The Truth About Abstract Art

PA Ali Cockrean sheds some light on a complex subject

Many people struggle to understand abstract art. As an expressionist landscape painter myself, creating an abstracted form of art, I am often asked to talk on the subject to art societies and clubs.

The main questions are always: “Why does anyone choose to paint like that?” “Abstracts make no sense, how do I know if they’re good, bad or indifferent?” or simply “They leave me cold. I have no idea what to make of them.” Then there is the old chestnut “It’s just throwing paint at canvas, isn’t it?”

In essence, many people find abstract work unfathomable because they have no idea how to relate to it. Many see it as too simplistic and raw, and therefore believe it must also be shallow and meaningless. If you look up the definition of abstraction in the dictionary you will find that it talks about “stripping an idea to its concrete accompaniments”, “creating something visionary”.

But what does this really mean? Essentially abstraction is a form of expression that allows an artist to bear their soul in visual terms. It’s about removing the detail, taking an idea back to its simplest form and exploring what’s at the beating heart of it. This requires courage, honesty and determination. It can be uncomfortable and difficult, but always hugely liberating and energising. This also explains why art therapy is such a powerful way of dealing with stress and trauma.

Chiltern Spring
My attempt at capturing the energy and anticipation that fills us all when the world wakes up after the winter. 

True abstract painting is essentially about accessing personal feelings and emotions, communicating them through colour, texture and shape. Abstract art differs from traditional art because it penetrates the conscious mind to work at a far deeper level. You could say it is more akin to a spiritual experience.

Traditional art generally offers us forms that we can more easily interpret, images that we are familiar with and therefore more comfortable with. Our emotional responses also tend to be more easily and logically explained, which appeals to our dominant left side brains! Put simply, a traditional painter will look at a landscape and want to replicate it to engage the viewer. To an abstract artist it is the feelings generated by looking at the landscape that they paint.

The traditional form becomes irrelevant, creating a massive challenge for both artist and viewer. For both parties, it involves reaching into the subconscious or unconscious mind to reawaken memories and activate feelings that we may not even be aware are lurking there. Abstract art takes us into uncharted, unpredictable territory, challenging both our visual and our emotive responses. For lovers of abstract work, this is precisely what makes it more exciting and interesting than traditional art. Often the image is a puzzle to the viewer, but that is precisely why they like it.

Bridge Over The Stream
My celebration of one of the exceptional times when the natural and man-made world meet and become one and the same in perfect harmony.

People who prefer abstract work don’t enjoy art that gives them all the answers instantly, they like art that makes them work at understanding and interpreting their own personal response. As the viewer, the more you understand how abstract artists paint, the easier you find it to understand their work. The essential ingredient is to be open-minded and uninhibited in the way that you approach the work. Let it sweep over you. Don’t try too hard to interpret it, but absorb it.

Concentrate on how it makes you feel. If it doesn’t provoke any feeling, move on. This doesn’t mean you have failed as a viewer, or that you are lacking in any way. It simply means the work doesn’t engage you.

If you were to look at 100 traditional paintings in a gallery, there would probably only be one or two that you really connected with - that really affected you and were truly memorable.

The same is true with abstract. You can look at 100 images, and maybe only one will capture your imagination. You may not fully understand why it makes an impression, but that’s okay, you can spend a lifetime pondering over that.

Like most things in life, practice makes perfect. The more time you spend looking, the better you will become at interpreting your own response to particular pieces of work. The less intimidated you will feel, the more you will absorb.

You will start to compare new works and find your own criteria for judging how they rate for you as an individual. As your confidence grows, so will your ability to make decisions and choices about what you do and don’t like. Abstract art is a totally personal experience.

No two people will see it exactly the same way. Frequent visits to museums and galleries will allow you to develop your skills at interpretation surprisingly quickly and you will undoubtedly find yourself drawn to particular artists and styles of work. At this stage you will probably find you want to start reading about the background and history of artists, both past and present, whose work intrigues you. Bit by bit your knowledge and curiosity will grow.

Summer Rock Face
I wanted to capture the feeling of wonderment at the colour, texture and vastness of a rock face as it reaches to meet the clouds.

I believe passionately that you need to take risks in art to broaden your skills and reawaken your creativity. Who knows what hidden talents still lie dormant in the head and the heart? So challenge yourself to try something different. You can only benefit.

You may not come out of it wanting to paint abstracts – but you will have shifted further along your own artistic development path and this will inevitably positively influence the art you produce in the future. 

Ali’s move into abstract art

I spent the first 30 years of my life painting traditional style landscapes and still life and was myself fairly dismissive about abstract art in general. But I never really felt my work truly reflected my own vision of the world. Something important was missing. For this reason perhaps, art lost its appeal and it was almost ten years before I picked up a paint brush again. Interestingly when I did, something fundamental changed.

Initially I tried setting up still life studies, but kept getting frustrated because they were too restricting. So I decided to simply follow my instincts and stopped using any visual reference. I allowed myself to ‘play with the paint’, trying different tools for mark making and purely observing as shapes, colours and compositions formed.

Harvest Time
I have always found seeing the corn ripening in the field intensely comforting, there is a certain security that comes from the cyclical nature of seasons.

I wasn’t trying to produce good paintings, but allowed myself the luxury of experimenting and exploring painting in a totally uninhibited way - just like a child. I stopped worrying what other people thought of what I was doing. It proved to be one of the most powerfully liberating things I had ever done. Over a number of months, my initial mark making lead to more structured work that conveyed specific ideas or moods that were, most importantly, totally unique and personal to me.

 I realised I had finally found the vital element that had been missing and a whole new world opened up to me. You can see more of Ali’s work at www.alicockrean.co.uk


The Truth About Abstract Art

PA Ali Cockrean sheds some light on a complex subject

Many people struggle to understand abstract art. As an expressionist landscape painter myself, creating an abstracted form of art, I am often asked to talk on the subject to art societies and clubs.

The main questions are always: “Why does anyone choose to paint like that?” “Abstracts make no sense, how do I know if they’re good, bad or indifferent?” or simply “They leave me cold. I have no idea what to make of them.” Then there is the old chestnut “It’s just throwing paint at canvas, isn’t it?”

In essence, many people find abstract work unfathomable because they have no idea how to relate to it. Many see it as too simplistic and raw, and therefore believe it must also be shallow and meaningless. If you look up the definition of abstraction in the dictionary you will find that it talks about “stripping an idea to its concrete accompaniments”, “creating something visionary”.

But what does this really mean? Essentially abstraction is a form of expression that allows an artist to bear their soul in visual terms. It’s about removing the detail, taking an idea back to its simplest form and exploring what’s at the beating heart of it. This requires courage, honesty and determination. It can be uncomfortable and difficult, but always hugely liberating and energising. This also explains why art therapy is such a powerful way of dealing with stress and trauma.

Chiltern Spring
My attempt at capturing the energy and anticipation that fills us all when the world wakes up after the winter. 

True abstract painting is essentially about accessing personal feelings and emotions, communicating them through colour, texture and shape. Abstract art differs from traditional art because it penetrates the conscious mind to work at a far deeper level. You could say it is more akin to a spiritual experience.

Traditional art generally offers us forms that we can more easily interpret, images that we are familiar with and therefore more comfortable with. Our emotional responses also tend to be more easily and logically explained, which appeals to our dominant left side brains! Put simply, a traditional painter will look at a landscape and want to replicate it to engage the viewer. To an abstract artist it is the feelings generated by looking at the landscape that they paint.

The traditional form becomes irrelevant, creating a massive challenge for both artist and viewer. For both parties, it involves reaching into the subconscious or unconscious mind to reawaken memories and activate feelings that we may not even be aware are lurking there. Abstract art takes us into uncharted, unpredictable territory, challenging both our visual and our emotive responses.

For lovers of abstract work, this is precisely what makes it more exciting and interesting than traditional art. Often the image is a puzzle to the viewer, but that is precisely why they like it.

[accordions title="" active=3 event="click" collapsible=true disabled=false

autoheight=false]
[accordion title="Read the rest of this article"]

Already a member?

Members Click here to log in

and access the full article.


Not yet a member of the SAA?

Access to the full article is reserved for SAA members only.  If you are

not a member of the SAA, then find

out more about joining here.

As well as

access to this article and more, just some of benefits SAA membership provides

are:

  • The inspirational PAINT magazine delivered for FREE six times a year
  • Interact with like-minded artists and find your place in the UK’s

    largest art community

  • Full access to the PAINT article reference library
  • FREE welcome pack including practical help, advice and gifts
  • Exclusive discounts, member-only offers and FREE P&P on thousands of

    brand name art supplies

Join the worlds biggest and friendliest art society

Whether you're just starting out or you've been painting for years, being a

member of the SAA can help to encourage and inspire you for years to come.

Join today from as little as

£27.50 a year.

A recent review from a

member

”I heard about the SAA through my Art Group and a friend let me have

some old copies of PAINT magazine to look at. I was immediately impressed with the

articles and the help inside and wrote away for the free sample of the magazine.

Well that clinched it! I joined up the next day and using the easy website began

buying artists materials on their Home Shop. They were much cheaper than other

suppliers.

They send a welcome pack with a hard copy of the catalogue, which

is glossy and a good flick through for selection of materials and DVDs etc. PAINT

magazine is full of helpful and inspiring articles, and I keep my copies close to

hand in my studio for reference.”

Vanessa Bavington

[/accordion]

[/accordions]