Understanding Abstract Paintings – Part I

There are really just two types of painting: representational and abstract paintings. Many people enjoy looking at representational paintings, but struggle to understand abstract art. We call a painting representational if it portrays specific, recognizable physical objects. But, not all representational paintings are so realistic. The impressionists began portraying the natural world but did not paint it strictly as it appeared. They took liberties with form, using color to describe the subject. I encourage you to look at a Cezanne painting of fruit. Even though you recognize the fruit, it is not painted exactly as it looks in real life. Thus Cezanne is leaning toward abstraction. Look also at a Monet painting of the front of a church. The actual form dissolves into spots of color. Again, he is heading in the direction of abstraction.

True abstract paintings have designs, shapes and colors that do not look like specific physical objects. That makes them harder to understand than representational paintings. You usually have no idea what it is you are seeing. Let’s see if we can make some sense out of this.

There are two types of abstract paintings. The first portrays objects that have been “abstracted” (taken) from nature. Although what you see may not look realistic, it is close enough that you can get a feeling for what you are seeing. The second type of abstract painting does not reflect any form of conventional reality: all you see are shapes, colors, lines, patterns, and texture. Look at any one of Jackson Pollock’s paintings. Nothing is recognizable. You wonder: what could the artist possibly have in mind? We might look at the painting as decoration, but why would an artist spend so much time creating a mere decoration?

Abstract paintings are more than what meets the eye and to see why, we need to consider the basic purpose of art. To truly appreciate a work of art, you need to see it as more than just a single, isolated creation; there must be a context. Art is not timeless. Every painting is created within a particular environment. You need to understand the environment to appreciate the art. It makes sense to learn something about the life and culture that the artist lived in. That is the part the artist brings to the table. The other part of the banquet is what the viewer brings. You, as the viewer, bring your experiences, knowledge, and emotions.

With abstraction, artists have a tool that reaches into the world of unconscious emotion. This tool requires more than the skill of the artist. It requires the cooperation of the observer. Your job is to clear your conscience mind of thoughts and preconceptions in order to allow yourself to be influenced by what your are seeing. This means that, if you are to truly appreciate abstract paintings, you must be willing to let yourself go and to put yourself in the hands of the artist. In the next article, we will explore ways to engage your unconscious.


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