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What Do You See in an Abstract Painting?

Updated: Jan 11


Abstract oil painting

A question that I have been asked about so many times by so many people.


There are many explanations and discussions answering the question by raising other questions such as how to understand abstract painting, what message the artist is trying to tell the viewer and so on.


My answer to the question is you don’t need to understand abstract painting to appreciate it and you don’t need to know the artist’s message or how s/he made that painting, what material they used, etc.


We are trained to associate everything we see to something familiar, something that makes sense. Therefore, we use our sensory perception to receive the information and the brain interprets it to the familiar. This is the key. Abstract art isn’t about the familiar and most definitely isn’t about using our brain to interpret it.


Abstract art/painting uses feelings and emotions to appreciate it. This is the difficulty with some or many people when looking at abstract painting. All the time, the mind is trying to link it to something familiar, but it can’t and this is when the brain finally blocks it.


Notice how it is different when looking at realism artwork like a painting of sunset. We are able to automatically associate almost every element in the painting to something familiar. So, we feel more comfortable to appreciate it.


The ability to engage our feelings (not our brains) is the key to appreciating abstract painting, but how do you do that?


Before looking at abstract paintings, prepare yourself to expect to see unfamiliar objects that may not represent familiar object. Then, spend as much time as you can looking at the painting realising to stop your brain from continuously linking the painting to the familiar.


I believe the more you look at abstract art the more you could begin to engage your feelings to connect with the painting. It is all about allowing yourself to engage your emotion and feeling and let go of trying to link any element of the painting to the familiar. Abstract painting communicates to our feelings not to our analytical brain.


Abstract art doesn’t have to be realistic and it doesn’t have to be beautiful, but it does need to make the viewer feel something and in order for that to happen, the viewer must be open-minded and willing to engage their feelings and emotions. It is only then when the viewer can begin to experience the artwork and feels it.


The beauty of abstract art is its lack of defineable meaning. It doesn’t restrict the viewer to a certain meaning and it is entirely up to the viewer to form and discover their own meaning.


Abstract painting, like all other art, is an expression of self. The ‘self’ is a complex entity whose expression can be beyond those who are not experienced in being aware of its powerful capacity to express itself in ways that are not apparent to the average eye. It can be challenging to translate visual representation of feeling into words.


Abstract art tends to express the visceral components of human experience, such as emotions and the indefineable. It seems these components of reality are somewhat oppressed by our society, whereas the rational mind is heralded as the holy grail and thus maybe we have become so far removed from our emotions that we have an inability to see beauty beyond meaning. At the end of the day, all art is subjective and it is only you who can decide what you like.


Throughout the article one may say there is a mix up between abstract art and non-representational art. Well, I will leave that to another article to discuss.


If you can connect with abstract art, you are actually connecting to your own deeper self.

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