The Reality of Abstract Painting – FCA Feature Article

fca-article-reality-of-abstractionAbstraction is an essential component of painting, whether we are conscious of it or not. The degree to which an artist chooses to change what is “real” to make a painting work is essentially abstraction.

Generally speaking, painting is not about copying something exactly, but rather creating an image using visual devices to render something specifically or emotionally. Here is where

the realization of an artist’s personal abstraction is important.

Abstract or non-representational art has its own intrinsic value by not depicting a subject, but what that value actually IS seems to be debatable and as individual as the artist or movement it initiates. Critics seem quick to discount such work initially, perhaps because the guiding principles of the day are not sufficient to gauge it by. Maybe abstract work is a creative process in itself that is judged by the response it receives over time. The impact of Mondrian, Kandinsky, Rothko and Pollock is apparent over the ages. In Canada the Group of Seven abstracted the wilderness and Painters Eleven showed that expressionism was alive and well in our country.

Interestingly, many realist artists explore abstraction and use it as a basis for their paintings. Robert Bateman admittedly used abstract paintings to structure some of his realistic work on and thus obtained compelling compositions.

The uniqueness of an abstract composition may be in its ability to please or displease at the same time. The difficulty of adjudicating abstracts against our own standards and those of others becomes the hard part. We have to ask ourselves: What are these standards and what are they based on?

In my own work, I let the painting make itself while directing certain characteristics in it. Often, when I express with colour, it is like entertaining a group of kids, while keeping unruly characters at bay…unless of course they add some harmless fun to the situation and the party goes on.  I have also realized that breaking rules is part of abstract painting and not to be feared – it’s only a thing between you and the canvas after all. This intuitive process either works or fails. However, the beauty of abstraction is that it is a personal reality to the artist.

Expedition, 24 x 36 Oil on Canvas
Expedition, 24 x 36 Oil on Canvas

An abstract painter undoubtedly is influenced by a number of factors including what’s on their mind, inner longings, response to their surroundings, past experiences, knowledge, emotions, and their inner spirit. Awareness of these things may be helpful in making something to respond to.

Gaining confidence in making nonrepresentational work can take time. It also requires courage and perseverance since the artists themselves may not fully comprehend what is transpiring until they reflect on it. Abstraction is like a personal language one needs to be immersed in for a while until it is understood.

We may think a monkey or elephant can make abstract art but inherently animals do not make the same conscious decisions as humans do. An animal trained to pour paint or squirt colours from their trunk onto paper can make pieces, that may or may not sell, but this is not the typical process of abstract art. Abstract paintings may start from a gut response but in the end require the artist’s scrutiny and approval.

Abstract art also employs similar considerations as any other artwork. This may include reworking, analyzing the process and many repeated efforts to build something meaningful.

I believe that in abstracts the traditional elements of painting are an important part of the composition, even if they are excluded. Line, shape, form, value, colour, texture and space become as essential as the subject in representational work. However in abstract work the elements are managed differently (whether consciously or subconsciously) and offer endless possibilities in picture making.

In abstract painting, rhythm, balance, movement, and contrast can be explored extensively without worrying if the subject loses context. Also, emphasis of certain elements and principles exists for other reasons besides rendering something recognizable. As an example, harmony verses discord in colour may be a concept for a certain series. Perhaps the goal is to obtain certain moods and visual stimulation, but until the artist actually paints this idea it’s success will not be evident. Painting ideas can prove challenging as can expressing emotions in art. Automatic, meditative or expressive painting can be just as demanding and important.

Abstract works may be intensely individual yet prove to be universally appreciated. Robert Motherwell’s huge black and white abstracts in response to the Spanish civil war, come to mind. Not only do they represented the “expression of the day” but are as much a part of history as any photographs or written records.

It seems abstract paintings contain a certain “reality” of historical significance that impact even how we paint today. Perhaps in our day abstract painting is not so much about what we can do in a “new” way but how we express ourselves in the freedom of visual speech that we live in.

In any case, what is abstracted becomes part of the reality of our painting. This reality is part of our history and IS something of value.

Note: Continuation of the FCA article including “What if You Tried Painting Like This…” is in another Blog with that title.



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