Abstract art used to make me uncomfortable. This is a safe place to be honest about that, isn’t it? I just didn’t understand why anyone would choose to paint pictures that were unrecognizable as anything, when you could show your skill and technique so much better by painting actual “objects.” I often felt frustrated when viewing abstract art at a gallery, because I just didn’t get what I was supposed to be seeing. What did the artist want me to see in their work? Why did it feel like abstract art was a separate language that I was excluded from speaking? I didn’t even want to join their stupid club, anyhow!
That sounds a little childish, doesn’t it? And yet, that was exactly how abstract art felt to me; like the artists were the cool kids I’d known in middle school. Somehow the “cool gene” had passed me by, and I couldn’t even see what I was missing.
Over the last few years, however, I’ve developed a better understanding of abstract art, of why artists choose this style, and why it doesn’t have to feel threatening or intimidating. I’ve learned that it is possible — and actually beneficial — to an artist’s development to discover an appreciation for abstract art. In fact, abstract has become one of my favorite styles to paint in watercolor. It’s helped me understand who I am as an artist and develop my personal style. I’m so glad I gave abstract a chance!
Abstract Art isn’t a Secret Code
I would never want to retake high school poetry. Somehow, the deeper meaning always passed me by, and the beauty found in lyrical lines was lost as we dug into dissecting the subtext. Dissection happens when the subject is dead, and while others may have found deeper purpose in digging into metaphor, I felt as though I was picking apart a corpse of something that had once been beautiful and alive.
It’s not surprising that if we’ve been trained in this kind of approach to literature, we tend to assume that understanding abstract art will happen in much the same way.
As I’ve started painting abstractly, I do so out of the prompting of my “inner artist,” seeking to connect to an emotion as I watch the paint move across the paper. My goal is to think only of the next brush stroke, and react to each successive stroke in turn, without assuming the outcome. This eliminates subtext; I’m painting without a grand, complicated inference of meaning, and what you see is simply the result of following the “adjacent possible,” as Nancy Hillis calls it in her book, The Artist’s Journey.
This isn’t to say that all abstract art is created in this framework, however, the intuition of the artist leads their abstract work. At one point in the painting, the artist looked at the art and was satisfied. They are showing you the series of choices that led to the painting before you. Look for the emotion the painting evokes when you let go of the frustration of “but I don’t understand what I’m looking at!”
Abstract Art isn’t a Lecture
My frustration with abstract art came from feeling like I didn’t understand what the artist was trying to tell me. I didn’t understand what I was supposed to see and feel, and so I felt lost; the angry kind of lost where you are holding a map, halfway to somewhere, and you realize you have been given the wrong map.
An abstract artist is far less likely to be shaking a finger in your face, telling you what to see, and far MORE likely to be quietly asking, “What do you think?”
As I paint from my intuition, letting my heart lead my brush strokes, what I see in the results is the quiet message, “Thank you for letting me show you who I am. Perhaps you can see in this something we share in common?”
I love thinking of my abstract paintings as a conversation. I can share my point of view, and you can reciprocate with yours, and from this comes the give and take of true relationship. I love that this creates common ground; as an artist, I am not on a higher level than my audience, I want instead to invite you into my painting and to give you permission to own your own feelings and opinions.
Maybe that’s why my opinion on abstract art has changed so dramatically over the last few years. In realizing that instead of standing in a position of “see my incredible skill” (which often is what we admire in photo-realistic art), abstract art is willing to be messy and raw because the priority is to reveal an aspect of the creator of the work.
Abstract Art Invites Reflection
The greatest benefit I have derived from abstract painting is in getting to know myself a little better. Because I am not relying on a reference photo or model, I look inward, seeking to make my time in the studio a greenhouse for creative growth. That means that if I have any doubts about my artistic ability or my right to call myself an artist, I need to confront and resolve those doubts. Abstract art is a place where there are NO wrong answers, and as an artist who often fears “doing it wrong,” this can feel frighteningly free of boundary. This is a good thing! Getting alone with your thoughts helps you get to the heart of what really matters to you in your artistic expression and practice.
Abstract Art Strengthens the Artist
Choosing to paint abstractly means putting yourself in a place where your primary resource is self; your heart, insight and skills. What better way to grow, and grow rapidly, then by using those resources with courage and abandon?
Abstract painting can help to make your representational paintings stronger. In abstract painting, you can explore composition, color theory, value and shape without the distraction of trying to make your painting look like “things,” and that is another great reason to try abstract painting for yourself.
I have found that by starting my painting sessions with an abstract study, I can more quickly get into a creative safe space; a place where my creative thoughts flow without judgment, and that helps my paintings thrive. I’ve created a list of prompts to help you try some abstract painting on for size; use them to warm up in the studio, and give yourself permission to follow the trail on a treasure hunt for your inner artist!
Creative Abstract Prompts:
Somehow, the most creativity seems to come out of limitation, so I like to start with a few rules to play within. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Color play. Flow a single color across wet paper. When you have a pleasing shape, add a second color. Look for ways to allow the colors to flow together and complement each other side by side. OPTIONAL: Add a third color for pops of accent.
- Path of light. Wet-in-wet, leave a strong white shape in the middle of the paper, painting around it with a much darker dark color. Look for ways to make your darkest dark complex and rich by using several dark colors and varying the values slightly to create secondary paths of lighter value through the scene.
- Mark making. Working with a variety of brushes, create a path of interesting marks through the painting. You can start with a previously painted background for your marks, or work on new paper. Try spraying water to soften some marks and blur their shapes.
- Mark making II. Start with a large brush and a big, dramatic brush stroke. Let the shape created guide your abstract exploration, building on it with smaller strokes and accent colors.
- Break the rules. Start with a crayon resist, sketching on the paper, and then washing paint over top. Or try adding gouache to transparent watercolor.
- New tools. Put away the brushes and look for alternate tools for applying paint to paper.
- Musically inspired. Play a favorite song or genre of music. Use a line from the song to inspire your painting, or (my favorite) move your brush and choose your colors directly based on the rhythm and tone of the song. This also gives you a short time period to create your warm up, another inspiring limitation!
- Emotion/word prompt. Choose a word to inspire your painting’s first shapes, brush strokes and colors. Words to try: freedom, peace, flight, rebirth, solitude, memory, home. From the early strokes, let the painting lead you.
Whenever you are painting to express ideas or emotion, give yourself permission to step into the unknown. You might anticipate an outcome, however as the painting develops, be attuned to the potential found in changing direction as you let the painting lead. You are getting to know your inner artist, and that artist is much more interesting and beautiful than you know!
This video exploring Picasso’s painting ‘Three Musicians’ shows a playful approach to understanding abstract art. You might enjoy it as much as I did!
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Angela Fehr is an internationally known watercolour artist and instructor living in in northern British Columbia, Canada. Teaching over 5,000 students in her online school, Fehr emphasizes fluid and intuitive painting, teaching technique clearly and encouraging students to explore their own unique style as they develop watercolour skills.