Sunday, September 3, 2017

Thoughts on Abstract Art and Seeing Beyond Reality

"No, I meant why do they call it a horse? It doesn't look like a horse. It's just... flowing lines..." [said Miss Tick.]

...that look as if they're moving, thought Tiffany.

— Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

Some say that abstract art can't communicate to the viewer in the ways that realistic art does, that abstract art is merely a selfish, navel-gazing fancy.

But all art is illusion. To believe that any piece of art objectively represents reality is pure folly, even for the most photorealistic examples.

The sweep and curve of lines, the colors used, the compositional elements—they'll always speak to the audience, whether the forms rendered look real or imaginary.

Some may refuse to take the time to see what's there, and say that if an artist cannot clearly communicate their own vision instantly that the artist has wasted everyone's time.

Yet art is not passive; no art is. Whoever looks at a piece of art still interacts with it—an on-looker's interpretation is all their own, and can never be entirely dominated by the creator, no matter how much we may wish it.

Ibis Arabesque, Ava Jarvis.

What I see in my Ibis Arabesque is grace in the curve of the "head" and "neck", movement in the waves of its body, a delineation of a light, wispy form from the outside world—yet all is of one color, merely in various shades and tints, indicating that nothing is truly separate from reality, even that which is airy and ethereal.

What someone else sees may be entirely different—most likely so, in fact.

At a glance, Ibis Arabesque merely a single shape. Meaning, though, is in the eye of the beholder, and requires introspection to reveal itself.

What do we see when we meditate on an abstract image? Mandalas are no less art than any other art genre, yet they're completely abstract. Stained glass windows of abstract patterns with sun streaming in through church windows—could you stand there and say the creators there committed no art of any worth?

If you can, yet call yourself an artist, I wonder—how much do you really see of the world?

The urban sketcher who chooses the view of a soaring buttress, or the plein air painter who paints the waves crashing against a beach—they must ask themselves: "Now that I have learned to paint a buttress or waves on the beach—what more can I do to reach beyond what the eye merely thinks it sees?"

Tiffany had once asked her father about the look of the Horse, when they'd come all the way over here for a sheep fair, and he told her what Granny Aching had told him when he was a little boy. He passed on what she said word for word, and Tiffany did the same now.

"Taint what a horse looks like," said Tiffany. "It's what a horse be."

— Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

I don't talk bunk when I say that seeing beyond what something looks like is true art.

When you paint what is beyond the surface, you don't have to be abstract, realistic, or anything inbetween.

Just paint what you, as your own artist, really see.

Ava Jarvis is an ink and watercolor artist with a portfolio site at If you found this post useful, consider a one-time tip or supporting Ava on Patreon.