it just means it needs more work.   

The hardest thing about doing art is not letting other things get in the way. What I’ve done is convince myself that many of these other things feed the work in some way. 

hr: Which painters are you most influenced by?

kk: Early on by Picasso and Matisse. Then I noticed that Braque never got the attention of those other two. Also noticed that his work was in ways often deeper than theirs. 

They all came out of Cezanne and his shapes, little planes making representation.

I also love ancient wall paintings, Assyrian, Roman, Russian Icons, Japanese, and on and on. 

More recent artist, James Castle and Francis Davison.

Contemporary artists Rotem Amizur, Robin Sanford, and my daughter Clara Kewley.  

If the work excites me I assume it enters my own work without me thinking much about it.

Voirrey T.

My questions for Ken Kewley would be firstly, when he views/starts creating what it is in his subject that he sees? So for example is it colour blocks, or blocks of shape, or form etc.

kk: Whatever the subject, it is the abstract elements; shape, line, values, colors, the arrangement of those, that excite. But realizing, that to capture all that, would not be enough. That those shapes all have to be nudged this way and that to make the most exciting abstraction while the subject comes along for the ride.   

vt: My second question which I always love to ask and I think especially in collage which I'm not so used to is how does he know when he is finished with a piece?

kk: When the work excites. If it does not excite me I don’t expect it would excite anyone else.  

And, when I’m convinced enough that working further would just be making a different work. 

I like the idea of doing one after another. With collage, especially with definite shapes, you get there fast, and then you can make another one. 


Catherine PS.

My question for Ken was if he draws inspiration from mosaics as well as the variety of painters we saw. The colors are beautifully fragmented and the arrangement of shades or paper scraps makes me think of a sculptural approach.

kk: Thank you. Yes, I love mosaics. When I was teaching in Italy I would collect little color stones and broken titles along the paths that led to where we painted. Placing these in a shadow tray I would have students arrange them, grouping light and dark pieces into compositions, before everything was transformed by the next student. 

In workshops where I have students build with cardboard, I would sometimes have them construct small three dimensional shapes, a dozen or so, before they knew what the shapes would be used for. Then have them divide these into two piles. Only then would I tell them with one pile build a tree and with the other build a person. 

That is the secret. That is abstraction. That the same shape can become a person or a tree. In this way a shape in the tree can relate to a shape in a person. In mosaics the small piece of color stone can be used to represent something hard or soft, wet or dry, a person, place, or thing. 

Caroline C.

My question for Kewley is about his transcriptions. How does he choose an image to work with? Does he start with drawings, then move to paintings and collages? Or is the process more freeform than that?

kk: With the transcriptions I looked for images with strong structure. With the Renoir, I drew from the painting with a straight edge to emphasize shapes on the way to cutting shapes for the collage.

With the collages after Renoir it was Picasso that I was thinking about. About Picasso’s monumental figures in his classical period. Underneath all that brush work, Renoir’s figures have the same strong structure.  

Of late, I have students build a cardboard sculpture from one of their paintings. They often have to invent structure that is missing in their paintings. Then we draw, collage, and paint from the sculptures retaining this new found structure. 

Abigail K.

My Question is

"How do you decide on subject matter/ content for your artwork?" 

kk: I choose things that I love. Things I want to spend time looking at. 

Lately I have not been working from life. I make a lot of squares all the same size and then fill them all with variations of one subject. They might all be pure abstractions. Or variations of a standing figure. Recently it was a house in a grove of trees. One after another is the key. Not looking for anything profound. I think of myself as a realist, composing real shapes that stay shapes, no matter if they make an image or not. 

Kerryanne P.

How has your art, as well as your process changed since you first started? What influenced those changes?

kk: Now it’s not any different than in kindergarten when I did not have to line up my family in front of our house next to the tree in order to draw them. But for a long time between then and now I found it difficult to invent. It was as if I was trying to force something in my head onto the page. Now I know that it can be done one shape at a time, that is, if I don’t try to copy a picture that is already in my head. I let the outcome surprise me. 

Sarah E.

  •  how do you choose your color palette?

kk: These days I choose by value more than color. I grab colors almost at random.

In the master copies I would match the color very closely. An exception was the Braque done from a black and white reproduction where I invented the colors. Once I did that I thought I could take one artist’s forms and give them another artist’s colors. One of those things I did not pursue. But it has probably entered my work. 

More importantly it was likely when working with that black and white reproduction of the Braque I was looking closer at the values. 

It is very helpful to scan or photograph your work and place it in black & white to see if the shapes and the composition is strong.  If you print this out you can collage into it and easily find new ways to rework the larger canvas. 

With a small painting you can temporarily place cut out color shapes directly, moving them around to alter and strengthen existing shapes. Then rework the painting.   


  • What is a big motivation in your works?

kk: Entertaining myself. I keep myself entertained from morning to night. I don’t think I’ve every known boredom. 

  • What is your average work time with your paintings/collages?

kk: I start the day my drawing a composition into that day’s square on my daughter’s calendar (Clara makes a calendar each year, one of her collages for each month). This takes three seconds, but always feels like a good day’s work. There is also the excitement of never repeating a composition. In realizing, again and again, how infinite abstraction is. 

The rest of the day I collage or paint in between meals. Mixed in are long walks, watching old b&w movies, reading novels, and writing. 

I live very frugally. It is not how much you can make as an artist, it is how little you can live on, that gives one freedom. 

  • How do you decide when you are done with a work? 

kk: It’s instinctive. I try not to think while working. With the shapes before suggesting the current shape, and not thinking at all of what will come after. At some point it all feels right and I stop. In a few days (it’s hard to see a work one has just been working on because, in your head, you are still seeing earlier stages) if something disturbs you go back in. Recently it was only when I scanned this one collage that I saw an unintended smiling profile in the tree. It took a few hours, over a few days, to find the best way to cover it up.  


Thank you everyone for your questions. all my best, k