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Abstract art explained

Abstract painting

John Lowry says in his book “Painting and understanding abstract art”:

              “Abstraction is the opposite of copying. It is the use of the imagination to produce an image. It is not the opposite of figurative or representative painting, as the source of the subject of the painting can often be recognised without it being truly realistic. Abstraction is a mental process involving either depicting what is in front of us, but in our way, or realising images directly from the imagination.

Often it is easiest to start with something realistic and to take it on a journey of simplification or exaggeration, and we can stop when the source can still be recognised, or we can move on into complete abstraction where the source is unrecognisable. There are other approaches, but this one serves to aid initial understanding.”



The departure of abstract art from realism wasn’t a single leap, but rather a gradual evolution throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Here are some key stages and factors that contributed to this shift.

Early stirrings

  • Romanticism: Emphasis on emotion and individual expression over objective representation.

  •  Impressionism: Capturing the fleeting impressions of light and atmosphere, blurring the lines between object and environment.

  • Post-impressionism: Further pushing boundaries of form and colour, with artists like Cezanne and Gauquin simplifying forms and using vibrant, expressive colours.

Breaking the Mold (early 20th century):

  • Fauvism: Exploding traditional colour palettes, prioritising emotional impact over realistic depiction.

  • Cubism: Fragmenting and reassembling objects from multiple perspectives, challenging the idea of a single, fixed viewpoint.

  • Expressionism: Using art as a direct expression of inner emotions and anxieties, often with distorted forms and intense colours.

Kandinsky painting

Birth of true abstraction (1910s):

  • Wassily Kandinsky: Often considered the father of abstract art, he believed art could evoke spiritual experiences through pure form and colour, independent of the physical world.

  • Piet Mondrian: Pioneered geometric abstraction, reducing forms to basic shapes and colours, exploring relationships of space and proportion.

Continued evolution (mid-20th century and beyond):

  • Abstract expressionism: Artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning embraced spontaneity and improvisation, creating gestural paintings with raw energy and emotion.

  • Minimalism: Exploring the essence of form and colour with extreme simplicity and reduction.

  • Pop art: Blending mass media imagery and consumer culture with abstract elements.

Jackson pollock painting


  • Technological and scientific advancements:

    • New ideas about space, time and the nature of reality influenced artists' perspectives.

  • Psychological theories:

    • Freudian psychoanalysis and exploration of the subconscious mind informed some abstract pieces.

  • Dissatisfaction with traditional norms:

    • Some artists sought to escape rigid academic models and express their individuality and freedom.

It is important to note that this is a simplified overview and the transition from realism to abstraction was complex and multifaceted. Individual artists and movements explored diverse approaches and motivations, making it a rich and fascinating era in art history.



The misconception that abstract art is easy or lacks meaning is a stubborn one, but it is important to remember that judging a book by its cover (or in this case, a painting by its first glance) can be inaccurate and unfair. Here’s a breakdown of why this notion is misguided.

  1. Complexity of abstraction:

    1. Abstract art, despite its non-representational nature, is often the result of a complex thought process and artistic exploration. Artists delve into colour theory, composition, texture and form to evoke emotions, convey ideas, or challenge perceptions. Take Wassily Kandinsky’s “Squares with concentric circles” (1916) for example. The seemingly simple geometric shapes are intricately arranged and balanced, creating a dynamic interplay of tension and harmony. It is a testament to Kandinsky’s deep understanding of colour and its emotional impact.

  2. Skill and technique:

    1. Creating successful abstract art requires significant skill and technical expertise. Mastering the manipulation of colour, line and texture is no easy feat. Artists experiment with different mediums, from acrylics and oils to sculpture and digital art, each demanding specific techniques and knowledge. Piet Mondrian’s grid-based compositions in primary colours, like “Broadway boogie-woogie” (1942-43), exemplify the precision and control needed to achieve balance and visual rhythm.

  3. Layers of meaning:

    1. Abstract art isn’t just a random arrangement of shapes and colours. It can be deeply personal, expressing the artist’s emotions, experiences, or philosophical viewpoints. It can also engage the viewer in an interpretive dialogue, promoting them to find their meaning and connection to the artwork. Mark Rothko’s vast colour field paintings, like “No. 10” (1958), evoke a sense of awe and spiritual contemplation through their immersive colour and scale.

  4. Historical and cultural context:

    1. Abstract art movements, like cubism, expressionism and surrealism arose from specific historical and cultural contexts. Understanding these contexts can enrich the interpretation of the artwork and reveal the deeper meanings embedded within. “One: number 31” (1950), reflects the anxieties and spontaneity of post-war America.

  5. Openness to interpretation:

    1. The beauty of abstract art lies in its openness to interpretation. There’s no single “correct” meaning, allowing viewers to bring their perspectives and experiences to the encounter. This can be a powerful and enriching experience, fostering personal connections, and sparking conversations about art and its role in society.

Rothko painting

So, the next time you encounter a piece of abstract art, remember that it is likely the result of dedication, skill, and a desire to communicate something beyond the physical realm. Approach it with an open mind, and you might just discover a whole new world of meaning and emotion waiting to be explored.



Early seeds:

  • Romanticism: Emphasis on emotion and subjective experience over realism, paving the way for non-literal expression.

  • Impressionism: Dissolution of forms and focus on light and colour, laying the groundwork for abstraction.

  • Post-Impressionism: Further experimentation with form and colour, with artists like Cezanne pushing towards geometric simplification.

Pioneers of abstraction (early 20th century):

  • Wassily Kandinsky: Considered the father of abstract art, he explored the emotional potential of pure forms and colours.

  • Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism movement championed geometric shapes and bold colours, rejecting representational art.

  • Piet Mondrian: Neo-Plasticism focused on grids and primary colours, seeking universal harmony through abstraction.

Major movements:

  • Cubism: Broke down objects into geometric shapes, challenging traditional perspective and paving the way for abstraction.

  • Expressionism: Emphasised emotional intensity and spontaneity through distorted forms and vibrant colours.

  • Dada: The rebellious movement embraced chance and absurdity, questioning the very definition of art.

  • Surrealism: Explored the subconscious mind through dreamlike imagery and juxtapositions, often incorporating abstract elements.

Post-war era and beyond:

  • Abstract expressionism: Action painting and gestural abstraction dominated, with artists like Jackson Pollock expressing raw emotion through dynamic brushstrokes.

  • Minimalism: Reduced art to its simplest forms, focusing on materials and space.

  • Pop art: Incorporated mass culture imagery and consumerism into abstract compositions.

  • Contemporaneity: Diverse approaches flourish, from digital art and installation pieces to explorations of identity and political issues through abstraction.


Advancements in science and philosophy played a significant role in paving the way for the rise of abstract art in the early 20th century. Here are some key influences:


  • Relativity and quantum mechanics:

    • Einstein’s theories challenged our understanding of time, space, and reality, prompting artists to question traditional notions of representation and explore new dimensions in their work.

  • Psychoanalysis and the Subconscious:

    • Freud’s exploration of the unconscious mind and dreams resonated with artists who sought to express inner emotional worlds through abstraction.

  • New technologies:

    • Developments in photography and film challenged the need for art to depict reality realistically, freeing artists to explore non-representational forms.


  • Nietzsche and Existentialism: The questioning of traditional values and emphasis on individual experience encouraged artists to break free from established art forms and create their meaning through abstraction.

    • Bergson and time: Bergson’s concept of “duration” as a continuous flow of experience inspired artists to capture the essence of movement and emotion rather than static forms.

  • Eastern philosophy and spiritualism: Interest in Zen Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies, with their emphasis on intuition and non-duality, influenced artists to explore abstraction as a path to spiritual expression.

These scientific and philosophical developments created a fertile ground for artists to challenge the prevailing realist aesthetic and push the boundaries of art. They provide new frameworks for understanding the world and the human experience, paving the way for the bold experimentation and expression seen in abstract art movements like Cubism, Expressionism, and Surrealism. Here are some specific examples:

  1. Wassily Kandinsky: He drew inspiration from both science and philosophy in his abstract compositions. His interest in theosophy and spiritualism influenced his colour theory and belief in the inherent emotional power of colours.

  2. Kazimir Malevich: His supremacist movement was influenced by the idea of pure experience and the rejection of materialism. He saw geometric shapes as the purest form of artistic expression, transcending the limitations of physical representation.

  3. Piet Mondrian: His neo-plasticism was partly inspired by theosophy and the search for harmony. He believed that his grids and primary colours represented a new order and balance in the world.

Piet Mondrian painting

Remember, the intersection between science, philosophy, and art is complex and nuanced. However, it is undeniable that these advancements provided a crucial backdrop for the emergence and flourishing of abstract art in the 20th century.



While there is no strict rule book for abstract art, it relies on several core elements to convey meaning and evoke emotions. These elements, like building blocks, are combined and manipulated by artists to create their unique visual languages. Here are some key elements:


Arguably the most powerful element, colour can set the mood, evoke feelings, and create visual relationships. Bold contrasts, subtle harmonies, or unexpected juxtapositions can all be employed to achieve different effects. Think of Kandinsky’s vibrant squares pulsating with energy or Rothko’s vast colour fields enveloping the viewer in emotional depths.

Form and shape:

Abstract art breaks free from realistic depictions of objects, instead using geometric or organic shapes to convey meaning. Circles might symbolise unity, squares represent stability, while fluid curves evoke movement and emotion. Mondrian’s grids and Malevich’s suprematist squares demonstrate the power of form and shape to create structure and meaning.


Lines can be expressive and energetic, creating a sense of rhythm and movement, or they can be delicate and precise, guiding the eye through the composition. Pollock’s dynamic gestures and Kandinsky’s flowing lines exemplify the expressive power of line, while Mondrian’s controlled grids showcase their ability to create order and structure.


While often overlooked in purely visual media, texture can add a fascinating tactile dimension to abstract art. Rough surfaces might evoke feelings of rawness or energy, while smooth textures can create a sense of calmness and serenity. Abstract expressionists like Pollock and De Kooning often incorporated textural elements through thick impasto and collage techniques.


This refers to the overall arrangement of elements within the artwork. Balance, harmony, tension, and movement can all be created through the careful placement of shapes, colours, and lines. Jackson Pollock’s balanced chaos, Mondrian’s strict grids, and Rothko’s immersive colour fields all demonstrate different approaches to successful composition in abstract art.


Even the absence of physical objects can create an illusion of space in abstract art. Negative space, the empty areas between elements, can become as important as the elements themselves, contributing to the overall composition and sense of depth. Malevich’s black squares floating on a white canvas utilise negative space to create a powerful statement about the void and space itself.

Remember, these core elements are not isolated tools: they often interact and overlap, creating a complex visual language that invites diverse interpretations and emotional responses. By understanding these building blocks, you can unlock a deeper appreciation for the creativity and meaning hidden within the seemingly “easy” world of abstract art.



There are no “correct” interpretations of abstract art! That is one of its defining strengths and what makes it so engaging and open to individual experience. Here’s why:

  1. Ambiguity and intention:

    1. Unlike representational art with identifiable objects and narratives, abstract art lacks a specific visual reference point. This ambiguity allows artists to avoid dictating a single meaning and leave room for viewer interpretation. While the artist might have intentions or inspirations for their work, they don’t impose a definitive meaning, trusting the viewer to bring their own perspectives and experiences to the encounter.

  2. Subjectivity and emotional response:

    1. Art, in general, evokes personal responses based on an individual’s unique background, memories, and emotional state. Abstract art amplifies this subjectivity by removing concrete symbols and focusing on formal elements like colour, form, and texture. These elements have inherent emotional associations, but how each viewer interprets them varies widely. For example, one person might find solace in the calmness of blue hues, while another might feel a sense of unease from the same colour, depending on their personal experiences and associations.

  3. Openness to dialogue and discovery:

    1. The absence of a “correct” interpretation doesn’t mean there is no meaning at all. Instead, it opens the door for dialogue and discovery. As viewers engage with the artwork, they project their interpretations, sparking conversations, debates, and new perspectives. This process of active engagement enriches the artistic experience and fosters a deeper understanding of oneself and the world around us.

  4. Artistic freedom and exploration:

    1. For artists, creating without the constraints of representational expectations allows for exploration and experimentation. They can push the boundaries, challenge traditional notions of art, and express themselves in a purely visual language. This freedom empowers them to create works that are open to various interpretations, sparking conversations and engaging the viewers in the creative process.

  5. The power of multiple perspectives:

    1. The beauty of abstract art lies in its ability to accommodate multiple interpretations without diminishing any of them. Each viewer’s perspective, no matter how different, holds validity and contributes to the richness of the artwork’s meaning. This inclusivity celebrates diversity of thought and experience, allowing everyone to find something of themselves in the abstract world.

So, don’t be afraid to let go of the quest for a definitive answer when exploring abstract art. Embrace the ambiguity, engage with the emotions it evokes, and discover your unique interpretations. Remember, there’s no right or wrong way to experience abstract art, it’s all about opening your mind and allowing yourself to be moved by its unique power.



Embracing abstract art offers a treasure trove of benefits, enriching your life in unexpected ways. Here’s a peek into some of these hidden gems:

Unleashing creativity:

Abstract art acts as a playground for your imagination. Without concrete objects dictating the narrative, your mind wanders freely, forging connections between colours, shapes, and textures. This constant improvisation can spark newfound creativity in other areas of your life, from problem-solving to artistic expression.

Boosting cognitive agility:

Stepping into the world of abstract art is like a workout for your brain. Deciphering then language of shapes colours, and lines challenges your critical thinking and analytic skills. As you seek meaning and connections, your brain forms new neural pathways. Enhancing flexibility and adaptability in your thought processes.

Emotional exploration:

Abstract art bypasses logic and speaks directly to your emotions. The interplay of colours can evoke joy, tranquillity, or even a sense of disquiet. This emotional rollercoaster allows you to explore your inner world, identify hidden feelings, and gain a deeper understanding of your emotional landscape.

Embracing diversity:

Unlike representational art with its specific narratives, abstract art celebrates ambiguity and diverse interpretations. This welcoming space encourages you to appreciate different perspectives, fostering empathy and acceptance for viewpoints outside of your own.

Redefining beauty:

Abstract art shatters the mould of traditional aesthetics. It challenges you to break free from conventional notions of beauty and appreciate the intrinsic value of colour, form, and texture. This expanded definition of beauty spills over into your daily life, allowing you to find wonder in the unexpected and appreciate the unique aesthetics of the world around you.

Stress reduction and mindfulness:

Immerse yourself in a vibrant abstract painting, and feel your worries melt away. The absence of concrete images creates a safe space for your mind to relax and wander, offering a powerful tool for stress reduction and mindful practice.

Enhancing communication:

Abstract art becomes a canvas for shared experiences and conversations. Discussing your interpretations with others fosters meaningful connections, breaks down communication barriers, and opens doors to understanding diverse perspectives.

Personal growth:

Engaging with abstract art is a journey of self-discovery. As you delve deeper, you encounter new ways of seeing, feeling, and thinking. This continuous learning experience expands your awareness and fosters personal growth, enriching your life with a newfound sense of possibility.

Embrace the world of abstract art, and witness how it unlocks a kaleidoscope of benefits, igniting your creativity, sharpening your mind, and nourishing your soul. Remember, there are no wrong answers, only the unique dance between the artwork and your inner world. So, take a deep breath, shed your expectations, and step into the mesmerising universe of abstraction, ready to be surprised and transformed.




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