Abstract art, also called nonrepresentational art, is a major modern art movement. It can also seem a bit unapproachable. If you often find yourself wondering “what is abstract art?” or “what makes an abstract painting good?”, you will find our guide useful. We’ll provide a quick overview of what abstract art is, why it matters, and what you need to know to understand it.
Fortunately, abstract art is all about interpretation rather than right or wrong answers.
Abstract Art Defined
To understand what abstract art is, let’s look at the definition of the word “abstraction”. “Separating a general concept or idea from a specific person, object, or event”.
The goal of abstract art is to depict an idea without leaning on literal representations of recognizable reference points. For example, a representational artist might depict beauty by painting a portrait of a beautiful person. But an abstract artist might try to depict the concept of beauty itself.
Abstract art sits at an interesting intersection. It developed out of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Cubism. Today, it includes numerous influences from other art movements including German Expressionism, Fauvism, and Abstract Expressionism.
In truth, trying to define abstract art is a bit of a paradox. It’s whatever you want it to be.
Abstract art today can be 2 or 3-dimensional and comes in all sizes and shapes. Most people think of paintings when they think of abstract art, but an abstract artist can use a variety of different media. You’ll often see artwork with components of representational art blended with abstract elements, though of course there’s plenty of purely abstract art out there.
Abstract artists tend to have a message to get across. They may place a greater focus on the individual visual components of a piece like color, form, texture, and scale. Since they don’t have a recognizable image to fall back on to get their point across, that leaves greater emphasis on what the viewer can see.
Why are Abstract Art and Painting so Important?
Abstract art is one of the key components of what we now know as “modern art.” It’s also one of the purest forms of artistic expression. Since the artist isn’t tethered by reality or the need to depict a recognizable form of subject, they’re free to express ideas in the way they see fit. This provides the opportunity to create pieces that are totally unique from what you’d see within the boundaries of representational art. And in the end, isn’t art all about pushing boundaries and finding uncharted territory?
When done well, the result is a piece of art that’s unique, sparks curiosity, and pushes the idea of what art can be.
How do You Understand Abstract Art?
Abstract art has a reputation for being intimidating, esoteric, and hard to understand – sometimes even a little pretentious. But its open-ended nature is one of its strengths. There’s no right or wrong answer when you’re looking at a piece of abstract art. Every single aspect of it is open to interpretation. Absorbing a piece of abstract art is a deeply personal process that invites you to assign your own sense of meaning to the piece.
Take It In
When you look at a piece of abstract art, resist the urge to rush to a conclusion right away. Take your time and sit with the piece for a little while. Accept that it is what it is – an abstract piece of art. There probably isn’t a clear subject. There may not even be an obvious focal point. The point is the process of experiencing it, not assigning meaning.
Try not to get stuck on individual details, at least not at first. Take the whole piece in as a whole. When you listen to a new song for the first time, you don’t try to pick out the individual notes. You let the beat, rhythm, and vocals wash over you and let your mind wander. Abstract art could be compared to a free jazz or improvised piece of work, compared to something with more structure.
Think of understanding abstract art the same way. Let the whole thing wash over you and let your eyes go where they go.
Absorb Its Components
Look at the colors, shapes, materials, texture, and how all those pieces go together. How does it make you feel? That’s just as much of the viewing experience as analyzing the details of the brushstrokes and colors. What draws your attention most? Does it remind you of anything? Try imagining what it must have looked like for the artist to make this piece. Imagine their brushstrokes, their gestures, and how they may have felt at the time.
If you can, see abstract art in person. You’ll get a better view of the texture, scale, brush strokes, and overall finish. You’ll get to stand in front of it and experience it the way the artist intended. You usually won’t get the full effect from looking at a scan or a computer image.
Who Invented Abstract Art?
Influential figures including Wassily Kandinsky and Hilma af Clint are often credited with inventing abstract art. They certainly had a massive impact.
Abstract art is a broad category that spans decades and a long list of movements. Abstract art as we know it developed out of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Cubism. It can’t be said that any one person invented it. There were, however, a few prominent early adopters.
Kandinsky is one of the most prominent names in abstract art and is often called the pioneer of the movement in Europe. He himself has claimed to have invented it in 1911. And while that’s not true, his influence can’t be denied. He started painting floating, nonrepresentational forms in 1912. His work made a splash in the American art scene during its display in the Armor Show in 1913.
Hilma af Klint
Klint was known in her time as a landscape and portrait painter, but in 1906 she made her first foray into abstract art. Her work is very spiritual and philosophical and remains influential to this day. Though she’s less well-known than Kandinsky, her abstractions predate his, making her an important pioneer in the field.
Famous Abstract Art Movements
Abstract art has been around for decades and spans a wide swath of disciplines and art movements. This isn’t a comprehensive list, just a few key examples.
Pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, the Cubist movement emerged in 1907-1912. Influenced by the geometric motifs in Cezanne’s Post-Impressionist landscapes, Cubism sought a new way to represent reality. It had a strong impact on fine art, painting, and sculpture. The rise of Cubism marked the end of the Renaissance-dominated art era and signaled the beginning of modern art as we know it.
De Stijl (“the style”) was an organization of Dutch painters, sculptors, and architects active from 1917 to 1931. The organization was founded by Theo van Doesburg and played with ideas of Neo-Placticism, Dada, and Elementarism. Its largest influences today can be seen in architecture and the applied arts (particularly typography and furniture design).
This subset of the wider Surrealist movement moved away from harsh geometric shapes. They disliked the geometric abstractions of Cubism and Piet Mondrian. Instead, abstract Surrealist artists leaned into organic, natural forms and the visual and emotional mark they left on the mind. They also used “automatic” drawing and writing techniques, employing free association to create spontaneous works.
Famous Abstract Artists
It would be quite a feat to try to create a master list of every prominent abstract artist who ever lived – it’s a wide, rich field. This is just a sampling, not a comprehensive list, of influential abstract artists.
Hailing from the school of De Stijl Neo-Plasticism, Mondrian is famous for using geometric abstraction and primary colors in his paintings. His deceptively complex compositions seem simple at first glance, and they continue to excite admirers to this day.
One of the most well-known American painters of all time is also an Abstract Expressionist. Pollock was prominent in the 1950s for his distinctive abstract paintings. The dripping style is famous all over the world, and got him the nickname “Jack the Dripper”. His name is almost synonymous with action painting, which made a production of the actual creation of art as it happened.
Rothko’s color field abstractions are often seen as the logical continuation of Kandinsky’s work. His paintings place color at the absolute forefront, letting form taking a backseat. Paradoxically, Rothko rejected any connection to the abstract art world while remaining a prominent figure in it.
Martin drew from her Zen Buddhist beliefs to create subtle, expressive paintings that toed the line between philosophy and contemporary abstract art.
Hungarian painter Vasarely exemplified the Op Art movement. He created complex geometric patterns that remind the viewer of optical illusions, seeking to create a sense of kinetic energy and three-dimensionality on the canvas. His work gained mass appeal and has influenced not only the world of painting, but of architecture, computer design, animation, and fashion.
This Dutch artist was a painter, sculptor, and poet, as well as one of the founders of the CoBrA movement. His work is strongly influenced by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Jean Dubuffet. He made a name for himself using the “assemblage” technique and for his heavy use of primary colors. The resulting works are expressive and childlike.
How can I Create Abstract Art?
Because of the nature of abstract art, there are no rules. If you’re ready and raring to go, don’t feel obligated to follow any set rules or guidelines. But if you want to try your hand at creating abstract art and aren’t sure where to start, these can be a few helpful steps:
Use a Reference Image or Piece
Most artists are used to making representational art. When making a foray into the world of the abstract, starting with a reference can be helpful. The subject of the reference doesn’t necessarily matter. It can be a set of colors you like. You might like the flow of the image’s components. Or maybe you’re working off a photo of someone whose essence you want to capture.
Generally, you’ll put aside the reference fairly early on as you hit your stride. But it can be a helpful starting point.
Choose Your Media
You can work with virtually anything you want. It’s a good idea to start with what you know. If you’re a gifted painter then starting an abstract painting could be a good idea, but you really can mix and match techniques and mediums to try and get your desired results.
Choose a Concept or a Message
Sometimes, a reference image is too limiting or you can’t find one that speaks to you. When that happens, settle on a concept. This can be abstract, such as a mood, a thought, or a feeling.
Choose a Focal Point
Deciding on a focal point can give you a place to start and center your work. They also guide the viewer. A sense of flow in the piece or a place for the eye to rest can be pleasing and helpful.
It doesn’t have to be anything obvious or flashy. Sometimes focal points emerge accidentally, which is perfectly fine.
Experiment with Value (Light and Dark Hues)
As we mentioned earlier, the bare components of what makes up a piece of art (color, form, texture, etc.) are brought to the forefront in abstract art. When there isn’t a recognizable image for the viewer’s mind to fall back on, the eye is drawn to the complexities of the image before them.
It also means that to create a compelling piece, you may want to give them a little more to work with than you normally would, visually speaking. If you’re finding your abstracts flat and lifeless, try switching up your values. Introduce a few light or dark tones that pop. This adds visual interest and helps elevate your piece beyond just paint on a canvas (or whatever medium you’re working with).
Vary Your Markings
Most artists have a distinct style, and that includes leaning toward making specific marks. Some love sweeping strokes, while others love big globs of paint or thin, etching-like lines. Be aware of what you lean on most and try adding variety. It’ll punctuate the rest of the piece and give the viewer more depth to enjoy.
What is abstract art? It’s a chance to experiment and to show your personality.
You could try a totally new technique or even limit or hinder yourself to try and get a new and interesting result. There are no wrong answers.
A lot of us already doodle all the time. If you think about it, doodling is a way of creating abstract, free-flowing art.
A Summary of Abstract Art
Although abstract art has a bit of a reputation for being unapproachable and confusing, it’s one of the most important subsets of modern art. Any artist would be wise to learn its history and how to interact with it. Hopefully, this quick guide helped demystify abstract art. Next time you and your friends encounter an abstract piece in a museum, you can help them experience it and find meaning in the chaos.