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A Guide to Looking at Abstract Art

Anyone can appreciate and understand abstract art and all that this requires is an open mind and a big imagination.

When you look at these paintings what do you see?

Organic shapes, an array of colourful patterns, expressive line . . . reflections, struggle, hope, penetrating light . . .  or maybe you see pure energy and cosmic flow? There is no right or wrong answer to this question. Abstract art is open to interpretation, and that is one of the beautiful things about it. Abstract art doesn’t jump out and declare “THIS is what I’m all about.” Instead, abstract art requires you to have an open, inquiring mind; you must enter the painting and see where it takes you. Abstract art gives you the freedom to explore the artwork and assign your own meaning to the piece. This intensely personal process enriches a viewer’s experience of an artwork.

Understanding abstract art does not come naturally for everyone. It is the kind of art that makes some people scratch their heads and say, “My 5-year old could do that.” What people don’t realize is that the best abstract artists have excellent drawing skills, a finely honed sense of composition, and a deep understanding of the workings of colour. Most abstract artists have the ability to draw a perfectly rendered rose or a realistic portrait, but they choose not to. Instead they choose to express their creativity by creating a visual experience that is more free and unencumbered by the weight of objects.


Abstract art can also make people uneasy or feel intimidated because they don’t automatically know what the art is “about” just by a cursory glance. Or they assume that because it doesn’t look like anything, then it is not “about” anything. Abstract art doesn’t contain recognizable objects, so there is nothing to grasp or hold onto. This can be very confusing, even threatening, to some who are not used to assigning their own meaning to what they see before them. 

And this experience is good for us . . . 

When we are challenged and encouraged to create our own interpretation, higher-level areas of the brain responsible for creativity and imagination are stimulated. Specifically this challenge can stretch us in a few ways: 

• to look at art—and, in a sense, at the world—in a new way. 

• to increase our tolerance of less familiar or even totally unfamiliar situations. 

• to remove ourselves from reality to create imaginative and creative responses. 


The truth is, abstract art is not “about nothing”. At its basis, it is about form, colour, line, texture, pattern, composition and process. These are the formal qualities of artwork, because they describe what the art looks like and how it is created. Abstract art is an exploration of these formal qualities. Meaning is derived from how these formal qualities are used to create a visual (and/or visceral, cerebral, emotional, etc) experience.

How do you begin understanding 
abstract art?

“Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird? . . . people who try to explain pictures are usually barking up the wrong tree.”  Pablo Picasso

Picasso has a point. Art can’t be explained adequately in words, because it’s influence on people is so personal and speaks to the nonverbal parts of our existence. Therefore, art is an experience. You must let go of your need to put things into words, and let the artwork take you somewhere . . . an impression, a memory, an experience or emotion.

You have to ‘understand’ abstract art with a different part of you, one that you may not normally use or be familiar with. Essentially, you need to accept that it is what it is. Don’t try to pinpoint an exact meaning for an image.

Try looking at abstract art in the same way that you would listen to a symphony. When you listen to music, you don’t try to hold on to the notes - you let them wash over you. Let your eyes wander over the painting the way the notes of a symphony wash over your soul. Let your eyes play with the painting, slipping around corners, following the twirls, twists and turns, dipping in and out of the surface. Let your eyes dance around the piece.

Rather than trying to figure out what the painting looks like, just allow yourself to be taken in by the painting. See what emotions, sensations or memories emerge. Let your eyes relax and travel around the piece without expectation. Examine the colours, forms, materials, surface, and how they interact with each other. Take your time. Let the painting “speak” to you.

It is best to see abstract art in person to truly get the full effect. This will help you immeasurably with understanding abstract art. You can’t get the full impact of a piece of art from a small photo in a book or pixelated image online. In person, you can see up close the texture, size, stroke of the paintbrush, shine or matte of the surface. You can feel the strength of the painting from across the room. You can stand in the space the artist once occupied, and try to imagine his or her thoughts upon each stroke of the brush.

Understanding abstract art requires an inventiveness that invites you to discover for yourself the meaning behind the work. It is not easy to grasp, like a still life, a portrait, or other forms of representational art, because it is open to interpretation in a way that representational art is not.


Abstract art allows the viewer to decide what the artwork is about, on a very personal level. There is nothing to hold onto in terms of interpreting the painting, so you have to open up your intuition and see where the painting takes you. You have to engage with the painting, because it won’t tell you what it’s about.


If you want to fully appreciate an artwork, it’s important to understand the artist’s reasoning behind it. On the one hand, a large part of the beauty of art is that we, the viewers, can bring our own meaning and assign our own context to an artwork based upon our memories, personalities and life experiences. We don’t need to know exactly what the artwork is supposed to be about in order to feel a deep appreciation for it.

On the other hand, knowing the artist’s thought process for creating a certain work of art adds a further layer of meaning and value to each of our individual interpretations of a piece. It might take a bit of extra legwork, but in the end it’s definitely worth the effort to read a bit about the artist’s intention behind a piece of art. This will further deepen your quest on how to understand abstract art.


All art is created within a certain context. Artists, like their art, are shaped by the era in which they are working. They are influenced by what is happening in society, politics, and the current streams of intellectual thought - intermingled with everyday pop culture and their own daily lives. All of these factors leave impressions on the artist’s mind, knowingly or not, and in turn determine the form and direction of the artwork. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and that includes art!

Abstract art has been around since our earliest beginnings. In that sense, there is nothing new or radical in contemporary abstract art as we know it. All cultures, from ancient to modern times, have a form of abstract art. Just think of African block-print cloths, intricate Tibetan beadwork, Navajo blankets, Islamic geometric designs - just to name a few. These cultures have been producing their abstract artworks for centuries, before Western art finally began producing its own version. 

It’s well worth the time to learn how to understand abstract art. Abstract paintings and drawings tap into a fundamental, primitive part of our existence - the part of us that experiences life without words, beyond language, transcending definitions. By utilizing the pure elements of form, colour, line, texture, pattern, composition and process, abstract artwork allows artists freedom and flexibility in expressing their emotions, their worldview, their unique perceptions and inner realities. 


Helpful Questions to Ask

Here are 5 questions you can ask yourself when you are looking at a painting in order to gain a better understanding and appreciation of art that has no recognizable subject. 


1. Can I sense a distinct mood? Colour will impact mood as well as the use of shapes, line and texture. For example: horizontal shapes are more peaceful, vertical shapes – statuesque, while diagonals create more energy and action. 

2. Does the piece make you think about anything? Abstract pieces employ creativity and logic, asking the viewer to enter, explore and respond.

3. Does anything jump out at you? People often feel confusion when they are not able recognize an object. They are used to having the meaning described for them with familiar things. Abstract art can have deep meaning without objects, the viewer has to search for the essence. Look, relax and absorb. Let the meaning come out.

4. How does it make you feel? A good abstract will capture you and pull you in, create a strong emotional response as you explore its nuances. Abstract art is meant to be experienced and felt.


5. Knowing the background of the artist, their intention, why or when they created the work can also help with understanding the meaning but remember to appreciate it on your own terms as well. Abstract art gives you the power to savour your own impressions and interpretations. If you are not relating to a particular piece go on until you find one that connects with you.

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