Abstract vs. Representational Art: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever painted a picture of a flower or animal? How about a picture that wasn't of anything recognizable? In this lesson, explore the differences between abstract and representational art.

Images, Ideas and Art

Artists express themselves in many ways. They might work in two dimensions with specific materials like paint or colored pencils. They might weave textiles or carve sculptures from marble. Whatever materials they choose to use, some artists create work that looks like things we recognize. Such images include landscape scenes or portraits of people.

But other artists create works that don't look like things we see in the real world. Have you ever stood in front of a painting that was full of squiggly colorful lines or a sculpture made of vague geometric shapes? This work can be challenging to appreciate, but it helps if you understand certain ideas related to these different kinds of art.

Some art is representational while other works are abstract. Now, let's explore what these words mean and how these types of art differ.

What is Abstract Art?

Abstract art doesn't look like things you find in the real world. A work of abstract art might explore elements like color, line and form. It doesn't includes images or shapes of objects that you would recognize. The idea of abstract art really got its start in the early 20th century when artists began to move away from strict depictions of real-world elements to express inner ideas, theories and emotions. Artists known for creating abstract art include Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Piet Mondrian (1872-1944).

Abstract Art Examples

Abstract works can look very different from each other. In a painting by Wassily Kandinsky, Painting with Red Spot, done around 1914, we see a canvas full of colorful shifting forms and lines. Kandinsky was interested in expressing inner emotional and spiritual feelings. He used paint to form merging curves and blended edges, but not to form recognizable things.

Painting with Red Spot by Wassily Kandinsky
Kandinsky painting

Now, compare the Kandinsky painting to a work by Piet Mondrian called Composition in Red, Yellow, Blue and Black, done in 1921. It's formal and precise, with bold geometric forms and specific hard-edged areas of color. Mondrian began his career painting things like landscapes, but eventually shifted to abstraction. He felt it better allowed him to convey ideas about balance and harmony.

Composition in Red, Yellow, Blue and Black by Piet Mondrian
Mondrian painting

Other than including the color red, the Kandinsky and Mondrian paintings look very different from each other. And that's okay. Each artist was exploring different ideas and searching for ways to express them.

So, abstract art is about ideas or even the physical process of creating art. When you look at an abstract work, examine how elements are arranged. Look at colors. Abstract art might focus on aggressive brushstrokes or crisp geometric forms. It might explore repeated patterns or blocks of pure color. But it's not anchored to anything you see in visual reality.

What is Representational Art?

On the other hand, representational art is recognizable as something you might see in the real world. It's identifiable as a scene, objects or figures. Representational art doesn't have to be limited to completely realistic scenes. The artist might choose to paint a tree in different colors, for example, or create a mystical world with people and monsters. But in general, we still see things in the work that we recognize as being 'things.'

Representational art has been around for thousands of years. Ancient examples include cave paintings where very early humans used natural pigments to create images of bison and other animals they hunted. For much of the history of art, works were representational.

We can look at artists who were separated by centuries, like Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) and Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) and see things recognizable to us in their work.

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