Landscape painting is a genre that readily lends itself to abstraction. Consider nature’s many atmospheric personalities, its colors of light, and its many innately abstract forms, such as clouds, rocks, trees, and water.
What Makes a Painting Abstract?
We all know an abstract painting when we see it, but why do we have that response? An abstract painting distances itself from objective, identifiable references. When we look at a painting, if we don’t see elements that we can identify as objective reality, we say it is abstract. And the fewer cues to objective reality there are, the more abstract we say it is.
Every work of art — whether strictly realistic, completely abstracted, or somewhere in between — is built upon certain aesthetic devices such as value, color, composition, shape, or the texture of the paint itself. In a representational work, these aesthetic devices are firmly attached to the subject, giving it the descriptive structure necessary to be perceived as the actual subject. As a painting moves toward an abstract vision, however, the narrative subject becomes less obvious and the visual experience shifts increasingly toward the aesthetic devices themselves.
In this article, we’ll look at semi-abstract landscapes — paintings are not fully abstract, but still retain a foothold in representational references.
J.M.W. Turner, “Sun Setting Over a Lake,” circa 1840, 35.8 x 48.2 inches
Turner was a true visionary, far ahead of his time. Painted around 1840, this painting is, by any standard, highly abstract. Elements that we typically use to identify a scene as landscape — such as a horizon line, a ship, or the sun itself — are only vaguely implied. The modes of abstraction Turner is working with in this painting are ultra-simplification (which includes a reduction of detail) and expressive mark-making.
Abstract painting is not an “anything goes” proposition
Perhaps the greatest misunderstanding in contemporary abstraction is that because the painting is non-representational, anything goes. This could not be further from the truth. Good abstract art uses the same formal principles that good representational art does — line, form, shape, value, movement, composition, space, color, etc. It is the proper implementation of these aesthetics that give power to a work of art.
The only difference between representational painting and abstract painting is that in abstract work, the subject plays a more recessive role. The visual aesthetic is the dominant force, not the narrative. Abstract work, above all, celebrates the aesthetic over the recognizable “nameable” subject.
“Modes” of Abstraction
If abstraction places more emphasis on aesthetic devices than it does on the narrative subject, then emphasizing one of those aesthetics can make the painting more abstract. There are several “modes” of abstraction we can employ to promote the abstract aesthetic. Put another way, we often see these modes at play in abstract paintings.
- Ultra simplification
- Expressive or textural mark-making
- Expressive color
Applying any one of these modes can encourage abstraction, but more likely, several modes will be at work in any given painting, as we will see in the examples below.
All landscape painters must simplify to some degree. The visual world is filled with abundant complexity and detail. To create paintings that are comprehensible to the viewer, we must eliminate extraneous information and reveal simpler patterns and shapes. This routine simplification, however, is different than what I call “ultra-simplification,” which simplifies in the extreme.
When we simplify in the extreme, we also eliminate narrative information and detail in the extreme — which leads to the dissolution of subject matter and to greater abstraction.
Mitchell Albala, “Salmon Bay Under a Pink Light,” pastel on paper, 4 x 5-¼ inches
In this ultra-simplified urban landscape, nearly all detail is sacrificed in favor of large simplified shapes. The details that remain are just enough to suggest an urban landscape, but not so much to shift attention away from the major aesthetic event — the bold, simplified shapes of color. Wherever possible, small shapes are combined into larger shapes.
Tips for simplifying
- Choose a close-in vantage point. “Zooming in” naturally eliminates narrative information, which will help promote abstraction.
- Build the composition with fewer shapes. Combine smaller shapes into larger shapes.
- Eliminate all but the most essential detail.
Expressive and/or Textured Mark-making
The natural world has many abstract shapes, but it is not made with expressive marks and strokes. That is a painterly device that lives in the flat two-dimensional world of our paintings. In the observable world, everything is rendered in crisp sharpness and detail (fog, skies, and and clouds being the exception). When strokes become bolder, looser, and more expressive, greater attention is brought to the mark and, in turn, the surface itself. We are adding a dimension to the painting that doesn’t exist in reality. Recognizable elements begin to dissolve and abstraction is induced.
Rebecca Allan, “Fault Line, Anza Road,” acrylic on paper, 6 x 12 inches
In this small painting, inspired by the volcanic forces of the earth, the brushwork is not only energized with movement, it is also highly textured. When expressive mark-making is played up like this, greater attention is brought to the flat two-dimensional surface, which enhances the abstract aesthetic. Also support the abstract aesthetic in this piece is expressive color.
One way we recognize a subject as representational is through its color. For example, we know that trees are green and skies are blue. But when we depart from the expected color of elements, and instead use highly saturated colors, we are moving away from a “realistic” expression of the natural world. By using expressive color in our paintings, we heighten the abstraction.
A Word on Flatness and Abstraction
When we first learn representational drawing and painting, spatial illusion and dimensionality are stressed. The picture plane is flat, but we are encouraged to project an illusion of depth to the viewer. “Flatness” is discouraged.
The painter pursuing abstraction should be aware that flatness is often a byproduct of these modes of abstraction, especially expressive mark-making and expressive color. These two modes bring greater awareness to the surface. Color and shapes stop supporting the illusion of depth and instead places everything on the same spatial plane. This results in flatness — which itself can be considered a mode of abstraction. It disrupts the spatial illusion, which helps dissolve our associations to the representational narrative.
The need for vision
Although the three modes will help induce abstraction, there is another essential ingredient — vision. To abstract a subject, it is very helpful to be able to see the subject in its final abstract form. What’s the abstract idea? What aesthetics are taking precedent over the narrative subject? This is not easy. It requires a willingness to let go of your preconceived notions about subject and narrative. That is the challenge of working abstractly. It can also be very helpful to start with a subject that invites abstraction. When you look at the subject, do you see some abstract qualities that you can play up?
from Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice
Chapter 11: Abstracting Nature
Naturalistic and Expressive Color, page 125–127