What Is Abstract Art?

Learn some of the history and reason for abstract art as well as guidelines for beginners in abstraction.

Many students want to start with abstract art and many of them soon give it up. The reason for this is that abstract art is difficult. It is difficult in the sense that it requires artistic discipline, knowledge and a certain amount of expertise in painting techniques, usually acquired through training in more formal aspects of art.

Abstract art does promise more freedom of expression. It does allow a more expansive and intuitive play of creativity. The reason why many students fail to find it satisfying is that abstract art can all too easily result in a mess without any inner cohesion. Although many artists have begun with abstract art, it generally needs some practice in form, color and modeling before it becomes a worthwhile endeavor.

Having said this, the following article attempts to introduce abstract art for the beginner. As long as you have had some experience with drawing and painting you should be able to grasp the essence of what abstract art is all about.

Abstract art has been around for a long time. C├ęzanne painted essentially abstract art even though his subject matter was ostensibly realistic. Abstract art is linked in the past century to a much larger movement. This was the modernist movement against representation.

Representation was the unwritten belief that art was meant to reflect or represent what there was in the everyday world. Artists rebelled against this restriction and especially against the idea of art only as imitation. The idea of art for its own sake began to develop in the middle of the nineteenth century. In other words, art no longer had to refer to something in the everyday world. Color and form could express feeling or states of consciousness that were personal and not necessarily " realistic."

Artists like Paul Klee developed his own vocabulary of form, symbol and color as well as new techniques to express his inner vision. Picasso is probably the innovator who did the most to popularize and give legitimacy to abstract art.

How to create an abstract painting.

Firstly, as has been stated, abstract art is not merely messing with paint.

(Although there is nothing wrong with messing with paint in order to experiment and discover new possibilities.)

Abstract art requires great formal discipline. What does this mean? The following exercise in abstract art should make this clear.

Begin your first abstract work of art by painting or drawing something from real life. Consider this a form of sketching or preparation for the abstract painting. Begin, for example, with something very ordinary, like a bowl of fruit, a flower, or a portrait.

For purposes of this demonstration we will take a picture of a cat. This is a very simple form so it should not present much difficulty. Sketch the cat on a piece of paper or canvas; depending on which medium and surface you are most comfortable with. The process of sketching is in reality a process of close study. While sketching try to pay attention to the following:

Form: look at the form of the cat. This is a form that we are used to; it has become habitual to us. There is seemingly, at first glance, nothing strange about the form of a cat. Look again. As you sketch try to look at the shape from a different perspective as if you were seeing it for the first time. This is very difficult as we are accustomed to categorizing this shape in our minds and in fact neglecting to look at it in detail.

As you sketch, something should be happening to your old habitual ways of seeing the cat. The cat is in fact a very strange form. You should start to become aware of the uniqueness and strangeness of this form. In other words, you begin to appreciate the form as something that is strange, but also interesting.

Color. Once you have sketched the shape, begin to look at the color of the cat and also the shades of color within the main colors. Paint with watercolor or very thin oils over your sketch. Look at the shadows and you will see many different shades of color that you probably did not notice previously.

For example, if this is a black cat, after observing the cat for a while you will see different shades of black, from gray to even blue and purple. In this process you are beginning to see further than the usual cursory glance that we often give to things around us. In a sense, you are becoming sensitized to the world in a new way through art.

There will be those students who are confused at this point and possibly even slightly irritated. Please note that this is not something that happens quickly. Remember that we have many years of habitual sight, of re-presenting the world to ourselves through the eyes of others and through what we have been told by our peers and society. This takes time and a lot of practice and patience, but unless one goes through this process, abstract art cannot become a reality.

Once you have begun to find the cat to be more than just a picture of a cat but a complex relationship of form and color then you are on the cusp of beginning to understand abstract art.

After many more studies of the cat you should find that some areas or colors become more interesting than others- this is when abstract art becomes fascinating.

Practically, the next step is to paste all your sketches on a board and spend some time looking at them. Many artists leave the process at this stage and move onto something else. They do so in order for the images to "boil" in their subconscious minds. This is important, as the purpose of abstract art is not to imitate the picture of a cat but to glean certain images, forms and color knowledge that may or may not be combined with other images.

When you feel that you simply must paint the cat, then go back to your sketches. After a period of time it is also normal to see shapes and even colors that you did not see previously. It is almost as if your mind has been working on this painting without your conscious knowledge. Set up your canvas or paper and, glancing at the sketches, begin to paint or draw those areas that you find fascinating. This is still a sketch, albeit a final one. Feel free to add and subtract to and from your painting. Do not feel restricted by anything but in a disciplined way refer to your sketches for inspiration.

What finally emerges on your painting surface depends on how hard you have concentrated on the image of the cat. When you step back and look at your painting you might see something that has no resemblance to a cat at all- it may be a collection of colors, shapes and forms interweaving, or it might have the general outline of the cat. Work at this until you feel that you have exhausted the possibilities that the image of the cat offers.

Working from this sketch, begin the final process of creating your abstract painting. Remember that there is no point at which anyone can say that an abstract painting is finished. Only the artist knows this.

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