Why Do We Paint Abstract Art? (Let’s Find Out)

Abstract art uses shapes, colors, forms, and textures to depict its subject in whatever form the artist interprets, rather than a visually accurate representation. There are many different forms of abstract art, but all share this defining characteristic.

People create abstract art for many different reasons, ranging from emotional expression to artistic experimentation and more. Some artists use abstract art to connect to others, while others paint because of more personal motivations.

Despite some critics’ initial impression and belief that abstract art was destined to be a passing movement, it has remained a steady and popular art style. Abstract art has since expanded from paintings to include sculptures and other mediums.

Why Do We Paint Abstract Art?

Perhaps no one is more qualified to talk about why we paint abstract art than the artists who actually paint it.

There have been a number of mainstream abstract artists since its rise in popularity in the late 1800s, many of whom have spoken candidly about their process.

Below are some of the more well-known abstract artists and what they’ve said with regard to abstract art or why they create it:

  • The drive to create art for art’s sake – “I work in a state of passion, transported. When I begin a canvas, I’m obeying a physical impulse, the need to throw myself; it’s like a physical outlet.” (Joan Miro)

  • The desire to connect to many people – “If Art relates itself to an Object, it becomes descriptive, divisionist, literary.” (Robert Delaunay)

  • To have fun and enjoy ourselves – “Above all, art should be fun.” (Alexander Calder)

  • It’s more expressive – “I’m not interested in ‘abstracting’ or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line, and color. I paint this way because I can keep putting more things in it – drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space.” (Willem de Kooning)

  • It’s more liberating – “In 1913, trying desperately to liberate art from the ballast of the representational world, I sought refuge in the form of a square.” (Kazimir Malevich)

Some artists consider abstraction to be one of the purest forms of art. If they choose, artists can focus entirely on what they’re feeling and translate it onto a canvas or other material.

And without a singular meaning or strict narrative, people are free to focus on their interpretations, emotions, and imagination.

Though you don’t specifically need a reason to create abstract art, many people have drives behind their paintings, from wanting to do something new or expressing emotions (or another reason entirely). 

It’s not always appropriate to ask why we paint abstract art. Instead, a better question may be, why not?

The Driving Purpose Behind Abstract Art

One of the most common reasons or drives behind abstract art is human connection and emotion. Though this is generally true for all art styles, the core behind abstract art is capturing the universal emotions and experiences people share throughout their lives.

When asked why they create abstract art, many artists give a variation of the same answer:

  • “The first aim in painting should be universal expression.” (Piet Mondrian)
  • “I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way, things I had no words for.” (Georgia O’Keeffe)
  • “If you are only moved by color relationships, you are missing the point. I am interested in expressing the big emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom.” (Mark Rothko)
  • “Abstract art is abstract. It confronts you. There was a reviewer a while back who wrote that my pictures didn’t have any beginning or any end. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but it was.” (Jackson Polluck)
  • “The more frightening the world becomes, the more art becomes abstract.” (Wassily Kandinsky)

A core component of abstract art is expressing emotion and connecting with people regardless of their race, religion, nationality, gender, sex, or other characteristics.

Abstract art is a way to express and interact with emotion in its purest visual sense, without filtering a specific subject to guide your reaction.

Whether that emotion is joy, pain, sorrow, confusion, or a different feeling, abstract art seeks to offer a way for people to acknowledge it and perhaps find catharsis and connection in doing so.

Does Abstract Art Represent Something?

Abstract art can represent objects, people, landscapes, emotions, and more. The degree of abstraction ties into how clearly the art represents its chosen subjects.

Abstract art is a broad term that can be applied to many different forms of painting. Some abstract art is based on objects, figures, or landscapes taken from the real world and simplified or restructured. Other abstract art has no concrete or visual tie to reality.

So while it can (and often does) represent something, it doesn’t necessarily have to depict it in the strictest or most realistic sense. And as much as representation is part of abstract art, an equal or secondary goal of the artist is often evocation. 

There are two types of representation:

  • What abstract art represents to the artist
  • What abstract art represents to the audience

What a specific piece of art means to the artist may be drastically different than what it represents to onlookers, either deliberately or as a result of each person’s unique experience.

Why Do We Paint Abstract Art?

Russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky was initially credited as the first abstract artist. However, paintings from a Swedish artist named Hilma Af Klint later surfaced, which predated Kandinsky’s work for several years.

Though Klint’s pieces appeared first, Kandinsky’s work was more widespread and played a large role in legitimizing and popularizing abstract art. As such, he is still widely considered the pioneer of abstract art.

Kandinsky and Klint favored expressionism. However, there are several different types of abstract art beyond this: 

  • Cubism – This form of abstract art took realistic subjects and separated them by several degrees from their realistic presentation, favoring distinct shapes and viewpoints.

  • Orphism – Paintings that fall within this style of abstract art are seen as visual representations of how music sounds.

  • Dynamic Suprematism – This form of abstraction was intended to ‘free’ art from the modern world. It often featured strong or distinct forms with intense colors against a white or neutral background.

  • Neo-Plasticism – Formed in response to World War I, this style of abstract art only used the ‘core’ elements of painting: primary colors, black, and white and squares, rectangles, or lines (straight, horizontal, or vertical).

  • Automatism – Inspired by Freud and the desire to explore the unconscious, this kind of abstract art was defined by intuitive creation and simplified and organic shapes.

  • Action Painting – A derivative of automatism, action painting is characterized by improvision, instinctual gestures, and drip painting.

  • Abstraction – More than other forms of abstract art, this style focused on the basic seven elements of painting and shied away from realistic subjects or worldly representations.

  • Op Art – A subset of abstraction, op art features geometric shapes and forms using monochromatic fields and simple color pallets.

Each type of abstract art sought to express different emotions and was driven by different purposes.

What Makes Abstract Art Good?

Common misconceptions about abstract art are that it is easy or haphazard, that it’s “just a bunch of dots.” Many people may look at abstract art and think, “Well, I could have done that,” or that any child could produce a similar piece.

In some ways, this line of thinking is correct. Abstract art is indeed “just” dots or stripes or colors sometimes. But by this same reasoning, the Mona Lisa is “just” a woman sitting down, and The Thinker is “just” a statue of a man.

Abstract art (and art in general) is more than what it does or doesn’t depict. Many styles are judged by the artist’s level of technique and mastery, which often translates into how realistically they have depicted their subject or in what style.

However, this line of criticism falls apart when applied to abstract art since realistic depiction is not the intended purpose. Instead, consider the following points when deciding if abstract art is “good”:

  • Emotions – How successfully does the art evoke emotion? What emotions does it evoke? How strong are the emotions?

  • Visuals/ Aesthetics – What art elements does the artist use (colors, shapes, textures, space, etc.)? Are they used to their best effect? To what degree does each contribute to the overall effect of the painting?

  • Time– How quickly did the art make an impact? How long did you interact with it? Did its impact change over time?

Whether or not abstract art is “good” is often subjective, as most art is. Everyone appreciates and enjoys different types of art. While one person may absolutely love a specific piece, another person may not feel anything at all when they look at it.

Suggestions For Interacting With Abstract Art

While there’s no one “right” way to judge what makes abstract art “good,” there are several techniques that don’t apply to this specific style.

No matter how successful they are with realism or impressionism, trying to use objective methods won’t work with abstract art.

So when you’re considering whether or not an abstract painting is “good,” here’s what not to do: 

  • Force Meaning Onto It – Viewing abstract art through the lens of what it means or is supposed to mean isn’t productive. Instead, consider how it makes you feel and, in turn, what that says about you and the painting.

  • Stare At It For Hours – Just because you stare at a painting for a long time doesn’t mean it’s good. Some art hits us instantaneously and only arrests our attention for a few seconds or minutes; these pieces are just as good as those that hold us for longer periods.

  • Force Your Emotions – No matter what artist you’re looking at, the reality is that some paintings will interest you, while others… just won’t. There’s nothing wrong with that. Abstract art encourages this, arguably more than any other style.

  • Expect An Expository Title Or Wall Text – Titles of abstract paintings are often vague. “Blue 6” or “Stripes in Trichrome” wouldn’t be out of place. Similarly, the wall text may or may not provide more concrete information. Either way, don’t expect it.

Interacting with abstract art and judging it is as much an individual experience as creating it is. Just as a piece may mean something specific to the artist, it will undoubtedly mean something unique to you (or not— which is also fine).

Elements Of Abstract Art

Though abstract art differs in depiction and purpose from other painting styles, it still utilizes the same elements of art. Visual components such as color, form, shape, value, and more connect all art across styles and mediums.

There are seven generally accepted elements of art:

  • Line – A point moving in space, either two- or three-dimensionally, whose length is greater than width; may be horizontal, vertical, or diagonal or either straight or curved.

  • Shape – An object that has height and width, which is either two-dimensional, flat, or limited in dimension; a line that is closed; may be geometric or free flowing.

  • Form – An object that has height, width, and depth; may be three-dimensional and enclosed or free flowing.

  • Color – The visual presentation of a specific combination of hue, value, and intensity.

  • Value – A color or tone’s lightness (nearness to the color white) or darkness (nearness to the color black).

  • Space – Positive and negative areas around and between objects; areas that are defined and which interact to create a sense of depth.

  • Texture – How objects feel when touched or a representation of how objects may feel if they are touched; the surface quality of an object, which may be represented through sight and/or touch.

Because of the nature of abstract art, artists and onlookers alike tend to pay more attention to these elements than they may otherwise.

Without a specific subject to focus on and draw meaning from, your eye instead follows the colors, shapes, lines, and other elements.

Principles Of Abstract Art

Similar to elements of art, principles of art remain the same across various styles. Abstract art shares the same principles, which people may consider as they interact with different pieces and paintings.

Principles of art are used to organize or characterize the elements within it.

There are eight generally accepted principles of art:

  • Rhythm – The indication of movement, created though specific and/or repeated placement of certain elements.

  • Balance – A feeling of equilibrium or stability (or symmetry or asymmetry) created through the combination of art elements. 

  • Emphasis/ Contrast – Differences between art elements and the degree to which they are accentuated as a result of the element placement.

  • Harmony – Similarities between art elements and the degree to which they are accentuated as a result of the element placement. 

  • Proportion – The relationship of art elements to the painting as a whole and to each other.

  • Gradation – Gradual changes between elements, such as from a light to dark color, small to large shape, etc.

  • Variety – The degree of diversity or contrast achieved through the use of different art elements or different variations of a specific or limited number of elements.

  • Movement – The look or feeling of action created when a viewer’s eye is drawn through a painting or art element.

As with art elements, principles of art can often become emphasized or the focus of abstract paintings. Without a specific subject, elements of art become a way to objectively discuss abstract paintings, their construction, and the techniques used to create them.

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