If You Have the Skills to Paint, Why Create Abstract Art?

Artist Willem de Kooning painting in his studio in in 1967.
Dutch-born artist Willem de Kooning painting in his studio in Easthampton, Long Island, New York, in 1967. Photo by Ben Van Meerondonk/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Question: "If you can draw [paint] why would you want to do abstract? It would be going backwards in your artistic growth, it offers absolutely no challenge in terms of technical skill." -- Donna

Answer: As far as I'm concerned, the trouble with this viewpoint, shared in a comment on my Why Do Some People Hate Abstract Art So? blog, is that is puts all abstract art into a box labelled "Easy Art, Technical Skill Not Required".

Make no mistake, there is plenty of poorly executed, quickly slapped out messes of color labelled as abstract art around. But likewise realism (and any other style of art). There's bad art in every style of art; it doesn't mean all the art in that style is pointless.

Believing that abstract art is going backwards artistically is underpinned by a misunderstanding. The pinnacle of painterly achievement isn't creating something that looks so real it can be mistaken for a photo. That's the pinnacle of technical skill. What it doesn't contain are poetry and emotional impact nor does it use paint to achieve the things that can be done only in paint.

Being a human camera is, ultimately, limiting yourself artistically. You're duplicating results cameras give, and merely showing viewers of the painting what they already see. The pinnacle of painterly achievement is going beyond replicating reality, getting someone to see and feel something they haven't before. To see the familiar afresh, to see and feel more.

That's where abstract comes in, in its full range from slightly abstracted to pure abstract..

To assume that reducing detail, to suggest and imply, is easier than painting realism is a mistake many people make. It takes technical artistic skill to reproduce what's in front of you, it takes creative vision to see beyond this, to present an interpretation and selection from what's in front of you as well as strong technical skills to present this vision.

Poetry vs prose.

For instance this stained-glass panel by Matisse suggests a context of sky (through the stars against the blue at the top) and sea (through the curved shapes at the bottom), encouraging you to read the other shapes as seaweed, which in turn encourages the mind to see the stars as starfish. The power of suggestion is very powerful, and can be used to make people see and/or consider things they'd not before.

It may, ultimately be something you choose not to do, but never assume an artist does something because they lack the skill to do otherwise (though, again, there are people who do). Don't assume it's simple because the result looks it. It's easy to produce a bad color-field, with flat, dull colors; getting rich colors by glazing a color-field takes knowledge of colors and patience. Doing it anew rather that copying Rothko, well that's takes vision.

Artistic Challenges:
1. Do a sequence of drawings and paintings reducing the detail in each to explore how little detail and how few brushmarks or lines you can use yet still convey the essence of something. Matisse's line drawings (eg this self-portrait) and paper cutouts of figures are great examples of this. Take it down to as few as three lines for a figure.

The viewer's mind fills in what's not there; you're engaging them actively, they're no longer looking passively.

2. Add poetry to a realistic landscape by using suggestion rather than description. Soften and blend edges, hide detail under semi-opaque glazes so close looking is rewarded, let things disappear into the distance.