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Creative Life News Blog

Clash of Perception: Realism and Abstraction

You enter a sleek contemporary art gallery and look around at all the abstract paintings. "What is this one supposed to be?" you wonder as you look at a painting. You have no idea, given it looks just like a jumble of colours, shapes, and lines. No one is going to test you, but you're a bit upset that you can't pin down an answer, like "Oh, it's sort of like a golden fish in a whirling tidal pool among rocks". You don't want to seem unsophisticated, but you breathe a sigh of relief when you come to the gallery's photography section and see a shot of actual goldfish in a bowl.

Fantasis abstract painting by Janet Strayer
Fantasia#1 by Janet Strayer

Art, Freedom, and the Search for Meaning

Realistic and Absract paintings by Janet Strayer
The White Vase and Crescendo, two paintings by Janet Strayer

We may be drawn to many different kinds of paintings. Realism is the visual language we understand most easily and we prize the technical skill required in painting realistically.Abstract painting is less easily understood but it, too, requires skill and has its own challenges. Although learning tends to increase our critical along with our analytical abilities, I suggest that the more you see and learn about art, the wider your appreciation and the more you will love for different reasons. That's why I write about it. Art focuses, expands and enriches whatever world we live in.

Abstract art occupies such a huge space in the visual art world. It's the main stylistic category of modern and contemporary art. Despite this, many people still don't get it or are dismissive.

An informal survey I've done over the years asks people if they prefer Realistic or Abstract comes art. Realism or Naturalism in art represents pictorially what we see in the world of people, things, and scenes. Abstract art is non-representational or departs from our typical perception of objects in the world into concepts (e.g., Cubism) or expressions of artists' feelings. It can be "about" anything: a mood, a synthesis of impressions and intuitions put to visual shapes, colours, textures. My survey results come out in favour of Realism. That's not surprising, despite the fact that most contemporary art since mid 20th century has been labelled Abstract.

Like any form of art, Abstract and Realistic art both can be meaningful, intriguing, beautiful ... or not. These judgements depend upon the eye of the beholder. But these two categories work upon us differently. The more easily identified content in realistic art carries much of its meaning. Two figures looking at each other across a small cafe table = intimacy. A battle scene with lanced soldiers riding rearing horses= dangerous excitement. By definition, abstract art needs no recognizable content. So how can it be meaningful? The key question for abstract art is "What does it DO" rather than "What IS it?

abstract painting by Janet Strayer
ForeverYoung by Janet Strayer

Abstract art requires more viewer participation than does Realism, more willingness to look actively. That's because we can't be sure of seeing anything that deliberately represents or is even intended to represent something else. The content of abstract art is subjective, so the journey required of both the artist and the viewer is more personal than general: What do those big clashing lines or this sudden bit of bright red amidst dull colours make me feel or experience or think about? Each of us is free to think, interpret, feel whatever we do in response to the painting's sensory and perceptual effects. That freedom is either liberating or anxiety-provoking to some of us.

magical realism painting by Janet Strayer
Mending the Universe by Janet Strayer

Realism keeps us grounded in some tangible world, even if the world represented is ideal or imagined (as above). In contrast, Abstract art is non-representational. It paints outside the bounds of our usual pictorial categories. The essential difference between them is whether the painting depicts content that "re-presents" something outside itself (Representational art) or exists in its own terms (Non-Representational, Abstract) as a matter of lines, shapes, colours, textures and marks inter-acting in ways integral to its composition. Abstract art challenges our perception and forces us to question known categories and ideas as well as to explore the boundaries of our own feelings, associated thoughts, and imagination. As viewers, we are part of the creative process.

Education and Enlightenment

portrait by Janet Strayer
Lady Magus by Janet Strayer

Of course, both Realism and Abstract art can be dull, repetitive, and fairly meaningless or so obscure in meaning that it's hardly worth the effort to try to find some. Education reduces the effort involved in "getting it" in art. We've been formally and informally educated to understand Realism better than Abstraction. Picture-books and cartoons are easily recognized. Historically, the Western church has educated even the illiterate with pictures depicted on its walls and windows. Symbols in such work have also become familiar to us. In contrast, it's harder to diciper some of the symbolic meanings in much Renaissance art as well as in modern Surrealism (all those drooping clocks). We can still respond to this art without knowing its symbolic meanings, but some knowledge can deepen our appreciation and the art's impact upon us.

The same holds true for more general education in Abstract art. This education needn't be high-brow or institutional. For Abstract art, especially, it's definitely not about accepting the received interpretations of meaning. The education I'm talking about can be achieved more as a matter of interest in looking at paintings for oneself, sticking with them and following the lines or colours or forms that grab you, stepping into the composition and noting your reactions to it, positive and negative. Your experience of it is your interpretation of it. If nothing happens, then it's nothing to you. If something happens, stay with it, and that's the meaning... for you.

What Does Reality Look Like?

grid painting of birds by Janet Strayer
Four and Twenty by Janet Strayer

When asking what reality looks like we're talking about perception, how we see things. We are not simply cameras. Our perception doesn't just copy what's in front of our eyes, but selectively chooses and interprets it. Perception is affected by many variables besides optics. Our scattered or focused attention, mood or state of mind, and the demands of our personal, as well as external, world all affect how we see reality.

According to the school of Realism in painting, reality in a painting should look just like something seen objectively out there, a visual illusion of the real. As a painter, however, the realistic illusion you wish to impart is the one that you see, painted the way that you see it. That's what identifies individual artists and their unique manner of painting. To that extent, every painter creates their own perception, selectively choosing what to emphasize or omit and renders it with paint according to their own style of painting. Their paintings don't replicate one another, even if depicting the same subject matter.

Wimple painting by Janet Strayer
Lady in Wimple (homage Robert Campin) by Janet Strayer

Reality also changes with the times. It certainly has in paintings. What reality looks like now often seems less coherent and more disrupted than when painted by Classical Realists. The idealism depicted in Renaissance art (and re-instated in European salons of the 19th C) differs from portrayals in earlier Medieval times, just as these depictions differ from subsequent Naturalism or later Impressionistic paintings. Contemporary perspectives on Realism range from hyper-objective Photo -Realistic painting to the more subjective emphasis on Disrupted Realism.

three portraits by Janet Strayer
Self Portrait (upper) Distraught, Beside Myself. (below).. three paintings by Janet Strayer

The scope of Abstract painting has also changed with time, from more formal approaches like Cubism to free expressionism. Like all categories, Abstract painting breeds its own variations. It has paved the way for a vast versatility in artistic freedom to explore anything from human to cosmic, from physical materials to spirituality, psychological states and imaginative evocations -- all via a parsed non-representational vocabulary of lines, marks, shapes, and compositional interactions.

Follow Rules or Break Them?

There are rules in the schools of Realism, changing only little throughout the years. These rules include a planned and analytic approach to the subject matter with a focus on accurate measures, perspective, proportion, rendering of form, light and shadow, etc. Typical training includes many hours of copying from plaster casts and live models, first only in black and white (graphite, pencil), then moving on to paint and colour. I've experienced such schooling. It's rigorous training for the eye, hand, and willful patience.

There are no apparent rules for Abstract painting. Sometimes existing rules are deliberately broken, as in Cubism, which broke the rules of perspective by simultaneously applying multiple perspectives to the object. The formal aspects of Cubism led way to future changes via Abstract Expressionism and Action Painting, which did away with rules entirely. But wait. There still are some basic principles to painting well, and I think we see these at work in effective Abstract paintings as well as Realistic ones.

All painters, regardless of school or style, arrange basic visual elements (line, shape, dark/light contrast, colour) on a surface. The visual elements are like a vocabulary used to create a statement, whether it be purely decorative, representational or abstract. Most painters are also aware of basic principles (design, value, differences, harmony) that guide visual elements into a coherent composition, or a deliberately incoherent one.

Composition: Intent and Intuition

Composition, or the overall arrangement/design of aspects of a painting, applies to both Realism and Abstract painting. Classical Realism has a defined structure underlying the composition (e.g., rule-of-thirds, golden ratio). Abstract painters may or may not have a plan given the intuitive versus planned approach favoured by many artists. Yet, some abstract painters have so well assimilated the principles of painting that their preferences seem spontaneously to move in directions coherent with structured compositions.

Kite Fliers painting and armature by Janet Strayer
Kite Fliers painting and iarmature by Janet Strayer \

For me it seems important to paint what I intend to paint (either abstract or representation) and to have this connect with viewers so that they can engage with the work in their own way. This doesn't mean I always have a clear idea of what I want from the outset. Sometimes I start spontaneously just splashing paint, but fairly soon I seach for the idea or feeling that will push the blobs of paint into expressing what the painting tells me I want. I rarely create a deliberate armature (as above), though it helps to apply it (and all you know about painting) midway through a painting when you feel something's "off" but don't know what.

All Painters are Abstract

I've learned something important from attending a good Academy of Realist Art in Toronto while at the same time enrolled in a much more contemporary approach at Emily Carr in Vancouver. These two conflicting approaches to art training reinforced a synthesis I'd come to realise in my personal art education across the years: that all painters must be able to see things abstractly. In the chaos of all the information received visually and processed brain-wise, they must selectively see and separate out the important aspects as best they can.

How one does this varies across artists but is often evident in their art. How? By looking at some of the fundamental visual elements of all art (abstract or other). For example, one can see the extraordinary clarity attained in Vermeer's paintings via simple, abstract geometric shapes and dominant contrasts. Or the powerful impact of Rembrandt's emphasis on abstract textural and extreme value differences in his limited palette. Or the flowing effect of Turner's atmospheric colour-fields. Despite the essential difference between Abstract and Representational artwork, such points highlight an appreciation of the abstract qualities evident in valued paintings across genres.

Can an Artist Be Both Abstract and Representational?

Yes, of course. Some contemporary painters, like Gerhard Richter or Richard Diebenkorn, are renowned for both types of art, typically not created during the same time period .

Today's artists have no trouble mixing metaphors, combining abstract and representational features in the same painting, perhaps labeling it a "semi-abstract". Paintings today and throughout history have also commenting upon transitions in the history of painting itself, incorporating old with new features (as in painting below).

Lady Cranach Goes Modern painting by Janet Strayer
Lady Cranach Goes Modern by Janet Strayer

Contrasted with some public opinion, abstract painting is not easy to do well (see earlier post, "Ha, Even a Child Could Make That!"), Try just throwing paint on canvas and see how happy you feel. Happy accidents do occur, but it takes vision and skill to recognize them and to achieve them consistently in a way that has an intended impact when seen by others. Even for trained artists, abstract art may not be a simple all-or-nothing route. I love the freedom of expression and largesse of abstract art, but my training in figurative painting makes it hard for me not to incline my brush towards representational elements in the work. My personal solution is to keep three canvasses going simultaneously: one trying for the completely abstract, another letting in representation intuitively as the composition may request, and a third designed to be representational at the outset.

But Is it GOOD?

Just as not all representational paintings are equal, not all abstracts are equal in technical skill, interest, impact, meaning, or personal value. I doubt that random marks or colours just thrown across a surface are enough to create an abstract painting worthy of our attention. Some authentic artistic involvement and skill are likely required to achieve and communicate the artist's intent.

An network of established critics and cultural or commercial venues proclaim for us what is good art. But such decisions remain a subjective project. Exposure and self-education in art matters because the more you know, the more you tend to see in an individual work of art. Our discernment evolves. We follow and mark our own reactions to different visual elements and to the composition as a whole. We can appreciate uniqueness. We can love one piece for its charmingly clumsy simplicity of shape and colour and another for its satisfying intricacy of elegant design. We may appreciate another painting for its powerful assault on our senses, but not want to live with it. Perhaps most importantly, it's the culmination of all visual elements evoking a connection in us, urging us to look further, to experience again the magic or feeling that makes this artwork linger with us or us with it.


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