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Characteristics of Abstract Art

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What does abstract mean in art?

When something only exists in ideas and does not have a concrete or physical existence, it is termed as abstract art. If we see an artist’s view, it’s the way of representing something that is not pictorial to the real world, by achieving it using shapes, colors, and textures.

Abstract art, sometimes rely on real objects, living things, landscapes or anything that we see around ourselves. It presents these things in a simplified and schematic way distorting the reality, unlike the traditional art form. We can understand this by the works of the famous Vincent Van Gogh, who believed that all that is visible to the naked eye doesn’t only comprises the nature. It’s way beyond. The style which we can familiarize ourselves with was Postimpressionism.

Geometrical abstraction also defines a form where there is no relation to the objects or reality, and shapes define the rest. It can even be represented by Lyrical Abstraction.

We’ll try to get into the minute details of what is an abstract art, so read the whole article to understand and what you need to know about abstraction.

What is Abstract Art – A History Lesson

Abstract art in prehistoric times

The popularity of the abstract art ideas can be dug into the early 19th century, however, the earliest examples are Tang Dynasty painter Wang Mo, but unfortunate it is that we’re not left with any piece of his work today in the abstract art gallery.  He was famous for the splashed ink painting style. Which was then elaborated by the Song dynasty painter Liang Kai (1140–1210), and we can see his work in his famous “Immortal in splashed ink”.

abstract art, what is abstract art

(“Immortal in splashed ink”, Liang Kai; Source: Wikipedia)

We have also seen the works of a late Song Painter Yu Jian, who then became famous for creating a series of splashed in paintings, that eventually was a source of inspiration for Japanese Zen painters. You can see one of the examples below. In this, he has simplified the paintings of landscapes.


(“Mountain market, clearing Mist”, Yu Jian, China: Source: Wikipedia )

The 19th century abstract art

The three streams of Art: Romanticism, Impressionism, and Expressionism, shapes the abstract art, as we know it today. The artists experienced a sense of freedom during the 19th century, that was never before during the renaissance period due to the patronage of the Church. This was the time when the painters saw a new phase in the era where they could also earn a living by pursuing painting as their profession, due to the significant increase in the private patronage of the public. One of the finest examples of abstract painting of the 19th century can be seen in the “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket” (1872) by James McNeill Whistler. The painting focused on visual sensation rather than emphasizing the representation of an object.

abstract art, what is abstract art

(Nocturne in Black and Gold: The falling Rocket” (1872) by James McNeill Whistler. Source: Wikipedia)

Abstract Art in the 20th Century

The 20th-century art witnessed the work of Postimpressionism, unlike the previous century which was a milestone of art based on Romanticism, Impressionism, and Expressionism. When boundless imagination of the free mind was paired with the expressive use of colors, the characterization was done in a perfect way.

Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin & Georges-Pierre Seurat were some of the famous artists, whose abstract work not only dominated the art landscape of the 20th century but also paved for the development of the modern art. “The Starry Night” is one of the most famous artworks of Vincent Van Gogh, and also the best form of abstract art that emerged during this period.

abstract art, what is abstract art

(“The starry Night” Vincent Van Gogh. Source: Wikipedia)

Read more about the rich history of art in India, here.

Abstract Art and Its Types

Abstract art follows many forms and has various types, but we’ll be talking about the major ones.

Curvilinear abstract art

When abstract patterns such as spirals, circles, swirls, and S-shapes are characterized and formed by a curving line, that creates a curvilinear style. It also helps in defining human facial features. In this style, straight lines are practically not used at all. The Gulf of Papua region in Southeastern Papua New Guinea is dominated by these form of two-dimensional surface strokes, basically the Celtic art and art style.

 abstract art, what is abstract art

(Wooden protective house shield painted with faces in the curvilinear style, from Tambanum on the Holle Bildarchiv, Baden-Baden, Ger. Source Britannica)

Color related or light related abstract art

Oscar-Claude Monet & Joseph Mallord William Turner have given us the masterpieces by their profound works in the light-related abstract painting, landscape painting, watercolor paintings, contemporary art detach the art from reality. The famous series of Water Lilies painting by Oscar-Claude Monet has very well defined the category of art. The use of various watercolors in this painting defines it all.

abstract art, what is abstract art

(The water lily- Oscar-Claude Monet. Source: Wikipedia)

Geometric abstraction

Geometry, the name itself puts in a clear definition of how the art would go. Sometimes, though not always, when non-compositional objects are combined with a placement in the non-illusionist space and are based on geometrical forms. Shapes such as squares, rectangles, circles, or triangle are very nicely depicted in this form of abstract art. While all the artwork gradually was becoming more and more borderless, geometrical art gained its popularity.

Geometrical abstraction because of its two-dimensional approach, was totally opposite from the artworks at the time of renaissance when there was a logic of perspective to make objects as real and as lifelike as possible. Moreover, this art form is way away from representing real objects. Theo van Doesburg’s works are one of the finest examples of this form of art. Composition VII can be followed as an example.

abstract art, what is abstract art

(Theo van DoesburgComposition VII (the three graces), 1917. Source: Wikipedia)

Gestural abstract art

When instead of the final work in a painting, the process in which it undergoes is regarded as the artwork, we term it as gestural abstract art. Deep intuition, the presence of physical self, honesty and deeply personal expression, when mixed with colors, are spread over a surface by dripping, pouring, dumping, wiping, splattering and spraying, it makes a point, rather than what is the final outcome on the surface. This art form is in itself defined very well when we see the artist mugged up in the deepest thoughts and expressing it free but intuitively.


Minimalist abstract art

In the Mid 90’s oversimplification of the abstraction in art was treading its way out of the geometric abstract paintings. The artists were focusing more on breaking the barriers of the traditional form of painting and hence giving way to the idea of minimalism. Mostly squares and rectangles, out of the geometric art style, are used in this form of painting. Three-dimensional painting ideas of shapes emerged rather than the two-dimensional paintings made in geometric abstraction. Rather than limiting this to its origin, it has broken the barriers of geometric shapes. It might not be the most popular form of art, but definitely one of the most popular forms of abstract painting in the modern world. We can see how beautifully this was depicted by Tony Smith in “Free Ride”.

abstract art, what is abstract art

(Tony Smith, Free Ride, 1962, Source: Wikipedia)


By now, we have understood that the world of art is limitless. The amount of brains present in the universe is the amount of resource which can produce any form of art. Abstract art is one of the best creation of human mind, where soul also has its indulgence in full. Intuition leads to ideas, and ideas lead to abstraction.

We tried to provide the basic ideas by this article which I hope might be of some use to the follower of painting. If you’d like to have more in-depth knowledge of other types of paintings, you can follow my other articles(Link).


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