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Many people struggle to understand abstract art. Similarly, many artists find it difficult to paint in an abstract way, even if they are highly skilled at representational art. There are several terms for abstract art, such as non-objective, intuitive, expressive but for the moment let’s stick with abstract painting.


The dictionary definition of the word ‘abstract’ describes it as “removed from reality, disconnected from what is observed, cannot be recognized”, whilst ‘to abstract’ is defined as “to derive from what is perceived, to set apart”. The word ‘abstraction’ brings with it the thought of intangibility or dealing with ideas rather than objective reality.


The world around us is our inspiration


All art, whether it be representational or abstract is based in the world around us; that is our only context so how could it be otherwise.  At the same time all painting is an abstraction from that world, with the degree of abstraction ranging from paintings which seek to represent what is observed to paintings which have no link with objective reality.


Until the middle of the 19th century all art was representational. The invention of photography, which arguably offered a more ‘real’ representation of reality. gave artists permission to use the pictorial space differently. This led to wave after wave of experimentation throughout the 20th century with different approaches to painting and image making emerging – using colour, shape, line, brushstrokes, collage etc. in new and exciting ways.


A new way of seeing

Wassily Kandinsky – Intersecting Lines 1923


Abstraction is about creating a new interpretation of the world, creating a world which is personal and subjective and which is more inner than outer directed. Painting in an abstract way involves looking inside and using colour, shape and line to express inner feelings, memories and personal experiences. To this extent it is a reversal of painting from observation which is primarily outer



However, how far artists release the need to reference the real world is relative and artists vary widely in their interpretation of this. There is a spectrum across artists who are overtly referential to the world as they see it to those whose work is not referential in any obvious way. Some artists take a reductive approach to reality, paring back the detail but keeping a clear hold on what is observed. (Kurt Jackson) Some make overt references to the real world but give themselves the freedom to paint from imagination. Others find expression simply from their emotions and others explore the realm of thought.



A different process of painting


Abstract painting isn’t a style, it is a particular way of making art. It can be simplified into four basic approaches


  • Abstraction based on what the artist sees – an outer reality

  • Abstraction based on how the artist feels - an inner reality

  • Abstraction based on intuition and memory – inner and outer

  • Abstraction based on ideas and knowledge – inner and outer


Most abstract artists tap into a combination of these approaches, usually with a strong orientation towards one.


Hilma af Klint: Abstraction based on the inner world of emotions using symbols from nature          


Richard Diebenkorn: Abstraction based on the idea of horizontals and verticals at the same time referencing landscape


Wolf Kahn: Abstraction based on simplification of the landscape with emotive use of colour


Jade Fadojutimi Painting with intuition unconsciously tapping deeply int


Ways of abstraction


There are many different ways of abstracting from the visual world


  • Simplification of the image – searching for the essence

  • Manipulation of visual elements

          – overlapping, distortion, exaggeration, fragmentation

  • Creating flat or shallow pictorial space rather than the illusion of 3D

  • Focusing on a limited number of visual elements

  • Using images from the world as symbols rather than literal depictions


Painting expressively


Painting expressively is about allowing your intuition to lead the way. It is about letting go of the need to represent and painting from your inner world of memories and experiences. The images within are highly personal and deeply rooted. Similarly, the way you paint and the marks that you make are your personal art signature.


There is no right or wrong way to paint in this intuitive way but it is best to avoid having a final image in mind because that becomes a constraint. Instead, focus on start points and then let the painting happen. You may start just with a memory of something meaningful to you, with a colour palette or with a simple sketch. Importantly, allow yourself to respond to the materials, put your trust in the process and let it guide you.


Negative thinking can have no place in this way of painting. The painting will almost certainly evolve through a number of iterations some of which you will be unhappy with. You will need to make judgements on a step by step but critical voice just gets in the way of painting freely and expressively.

You are creating an 'image’ which expresses your personal 'meaning’ and which will unconsciously reflect your emotions. Your painting will have its own visual world. It doesn’t need to make sense realistically, only visually.


Painting Intuitively – The Skills


It takes time, practice and patience to develop the skills you need to paint expressively and to master your materials. Technical ability will evolve over time and through this you will find your own personal visual vocabulary. Importantly, give yourself permission to paint in this intuitive, expressive way. Allow yourself to experiment and accept that by doing so you will need to embrace mistakes and failures. Over time you will find a balance across working spontaneously and controlling the outcome.


Understanding your personal approach to abstraction


These are the questions to ask yourself.


  • What is your abstraction based upon?

    • what you see, what you feel, your intuition, ideas?

  • What are your intentions?

    • the qualities, characteristics or ideas that you want to express

  • What are your sources of reference?

    • immerse yourself, investigate and interrogate these.



Be patient. It takes time to master painting in an abstract way and the challenges are part of the process.


Be focused. Don’t skip around and stay on the surface. In time you will find your own personal balance across painting freely and expressively and controlling the outcome. It is all about practice, to understand how you are using the visual elements and to develop fluency with the techniques of your medium.

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