Understanding Abstract Art

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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