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What is Abstract Art? - Definition, Techniques, Types & Paintings

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  • 0:01 Definition of Abstract Art
  • 0:45 History & Styles of…
  • 2:44 Abstract Art Techniques
  • 3:52 Examples of Abstract Paintings
  • 4:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Colleen Cleveland

Colleen has taught college level Game Development and Graphic Design and has a Master's in Interactive Entertainment and Masters in Media Psychology.

In this lesson, we'll explore the definition of abstract art. We'll look at the different types of abstract art, the techniques used to create the works, and a sampling of paintings that have been produced.

Definition of Abstract Art

What do you feel when you look at this painting? What is the first thing that comes to mind?

Mouvement 1 by Kandinsky
Mouvement 1 by Kandinsky

Abstract art was created at the cusp of the 20th century. It is an art style that breaks away from drawing art as it is represented in real life. Abstract art is about exploring form and color. One could even venture to say that it is artists drawing how they feel. Abstract art isn't about making perfect copies of real life. Sometimes, it isn't even about giving the impression of real life without all the little details. In fact, depending on the artists, abstract art became about the process itself. Representational would mean that you draw what you see. Abstract art is far from that concept.

History and Styles of Abstract Art

Stylistically, abstract art included the movements of Surrealism, Dadaism, Cubism, and Fauvism. Other abstract art forms include Suprematism, Art Informel, Neo-Plasticism, and De Stijl. Included in the collection of famous artists favoring the abstract are Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky, and many more.

The roots of abstract painting, though, can be found with Post-Impressionism. Post-Impressionism was an art movement developed in France just before the turn of the 20th century. In these early days, you might be able to make out a picture of a person, but up close it might have been constructed of planes and angles. For example, Georges Seurat created abstract art with a technique called pointillism. Pointillism is using dots to create people and places.

Wassily Kandinsky, of Russian descent, lived in Germany during the Bauhaus movement. He was one of the pioneers of abstract art using form and color in his paintings.

Vincent van Gogh, another French artist, is an example of Post-Impressionism. He focused more on color and light in his works, giving the impression of light dancing on the fields and meadows he drew.

Pablo Picasso, a famous Spanish artist from the 20th Century, started his career painting representational pieces. In around 1910, he developed Cubism, which is the drawing of planes and angles that vaguely looked like the people he was drawing, but looked more like geometry.

Man Ray was one of the famous Surrealist artists. Surrealism was a movement that included visual arts and writing that developed in the 1920s.

Abstract Expressionism developed in the United States after World War II. Abstract art came over from Europe as people fled from war-torn areas and came to America. In the mid-1940s, the American art movement started and included the likes of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and Willem de Kooning.

Abstract Art Techniques

As mentioned before, abstract art isn't about trying to detail the picture. It may not seem to be portraying a picture at all but, instead, creating an atmosphere, such as artist Mark Rothko's painting. Mark Rothko was an abstract artist who painted rectangles of color. Early in his work he used bright colors, but later in his career he used darker colors. Among his techniques, he used egg and glue so his work could dry quickly in order to layer on more paint without mixing it. Mixing is creating a new color by combining two other colors. Rothko was a master at not mixing but just layering the paint like a bricklayer, one on top of the other.

Jackson Pollock used a technique of pouring or flicking paint onto a canvas. He would let it dribble and splatter, but he did it in a pattern and precision with the flick of his wrist, letting the paint drops fall where they may.

Wassily Kandinsky had a natural-born condition called synesthesia, which allowed him to hear color and see music. That became Kandinsky's motivation to paint what he saw, or heard. Using geometry, he created pieces that represented spirituality and emotions as he saw it.

Examples of Abstract Paintings

Here are examples of Wassily Kandinsky's work.

Painting on Light Ground
Painting on Light Ground

Color Study, Squares with Concentric Circles
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