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A painter’s guide to understanding abstract art

Have you ever visited an art gallery and been left perplexed by the artwork in front of you?

Appreciating art is not just about looking at what is hanging in front of you, it is an in-depth process asking you to think like an artist and consider the creative process.

Creating abstract art is more than simply combining a number of colours, planes and line. This is your guide to help you appreciate abstract art in its most authentic way from the perspective of an abstract painter.

What is abstract art? Abstraction is a deviation from reality. It can use symbolism in the form of shapes, colour, form and gestural mark to achieve a vision of a reality. In many cases the goal of abstract art is to represent a new perspective, a view of the artist and a unique way of seeing a concept or creating a new concept in itself.

Historically abstract art is seen to depict order, purity, emotion, simplicity and spirituality. The overall goal is noticeably different from representational art and, thus, should be evaluated differently too.

To understand abstract art you need an open mind and imagination. You need to be able to look beyond recognisable objects.

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It is difficult to explain abstract art using words because it stands as a visual language in itself and often open to interpretation. Yes, there can be rules and common understandings, but equally it can be open, fluid and unintentional. We should look at abstract art with an acceptance that there might not be a correct answer or intentional explanation. As human beings, we look for answers, meaning, warnings until our mind can rest.

Abstract art can but does not always aim to tell a story. The artist may not want you to decipher a particular meaning, but more than likely encourages a response or at least, involvement. This means that abstract art can be an emotional experience personal to each individual viewer.

How do you essentially look at abstract art? Imagine hiking a mountain pass with views beyond of snow capped mountains, valleys of green pine trees topped with a blue sky and perhaps a storm cloud on the horizon. Your visual sense can take in the whole scene but your eye will be led to particular details by lines or light that could have some significance and tie together the picture in front of you. Some viewers may reminisce of a similar scene with an attachment to a memory, some may look blankly thinking of very little but absorbing the scene peacefully. Some viewers may look for a path or dangers or signs, a way forward or a way out. Looking at abstract art is like this, individual but it also associates something within you.

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Many people claim abstraction only requires a bunch of random signs, symbols and shapes that go together to create a picture. However, why is great abstract work so rare and unique?

Painting abstract artwork can be challenging, even if you master the traditional and technical skills necessary. There is experimentation, often a journey and an abstract artist needs to know when to stop or when to add, when to start again or follow a new element. The artist needs to have a keen technical understanding of colour, perspective, line, texture and paint qualities.

By understanding the basics of abstract art, it is also important to know how various artists throughout history retained these techniques through their artwork. The twentieth century marked a revolution in what was considered pure art. It was a time when many artists rejected formal teachings for personal methods of art to express what then came to be known as abstract art.

Cubism, as stated by its name, is the way to form different cubical shapes throughout your canvas to be able to see objects from different planes or angles. Russian artist, Kazimir Malevich, furthered cubism by using different colour gradients in each grid, while De Stijl painter, Piet Mondrian, painted flat grids to depict the concept of infinity.


Abstract expressionist painters from the New York school painted with an emphasis on using gestural mark. They depict the painter’s literal action such as walking on the canvas dripping paint like Jackson Pollock, or aggressive brushstrokes like Willem de Kooning. Both artists emphasised colour, mark and how their work corresponded with their emotions (and often torments) and intentions used to paint the artwork – often characterised as “action painters”.

Many people assume artwork may be too easy or too difficult to understand. Without knowing the basics, there is always a struggle to comprehend what type of artwork is in front of you, or what type of artwork you’d like to create. My personal belief as an abstract painter myself is that everyone has the capacity to react to art and I really don’t mind if it is a negative or positive reaction as this says more about the viewer than the artwork itself. What is essential is that art is amongst us and from an early age we participate in art and celebrate art in the public forum. As the world becomes more mechanised and digital I truly believe abstract art will become more significant in relaying genuine human experience. An abstract painter cannot be replaced by AI. Artificial intelligence may be able to assimilate or replicate abstract techniques but it can never be as significant as the work of a human abstract painter. Perhaps when AI becomes sentient I may live to review this statement.

By Durães-West
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Durães-West is a contemporary artist and painter living and working in Portugal. He paints large-scale abstract works at his new studio in the Alentejo. His work has attracted several collectors with exhibitions in Lisbon, the Algarve, UK and the Middle East. www.duraeswest.com