View Full Version : Abstract art - can it be learned?

10-10-2015, 07:31 AM

I have just watched the Nautical demo of Joe DiGiulio at artclick.tv. He paints with acrylics.
And I was wondering, could that be learned? The way abstract artists see the world?

I remember, as a rebellious teenager, I used to say that abstract art was just blobs and mess and after seeing some really minimalistic paintings (Miró comes to my mind), I was quick to say that "I could to that too, I would just not call that art" :angel:

What makes art to be art? Is there a difference between "a miraculous kid" who seems to just have fun splashing paint on paper and an artist who shows their work in galleries?

As someone who learn without a teacher, just from books and demos, I keep struggling with painting from life or from my imagination, because... hmm, I am actually not sure why. But I am comfortable copying other people's work, much more than trying to draw a mug on my table. It's like I don't trust myself to interpret the reality "correctly and well".

With abstract art...it's probably not about doing it "correctly" but about the artist confidence (?)

Am I right? What is your opinion on the process of making abstract art? Why some paintings work for many people an some don't? Why is Blue II by Miró art?
Do you think you can learn it or you have to "be born that way?" :lol:
Thanks a lot for your thoughts.

10-10-2015, 09:59 AM
What makes art to be art?

Nick, you're asking questions that the greatest philosophers and most brilliant minds have pondered over and probably have come to no conclusion. It's such a broad category of human endeavor that it probably has no "verbal" definition. And it probably changes with the times.

As someone who learn without a teacher, just from books and demos, I keep struggling with painting from life or from my imagination, because... hmm, I am actually not sure why. But I am comfortable copying other people's work, much more than trying to draw a mug on my table. It's like I don't trust myself to interpret the reality "correctly and well".

Well, that is probably true of 99% of artists. When you copy other people's work, most of the decisions are already made for you. The composition and design are already worked out. The color and value choices already made. So it is much easier. Working from life means making ALL the decisions. Working from a photo means that some (but not all) compositional decisions are already made. Working from imagination is something very few artists can do successfully.

With abstract art...it's probably not about doing it "correctly" but about the artist confidence (?)

No art is about doing it "correctly," in my opinion, as art is about individual expression. Obviously, if the art is representational, then certain principles need to be followed for it to look realistic. But all art is "abstracted" from reality to a certain degree, so I think the terms representational or non-representational work better than abstract. For non-representational art, the goals seem altogether different so it is hard to judge it in the same way. But at the most basic level, non-representational art and representational art are still about design (or composition) line, shape, color and value, in my opinion. At least in most cases.

Am I right? What is your opinion on the process of making abstract art?
In some cases, artists become more abstract as they mature. In terms of representational artists, they often become more simplified (abstracting to a greater degree) with more experience. I think Monet is a good example of this. His late water lily paintings are verging on becoming non-representational. With greater experience, he probably felt (just guessing, of course) that he needed less strokes, less detail to depict his subject.

As far as non-representational art goes, I think with the advent of photography, artists no longer needed to produce paintings that were representational. Art gradually became less representational until it became accepted to go completely non-representational. As art became less about reproducing real people and real scenes (after all, photos could do that, too) it became more about individual expression. and since individuals can express themselves in an infinite number of ways, so, too, can their art.

Why some paintings work for many people an some don't?

Because we all have different likes and dislikes. And since art is more about individual expression, artists are more free to develop their own style. Since art can vary from hyper photo-realistic to completely non-representational shapes (or blobs!) of color, it only makes sense that our individual reactions will be very varied too. Or so it seems to me.

Can non-representational art be learned? Sure, why not. I guess it could be argued that it is much easier to learn than representational art. But in the end, as I mentioned before, it is still all about line, shape, color, value and design. But for many folks - including myself - non-representation art is not how I express myself. At least for now! Although, come to think of it, I have always been a doodler. Some of those doodles over the years could easily have been turned into paintings!

Obviously, these are just my opinions and interpretations.


10-10-2015, 12:07 PM
I think it can be learned, Nick. It comes in with composition lessons. The better I get at that, the easier it is to think in terms of abstractions. When you plan a representational painting you're starting to get into the nuts and bolts of it.

Personal taste, I don't like Miro. There are a number of abstract artists who are famous but their works don't move me for one reason or another. Sometimes it's style, sometimes palette, sometimes something about the content itself - the emotion or idea being expressed. The more I study it the more I understand my reactions.

As for little kids miraculous talent, there's developmental stages in learning art. Very small children have great composition by instinct and then lose it, as adult artists relearning what used to come wordless and natural. This has fascinated a lot of modern artists and left them wanting to "paint like a child" but some of the "paint like a child" tropes - colors, styles, symbols - all lead back into personal horrors for me. So instead of happy memories with crayons they bring up nightmare memories of abuse. I also don't like certain popular color combinations from the 1950s, same reasons.

Recognizing that as personal helped me to get a handle on it. Some current abstracts by pastelists please me and also I like the blends, the abstracted renderings where you can still see the subject but it's handled in a jazzy way.

10-10-2015, 02:11 PM
Don, you wrote a great reply to Nick's questions, summing it up with your statement that, "... it is still all about line, shape, color, value and design."

I agree with your opinion, Robert, that is a matter of personal preference. I'm not a fan of Miro or Kandinsky but absolutely love Rothko's paintings.

A point that I've wondered about is whether, with abstract paintings, size really does matter? :lol: :evil: :D It seems to me that a large abstract painting is readily accepted as not having to be something recognizable. It can make a huge colorful statement about nothing except being paint applied in a way that pleases. Whereas, on the other hand, a painting much less than two feet wide is too small to be viewed and appreciated at a great distance. Viewers must get closer to it and, I suspect, then expect it to a painting of "something." This is just IMHO, and I'd love to hear others' opinions.

10-10-2015, 04:09 PM
Do you think you can learn it or you have to "be born that way?" :lol:

Hi Nick, Don, Blayne, and Robert have spoken quite eloquently on the subject, although I have a feeling that you'll be contemplating this for a while!

I love abstract/non-representational art, as well as hightened realism and photorealism, as well as art that straddles both worlds. I often hear people say "I don't understand it" about perhaps a Miro or Rothko. But I don't see the difference between a Rothko and a Manet, when you look at something, and it hits an almost visceral note; evokes an emotion, although you're not quite sure why.

To address Blayne's comment, I don't think size matters any more with abstract art than it does representational art. Granted, there are some conceptual artists (i.e. Yayoi Kusama, Ai Wei Wei), whose work is meant to be immersive. But I have two 8x8" encaustic paintings by my teacher, Mira M. White, that are "endless" as I see them. Meaning that the more I look at them, the more I get, and they can be "read" in so many different ways, it boggles the mind!

I've started branching out to a less representational focus, but always from a realistic jumping off place. I guess I'm in effect, "learning" abstraction. Well, I hope I'm learning. I definitely am learning what doesn't work in abstract work!

Great thoughts all!

10-10-2015, 09:18 PM
Blayne, that's interesting about size since any abstractions I've done have been very small. They never got the attention of my representational warks so I didn't often go in that direction.

Not sure what it is, but Rothko is no more appealing to me than Miro. The colors don't grab me, the simplicity really doesn't. There are a lot of moderns that flow together in my mind and are hard even for me to remember who did what because of a certain group style of those times. The associations are mostly with being told I was supposed to paint like that.

I got taken to a lot of museums and shown a lot of works that I didn't like, things that I could easily improve on because I would have meant something different from what the artist meant. I still don't get the point of rectangles within a rectangle of flat color.

Yet a shiny white metal sculpture at SF General Hospital that just got put up, a series of interesting spires of rounded forms grabbed me - it was graceful, it caught the light beautifully, the shapes were pleasing and the repetitions interesting. It echoed nature in some ways. That really appealed to me. Miro and Rothko didn't.

claude j greengrass
10-10-2015, 10:31 PM
...A point that I've wondered about is whether, with abstract paintings, size really does matter? ...

When I first started to use gouache in addition to my usual watercolour materials, I painted a pseudo Piet Mondrian 12x12 inches to fit a frame I already had in hand. 7 lines (Black) 4 rectangles (Yellow, Red, Blue, blank/not painted). It may not be to your taste, but I liked it enough to give it wall space.

So in answer to you question, no, size doesn't always matter in non-representational art IMOSHO.

10-11-2015, 06:52 PM
Thank you all for the interesting responses about size. You've encouraged me to give this bias toward size more thought. I, too, have only done a few small abstracts and, although I like them, they don't have as much impact as I think they would have if they were larger. As an example of what I mean, here's a link to a gallery showing some huge abstract paintings, and I just think the paintings have a way of taking over the space and shouting, "Here I am!" in a manner that, being smaller, they could not do. And I'm not referring here to the quality of the abstracts, because I'm not a good judge of that, but only to size itself. http://www.simonleegallery.com/exhibitions/

Claude, I have a small copy of a Piet Mondrian and love it, so I know what you mean.

Kris, I love the almost abstract hollyhock you posted in Spotlight!

Robert, that sculpture sounds beautiful. Post a link to a photo?

10-11-2015, 11:08 PM
Sorry, I didn't get one and don't know what it's called. It was installed recently and is too far from the clinic I go to for me to walk over and get one. It was beautiful though.

10-12-2015, 12:43 PM
Robert, you made me curious so I looked up art at SF General Hospital. I believe I found the sculpture, or found similar ones by Cliff Garten. His work is pretty cool! When you get moved to Arkansas, I hope you can visit the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville. Along with lots of other marvelous art, there is a stainless steel sculpture outside of a leaning tree that is just gorgeous. http://collection.crystalbridges.org:8080/emuseum/media/view/Objects/1522/6226?t:state:flow=d53e2286-508b-45c4-bf06-67dbe2913818

10-13-2015, 03:49 PM
Thank you very much for your thoughts and answers.

Don, you are very humble, but your posts are always very interesting and informative.
Thank you for mentioning that many people struggle with painting from life. I didn't know that. Probably because the people I meet on the Internet don't have that problem (anymore) or simply don't talk about it.
I thought that for a "real" artist or a sketcher, painting/drawing from life was joy and relatively easy to do.
Thank you for the explanation of your thoughts on non-representational art. I don't think it is easier than representational. I think that it can get very personal and it could be difficult to see and accept that part of yourself. Not to mention showing it to public.
I can see some of my character treats in the way I paint or in the style of the paintings I like and need yet to learn to accept that and not see it as my flaw. With non-representational art...that must be even a higher level.

And about doodles. My fingers would tie in a knot if I was asked to doodle in curves and waves. My doodles always consist of short straight lines tied together in triangles or quadrangles. Which makes me nervous as well, because that doesn't sound very artistic :D I doubt I am ready to see my own attempts to make abstract art.

Rob, the only art I remember from my childhood is drawing with chalk on pavements. We weren't shy and painted bold a big. Now, the smaller paper, the more secure I feel. Maybe I need to buy a box of chalks and try again :)

Blayne, I admit that Rothko's paintings are the ones I don't understand at all. I think I need to be able to play the "what could that be?" game. I need visual hints of shapes or color combinations that are familiar.

Kris, your paintings are very nice but the style seems very unreachable for me (very romantic and fairy-tale like. No triangles ;))

Thank you again for sharing your thoughts!

I have just come across Lena Karpinsky's paintings by accident. And some of her abstract art paintings really work for me :) I am surprised by the number of different styles she uses.

10-13-2015, 06:11 PM
Nick, I looked at Lena Karpinsky's website and liked some of her work. Some of it I didn't. I was absolutely overwhelmed by the number of paintings she has done during her comparatively few years of painting. She must need a warehouse to store them and a good system of cataloguing to keep track of them! But you may be interested to know that she posted one thread on WC ten years ago. In that thread she comments on finally getting up the nerve to post on WC and talk to "real artists." Granted, since she only posted one thread, the thread might have been posted to further advertise her work (she and her husband, whom she states elsewhere takes care of her website, seem very professional at advertising), but the post seems sincere--and anyone should know that we on WC are much more interested in painting than in buying paintings! :lol: But I thought you might find it helpful to know that a successful artist you admire once voiced the same insecurity that I suspect plagues many of us, i.e., am I a "real artist"? :lol:

10-14-2015, 03:58 AM
Thank you very much Blayne. It's interesting how unsure she was even after selling 150 of her paintings...
I as well like only some of her work. Google had offered her website as a result when I was looking up zen paintings.
I don't know much about zen paintings and her work doesn't seem to fit that category, but I like minimalistic sumie paintings as well. And some of them are abstract too.
I wanted to find out why I didn't understand Rothko, but liked even simpler zen paintings (the famous circle for example) but I have no idea :D

10-14-2015, 10:32 AM
Glad you liked the thread. For me, Rothko's huge color field paintings just pull me in, like I can relax there. I was just looking this morning at landscape photos by Catherine Opie, and they remind me of Rothko's paintings. Interestingly, her series titled, "Somewhere in the Middle" puts the horizon line right in the middle of the photographs--and it works!

10-14-2015, 12:22 PM
:) Blayne, I think that I see rectangles - not a horizon (because there is often "the frame" around, I am not sure how to say it). And that's what confuses me :)

Btw. Here is a series "I live in a Rothko Painting"
I like that a lot.

10-15-2015, 09:02 AM
Hmm, can't help with your confusion but I'm sure you're not the only one who doesn't relate to color field paintings. Maybe those of us with confused inner panoramas need those uncluttered surfaces! :lol:

Thanks for the link--I enjoyed that website very much, and it gave me an insight into possibly where Rothko drew inspiration.

10-24-2015, 04:53 PM
Look at Debora Stewart's abstract pastel work. It can be done and it can be learned. I watched her demonstrate at the last IAPS convention, and it was very informative. At one point in my art life, I did a lot of non-representational acrylic paintings. Then I "reverted" to representational land and sea-scapes in pastel. However, my old self had to try it in pastel as well at one point, and I had fun with that as well.

10-28-2015, 05:52 AM
Nick7, hello! This brief video offers, in my opinion, an excellent introduction to the "whys" of abstract art. I think you (and others who happen upon this) will find it informative, and it will address some of the questions you have. Of course then you'll have more, but such is learning ;)

Note that I am not an abstract artist, but I'm a big believer in increasing understanding and appreciation of different genres.

Take a look:

I Could Do That | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios (http://youtu.be/67EKAIY43kg)