What Makes a Good Abstract Painting?
Updated: Dec 27, 2020
Any painting is made up of several elements including colours, shapes, lines, textures, etc. and the collective formation and composition of all components together makes up the final painting.
What’s interesting to know is that every element can make us feel a certain way and good artists know how to put together all these elements when making a painting. I believe that this is the skill which can differentiate between a good painting and a not so good painting.
Skilful artists understand very well the emotional effects that colours, shapes and lines can have on people and they understand cultural interpretation to colours and shapes. The end result is a piece of artwork that attracts people and attempts to communicate if you allow yourself to connect with it.
Shapes are two-dimensional areas with a recognisable boundary. They can be open or closed, angular or round, big or small. Shapes can be organic or inorganic. They can be free-form or geometric and ordered.
Shapes can be defined by their colour or by the combination of lines that make up their edges. Simple shapes can be combined to form complex shapes. Complex shapes can be abstracted to make simple shapes.
The different characteristics of a shape convey different moods and meanings. Changing the characteristics of a shape alter how we perceive that shape and make us feel differently about a design. Shapes are a powerful way to communicate.
Shapes can symbolise ideas or concepts and can set a mood or emotions. They can also create a travel path for the eye around the painting and create depth or movement. Shapes with straight lines and angles usually symbolise structure and order, while the shapes with curves are softer and represent connection.
Squares and rectangles represent stability, solidity and stability. These shapes scream rational, practical and conformity – they are not flashy or attention seekers. Triangles also have straight lines and usually are associated with energy and power as they can point out directions. Triangles can also give a feeling of action, tension or even aggression. On the one hand, they can symbolise strength while on the other, conflict.
Circles tend to send a positive emotional message of harmony and protection. Circles are associated with love, unity, commitment and community. Circles have no beginning or end; they represent life and lifecycle. Circles together with oval shapes are readily found in nature with the sun, moon and earth and various other objects. Circles have a free sense of movement which may represent power and energy. Due to their curved lines, circles and ovals are graceful and complete.
Spirals are shapes that are most often found in nature, from shells and snails to stars in the galaxy, water draining or dirt being whisked up by the wind. Spirals represent the notion of growth and evolution, the circles of life, seasons or time. Spirals represent transformation, fertility, life and death. Spirals can move in clockwise of anti-clockwise directions and can take you on a journey. They are free flowing, boundless and open. The spiral is a shape that can go on for eternity.
Nature does not like straight lines for some reason. Nature creates irregular shapes and curved or uneven which tend to be more comforting.
There are truly an endless variety of shapes and combination of shapes, each communicating its own meaning and message. Often the meaning behind shapes is personal and cultural, particularly as shapes are combined.
Although the world is full of irregularities, differences and uniqueness, the human mind has evolved to categorise and group everything within it. This inescapable need to define all things is an evolutionary coping mechanism, allowing us to foster structure and order in our individual lives and wider societies.
This incessant need to categorise and simplify has extended to how we perceive our visual environment. By assigning all things a “shape,” over time, we’ve built up a detailed encyclopaedia of visual forms that have associated characteristics and psychological meanings.
Colour evokes feeling. It incites emotion but the meaning of colours is personal preference and can vary depending on culture and circumstances. Colours can affect how we feel subconsciously. This means that one may not even know they are being affected by the colour of an environment or artwork.
Artists have long believed that colour can dramatically affect moods, feelings and emotions. “Colours, like features, follow the changes of the emotions,” the artist Pablo Picasso once remarked.
Despite the general lack of research in the concept of colour much of the evidence in this emerging area is anecdotal at best. But researchers and experts have made a few important discoveries and observations about the psychology of colour and the effect it has on moods, feelings, and behaviours.
Why is colour such a powerful force in our lives? What effects can it have on our bodies and minds? While perceptions of colour are somewhat subjective, there are some colour effects that have universal meaning.
Colours in the red area of the colour spectrum are known as warm colours and include red, orange, and yellow. These warm colours evoke emotions ranging from feelings of warmth and comfort to feelings of anger and hostility.
Colours on the blue side of the spectrum are known as cool colours and include blue, purple, and green. These colours are often described as calm, but can also call to mind feelings of sadness or indifference.
How do people respond to different colours?
Colour can play an important role in conveying information, creating certain moods and even influencing the decisions people make. Colour preferences also exert an influence on the objects people choose to purchase, the clothes they wear and the way they adorn their environments.
So, what's the bottom line? Experts have found that while colour can have an influence on how we feel and act, these effects are subject to personal, cultural, and situational factors. More scientific research is needed to gain a better understanding of colour psychology.
Some of the common psychological effects of colours in the Western Hemisphere:
White: purity, innocence, cleanliness, sense of space, neutrality
Black: authority, power, strength, evil, intelligence, thinning / slimming, death or mourning
Gray: neutral, timeless, practical
Red: love, romance, gentle, warmth, comfort, energy, excitement, intensity
Yellow: happiness, laughter, cheery, warmth, optimism, hunger, intensity
Green: natural, cool, growth, money, health, envy, tranquillity, harmony, fertility
Blue: calmness, serenity, cold, uncaring, wisdom, loyalty, truth, focused
Purple: royalty, wealth, sophistication, wisdom, exotic, spiritual, prosperity
Brown; reliability, stability, friendship, sadness, warmth, comfort, security
Pink: romance, love, gentle, calming, agitation
Colour in Art Therapy
Understanding the symbolism of colours can be an important component of art therapy. Colours can communicate meaning just as importantly as images and words. Artists can select different colours in order to convey a particular message or trigger a certain feeling in the viewer.
For art therapist, it is important for one to be aware of the possible meanings and symbolism of different colours. It is important for art therapists to consider the common meaning, e.g. blue for sadness, red for anger, black for depression or grief, etc. there may be many other factors to consider for an individual, including personal experiences and cultural meanings.
The use of colour in creative expression can add a valuable dimension to traditional art therapy, for two reasons. First, colour has been proven to have a profound impact on the mind and body. Second, it lends itself easily to nonrepresentational art, which can fill in some of the therapeutic gaps left by representational art.
I wrote brief articles about the above subjects:
I hope this article can shed some lights about the answer to What Makes a Good Abstract Painting. The answer, obviously, is a good artist. But there is no good or bad artist – there are skilful and not so skilful artists. There are those who fully understand the essential elements of a good painting, a thorough understanding of the effects of each element on people’s emotions and most importantly putting all these elements together in the painting to trigger that feeling to connect with it.
So, perhaps the next time you are stopped by an abstract painting you hopefully will make that connection and appreciate how something so simple (or complicated) can be considered a masterpiece that couldn’t have been done by a 5-year old.
More of my oil paintings.