Brad Blackman in the studio, January 2020

What Makes Painting Abstracts So Thrilling?

I love looking at abstract painting and I love painting abstracts. It’s so thrilling to experience the raw energy the artist put onto the canvas. It’s even more fun to create abstract paintings.

A big part of what makes painting abstracts so thrilling for me is that it helps me understand and tap into the language beneath the language we all know. It’s a complex, wordless language that goes deep into our collective subconscious. Yes, it’s kind of mystical and Jungian. And I’m fine with that.

It’s challenging for me because I have to break past the layer of the more or less “literal” way of thinking that I grew up with.

In that sense, abstraction is a “pure” form of art unencumbered by the language of realism.

100 Days of Abstracts, Day 30

100 Days of Abstracts, Day 30, acrylic on canvas

The language of realism tells you “this is a tree” or “this is a person.” Abstraction allows you to hint at those things, or do away with them entirely, favoring composition over referencing real things. (This is called nonobjective abstraction. DeStijl pioneer Piet Mondrian was a master of this sort of abstraction.)

In the past few years I have grown more obsessed with the color field paintings of Mark Rothko. I have yet to see one of his works in person, but I hear they are deeply moving. There’s something about a large canvas flooded with subtle variations of a single color that stir something deep in your soul.

Since so many of us in the West grow up looking at art from an objective point of view, it is sometimes difficult to understand abstract painting since it doesn’t fit your frame of reference. To that, I say to think of it like music. Look for texture, rhythm, loud and quiet. Music rarely references things in the real world. Painting doesn’t have to, either.

By painting in an abstract manner I am able to explore my emotions and find answers to those wordless questions deep in my soul. The more primal a piece of art is, whether it’s music or painting, the more it resonates with our core.

Realism tends to be obvious in its interpretation

"Hoth" painting surrounded by jingle bells and twinkle lights

Hoth, acrylic on canvas

Sometimes a realistic painting is just a painting of whatever you see, nothing more. Other times, the artist adds symbols with personal meaning, or the subject matter is intended to inspire the viewer to consider a certain worldview. (Brian Rutenberg would argue that all paintings force the viewer to look at the world differently, if only for a second.)

Of course, some surrealists have fun with objective visual language, especially when their paintings are realistically rendered but full of double meanings and visual tricks on our our perception of space. Painters like Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, and Donny Smutz come to mind.

Abstract painting invites the viewer to participate and interpret

Brad Blackman's custom painting "Silver Lining," shown in a living room.

Silver Lining, acrylic on canvas, 20 x 20 x 1.5 inches

I love hearing all the things people say they see in my abstract paintings. Most of the time I have a landscape in mind. Personally, I often see clouds and a horizon, littered with landforms and foliage.

But lots of people tell me they see something else, and it’s amazing. It’s a lot like looking at clouds with a friend: sometimes you see something whimsical, and sometimes you see something profound that changes your life. And your friend sees something else entirely.

All paintings are abstract in some way.

Bob Burridge says that under every great painting is a great abstract painting. The rules of composition apply to abstract painting as representational painting, perhaps more so since that provides a frame of reference.

Sometimes abstraction looks like an unfinished painting that invites the viewer to invent their own story. And that’s what I find thrilling.