Kinds of Abstract Paintings

by Bill Brown

"Abstract" can mean different things.

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Abstract paintings come in different styles. The word "abstract" original meant "to take from." The first abstract paintings in Western art were taken from life, where real object or interiors were modified, or abstracted, to look different. Later, they become completely abstract, without definite representational qualities, like music. In truth, abstract paintings have been around for centuries and are found in many different cultures.

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Figurative Abstraction

Figurative abstraction takes a scene, a portrait or other tangible topic and renders it in a way that does not correspond specifically to perception. For instance, cubism is abstract, but cubists, such as Pablo Picasso, used people and things such as bottles or guitars for their subjects. Sometimes you can see the subject through the abstract qualities of the painting, and sometimes it is quite obscured and hard to discern without a hint from the title.

Gestural Abstraction

Gestural abstraction is based on the vigorous brushstrokes of the painter. Artists such as Willem de Kooning popularized this technique, in which a painting is built up with layer after layer of dashing strokes and rich color. With de Kooning, despite the strong abstract feel, he often took a figure or scene as his starting point, such as in his "Woman" paintings. Jackson Pollock, on the other hand, had no such referential material in his paintings. His signal drip works were done by making gestures in the air above the painting, using a brush or stick loaded with paint. The paint then cascaded onto the canvas lying below, making a rich network of colored lines.

Geometric Abstraction

Geometric or hard-edged abstraction uses sharply drawn shapes to create forms. One of the earliest schools of this kind of painting was de Stijl, a movement begun in Amsterdam. Piet Mondrian, the leading artist of the movement, made canvases using only black and primary colors on a white ground, arranged in strict verticals and horizontals. These works are easy to recognize, and their characteristics are even incorporated as design elements of buildings or textiles.

Other Types of Abstraction

Other kinds of abstraction abound. In Western art of the 20th century, Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian artist working in Germany, developed a type of painting that came to be called "non-objective," to signify its freedom from subject matter taken from life. Traditional Arabic art does not use the figure at all, and its beautiful and complex designs are abstract, too. Color field painting is another innovation in abstract art, wherein broad fields of paint are applied to large canvases, creating harmonious pools of color.

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About the Author

Bill Brown has been a freelance writer for more than 14 years. Focusing on trade journals covering construction and home topics, his work appears in online and print publications. Brown holds a Master of Arts in liberal arts from St. John's University and is currently based in Houston.

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