In defence of abstract art

It’s funny what some people think about abstract art. My mother is a great supporter of my art but a year or so ago she said to me, “I love your art but I think you’re more than capable of doing still life paintings.”


I can’t remember my reply. I hope I was polite and bit my tongue. But it really annoyed me. Clearly for my mother – at least back then, maybe not now – she regarded abstract art as a lower art form, something requiring less skill than representational art.

Abstract art still seems to be one of the most misunderstood genres of art. I understand the view that representational art, focused on accurately depicting the physical world, requires a high level of skill. But this does not mean it requires a higher level of skill than abstract art. It’s just a different skill. In representational painting the artist is observing and capturing what lies before them, sometimes adding to the scene or omitting certain aspects, to create a painting that works. Conversely in abstract painting the artist is observing, capturing and expressing something that does not lie before them but instead comes from within. Both approaches require skill, just different skills. Representational art might use accuracy, detail and careful brush strokes, as well as formal elements of art such as line, shape, form, value etc. to represent an object or scene before the artist, and through that representation say something to the viewer. The abstract artist omits any depiction of an external mediating object – there’s a more direct transmission of emotion/meaning/message through those same formal elements and that’s  what I love. The impact of colour or composition on a viewer can be as direct as a musical note. It does not have to be mediated through another object. That said I’m not as far down the abstract road as all this might suggest. My abstracts are still landscapes – I choose to work with organic shapes and forms. But they are loose, dreamy, atmospheric shapes and forms. They convey what I want them to convey without needing to directly depict an objective outer reality. The more I paint them the more I realise that whilst my paintings are influenced by the landscapes I have seen, the world I walk in, what they convey is my response to this world – memories, emotion, feeling – it all comes from within.

I would argue abstract art can be just as difficult as representational art. To make an abstract piece that works you need to understand colour, value, and composition. Far from simply “doodling” or “scribbling” on a canvas (and I’m not denigrating that either because that too is a way of expressing something that comes from within and that too has meaning), it requires skill, creativity, and thought. Whether exploring forms not found in nature or organic shapes and lines, the abstract artist is combining their knowledge and understanding of art with their emotion, imagination and thought to create a piece that has meaning, purpose and impact.

Even thinking abstractly is not straightforward. When painting an abstract landscape you have to think about how to decompose a landscape (that may exist only in your mind) into abstract forms; or if you start with the forms you need to think about how to use colour, value, line to represent the landscape and represent what it is you want to say or the feeling you want to convey. Layers upon layers of thought, feeling, perspective represented in layers upon layers of paint – in my experience in any case. That’s why I love oils and cold wax medium – the application of layers and the scraping back to reveal what’s underneath and how it looks when set against the newer layer conveys something of the magic of exploring and discovering a landscape. The act of painting in this medium reflects the experience of discovering the world. I could not do this representationally, it has to be done this way for me. But it’s not something that’s easy – as my countless failed/reworked canvases show!

So for me abstract art requires skill and artistry but in a different way to representational art. It requires the artist to think differently, to think abstractly about, in some cases, the shapes and forms found within nature and to think about how best to use colour, value, and composition to convey a feeling and emotion held within, i.e. the artist’s inner landscape and a response the artist wants to generate within the viewer. It’s difficult and challenging. I wrestle with each painting trying to find the right combination of elements so that the painting looks as I want it to look and feels the way I want it to feel. Painting and viewing abstract art can be a powerful way of exploring different emotions and ideas. For me it is a genre of art that should never be underestimated, not even by my mother.