Why I Love Abstract Painting

July 16th, 2020

I love abstract painting because it speaks to our time and creates a sort of emotional purity.

I love a challenge. Abstract painting can be hard to understand and even harder to create. Yet there’s a certain universality to it that it bridges communities in an incredible way. It just takes a little effort.

"Drawbridge," acrylic on canvas. 8x8 inches, 2017.

“Drawbridge,” acrylic on canvas. 8×8 inches, 2017.

I love how abstract painting speaks to our time

The longer I live, the more I see so many interpretations of the world and everything we all experience. There’s not just one experience or interpretation of the world, but many. (Or there is one experience, and variety is the very definition of it.) Interpretations are as varied as individuals. It makes life interesting! There’s so much to explore, and the Social Age gives so many a place to share and explore together.

It’s a lot like looking at clouds: everybody sees something a little different. When you look at an abstract artwork, your own interpretation is based on who you are and what you’ve experienced. Where highly realistic artwork often tells you what the interpretation is, abstract painting is open to interpretation. And a lot of times, your interpretation is a mirror of who you are.

At the same time, I can make a similar case for highly detailed, highly polished realistic or surrealistic artwork like that of my friend Sam Dunson, because your reaction has a lot to do with who you are and how you look at things.

Abstract painting reduces things to its essence

It’s easy to confuse abstraction with non-objectivity when you first begin looking at abstract art. Non-objective painting isn’t based on reality. It might be geometric or areas of color or pattern. Abstraction is based in reality. It just removes extra information so that the most important parts are shown. Abstract painting is challenging the way poetry is challenging: information is condensed, compressed, and edited.

A few years ago I came across Scott McCloud’s book Understanding Comics. He does a phenomenal job explaining the levels of abstraction, and how meaning is retained despite abstraction. What’s amazing is how the mind can see a circle with two dots and a line and interpret that as a face, when in fact it looks nothing like a face.

Page 31 from Understanding Comics: The human brain has the amazing ability to interpret an abstract circle, two dots, and a line as a face.

Page 31 from Understanding Comics: The human brain has the amazing ability to interpret an abstract circle, two dots, and a line as a face.

I love a challenge: abstract painting is a lot harder than it looks

I know a lot of people look at modern, abstract, and contemporary art and say, “I could do that,” or “my kid could do that.” (But you didn’t.)

The thing is, abstract art is a lot harder to pull off than it looks.

It looks simple enough to paint an entire canvas blue and call it art. But it takes a lot of mental and aesthetic gymnastics to get there. In hindsight it’s easy to see how over time, from the 1880s to the 1960s, art gets more and more simplified to the point where it gets reduced to a single color.

Creating good abstract art takes a lot of knowledge and understanding of composition plus the skill to pull it off. You have to understand things before you can deconstruct them. Picasso explored a different way of seeing space and time by showing multiple viewpoints at once, as well as express the horror he saw in the world. But before that, he was an excellent draftsman who knew how to render things as well as Rembrandt.

Abstract painting expresses an emotional purity unobscured by unnecessary details

Because abstraction is reduction and simplification, abstract painting isn’t weighed down by unnecessary details. Like I said earlier, it’s a lot like poetry since it is condensed and compressed. Showing the essence of a thing or idea allows it to be purer and more direct. The result is that abstract painting is often rawer and more visceral both in how it is seen and how it is painted.

Abstract Art Has Been Around Longer Than You Think

July 22nd, 2015

In 1915, abstract art was the front line of Modern Art. It was cutting-edge stuff.

But in 2015 it is pretty normal. But a hundred years ago, geometric shapes, Cubism, and the first non-objective paintings were avant-garde.

Picasso was sticking rectangles together to make harlequins in 1915.

A hundred years before that, abstract art was virtually unheard of, though you see hints of it in J.M.W. Turner’s work. Here’s something he painted in 1817, the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

Yet if you fire up your TARDIS and go back to 1656 and look at Diego Velázquez’s painting Las Meninas up close, you’ll find it is abstract splotches of paint that loosely suggest reality. It’s practically pointilist.

If you back away it all fits together and resolves. There’s a lot going on in the painting. There has long been a debate over who is the actual subject and whether the piece represents a mirror and if you are viewing it as the King and Queen. Diego even put himself in it.

So when you think about it, abstract art actually existed over 100 years before the United States was founded. Except it really wasn’t a thing, but the groundwork was already laid.

It would take about 200 – 250 years for artists to experiment with abstraction outright. Like Vassily Kandinsky, a Russian artist who applied musical concepts to painting.

I find it interesting that abstract art in 2015 is far more socially acceptable than it was 100 years ago. It’s almost expected now. It makes me wonder how abstract art will be regarded 100 years from now. It’ll probably be tame or boring.

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Understanding Abstract Art

July 15th, 2015

Abstract art is a funny topic. So may people don’t understand it. It’s been around a lot longer than you’d think. Since the beginning of art, in fact, since all art is abstract in some sense.

The very act of making a copy of something you see removes it at least one step from the original. So that’s at least one level or degree of abstraction. It’s been derived in some sense from that original thing, either figuratively or symbolically.

If you draw a picture of a ball, you’ve essentially made a circle. You can create shading to make it more realistic and rendered, but you’ve removed it from the original. It’s not a ball, but a drawing of a ball.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in Rene Magritte’s painting “The Treachery of Images” (1948) where the artist writes (in French) that “this is not a pipe.” This is a picture of a pipe, not a pipe itself.

It’s been removed from the original.

Using Comics to Understand Abstraction

Back in 1993, Scott McCloud published a little book calledUnderstanding Comics.

Of course, it explains how comics work. But it’s also about understanding art and visual communication.

(I’ve never read the whole thing but I’ve read bits and pieces.)

There’s one section that explains abstraction by showing a series of faces ranging from the literal to the abstract. Meaning is yet retained.

When you go from the realistic to the abstract, you start with a face that is highly rendered and specific. It’s not generic. It looks like somebody. It has a particular nose, specific eyes. It’s unique.

Then, you can abstract that and simplify it further to the point that you no longer even look at the face but have a symbol, a smiley face. (Well, his isn’t smiley, but it’s simply a circular shape with two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth.)

Abstract it further, but retain meaning, and you have a word, a Platonic ideal. That’s the ultimate abstraction. Which is why the most abstract art form is poetry.

(Click the image of the Big Triangle to see more detail.) Scott McCloud joins Resemblance, Meaning, and The Picture Plane (pure abstraction) into what he calls The Big Triangle. The more abstract something becomes, the more symbolic and universal it becomes. In the process, it becomes less specific.

You can simplify or abstract a face or a head to the point that it is a symbol: a circle with two dots and a line. A smiley face, as it were.

Or it can be reduced to a set of shapes that bear no resemblance or signify any sort of meaning. Pure abstraction. Pure form, independent of meaning or representation.

Where I Work

The place where I paint still tends toward resemblance. While my painting “Ireland” is rather abstract, there is there is such a strong horizontal line in the upper third of the composition that a sense of landscape is implied. There’s also a suggestion of trees in the upper right.

Even the “Black Submarines” piece I did with my four-year-old has submarine forms and blue water bubbles. That’s just how my little boy expresses these ideas.

Isotope” is probably the most abstract of all. It doesn’t resemble anything. Yet it was adapted from a photograph I took of a blank wall. I simply exaggerated the colors.

And this piece I did 2 years ago seems pretty abstract. Unless you live in North Texas like my cousin and say it looks like the sky at 4 p.m. in May.

Will I move toward a purely abstract way of working? Probably not. I love modifying photos into something else and reinterpreting that on canvas as an exploration of form and color.

That’s exactly what I did with Morning Mist. It’s based loosely on a photo I took one foggy morning while waiting for the train.

The teal and peach areas are the fog, and the red and purple parts are the trees and the ground. I simply broke down what I saw and reinterpreted it in paint, remembering that warm colors advance and cool colors recede. I let the paint do what paint does, loosely orchestrating the way it sits on the canvas.

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