“How I Learned to Appreciate Abstract Art” by Angela Fehr

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 Watercolour Painting Example by Angela Fehr
“Whispered, Murmured” watercolor by Angela Fehr

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.

Welcome YOU into your art Angela Fehr Abstract painting

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 watercolor painting example by Angela Fehr
If You Want to See the Forest, Let Go of the Trees, watercolor by Angela Fehr

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!

Creating Abstract Art In the Studio with Angela Fehr

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. New tools. Put away the brushes and look for alternate tools for applying paint to paper.
  7. 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!
  8. 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! 

Recommended2 recommendationsPublished in Tutorials
13 Comments
  1. Sharon Bonin-Pratt 7 months ago

    Angela, thank you for a brilliant excursion into abstract art. Your prompts are tempting, and you’ve inspired me to delve into this style with watercolor. You write thoughtfully about why and how abstract art touches us even if it leaves us wondering – which is not only OK but perhaps the point. And you write as lucidly and imaginatively as you paint. You’ve given me much to think about – I’ll be back to this post to absorb your insights. Sincere thanks.

    Charlie, you invite the best of the best to your site – between you and the many other artists featured here, I’ve learned so much. Thank you, thank you.

  2. Linda M. Gigliotti 7 months ago

    (I put this at the end of your own article as well, under the video. No sense of direction here, sorry):

    Angela the crack in the veneer reveals a new path. Overcoming that crack of fear and resistance is my greatest challenge in art and in writing. Your post backs a dream I had earlier this morning that shows that we have to pass Fear And Resistance in order to go FAR (to move at all, actually, but acronyms work better than long winded sentences).

    You seem however to make the painting look absolutely delicious as you light up the page. Ah bliss!

  3. Kathy Delumpa Allegri 7 months ago

    Angela, I really appreciate your encouragement! I’ve been a “closet watercolor abstractist (sic)” since moving to the desert and starting a new series of work. My efforts are in my journal; small starts that I thought I’d work from. Now, with your wonderful presentation, I feel I can play on larger sheets with carefree abandon!

  4. Sandra Strait 7 months ago

    I definitely admire the skill of an artist that can paint with photo-realism but I seldom feel an emotional connection to their work. Abstracts always touch me in a way that I can’t find in any other way. Great article, Angela!

  5. Francine P.H. 7 months ago

    Interesting…but I’m not there yet in accepting 🙂

  6. Astrid 7 months ago

    Angela Thank you for your inspirational words. I am at the stage where I want to change from realism to abstract which I admire very much, but still find myself doing something I see instead of what I feel. Lots of practice to be done. I find all of your articles and demonstrations most useful.

  7. LoriCtoo 7 months ago

    Thank you for reminding how fun it was to just create abstract backgrounds! Love, love, love your work and article. Thanks for the inspiration!

  8. Kelly Miller 7 months ago

    I love your definition, as well as your personal experience, and your instruction. Funny, relatable, and inspiring. Beautiful paintings also! 👏

  9. Laura Kate 7 months ago

    Like isn’t strong enough. Super like! Thank you for teaching me how to approach making my art in new ways.

  10. Kerry C. Mitchell 6 months ago

    I’m glad you wrote this article. I’m an abstract artist. I sometimes feel other artists look down on my work as not real or not good enough.

    • Linda M. Gigliotti 6 months ago

      Who cares what they think, just paint. Compare your work to your past work, not anyone else’s. I love to paint atmospheric, loose but so far have not received reply as to how that differs from abstract. I wonder if those are one and the same?

  11. sandy mcfarlane 6 months ago

    A very interesting and honest account about your thoughts on abstracts. As you have mentioned painting abstracts requires a different mindset and I think viewing abstracts requires that same way of thinking and a lot of people find that very hard to do. I am an abstract artist and it is difficult to explain what abstract art is all about in words. I have had several bashes at it over the years. The latest version “What is Abstract Painting” is on my blog page.

  12. justmeandcross 6 months ago

    I come from a very strong engineering background where I have drawn many thousands of very straight lines on again many thousands of sheets of paper. They all have to represent somethings in the real world that was going to be built.

    I have always enjoyed all forms of abstract work as it is the total opposite of being formally organised and a release from those constraints.

    For me the two are compatible and I know when looking at abstract work I suspend all belief in what I see. I am really not worried about what I see in the work. It matters not whether I enjoy it or not – it is someone else perception they have shared.

    I teach photography and review a lot of work. The people I am with are always amazed in what I see in their work, both pictorially and story wise.

    I appreciate that not everyone understands what they see and this might be disconcerting for those who want to understand, but I say to them stick with it. It is those with the desire to understand are refitting their view into what they see and are flexible to change.

    Thanks for the blog.

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