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Abstract, or Not?

by Peta Tranquille

If you have visited our Artist Directory and selected Painting or Drawing you will have arrived at a page with two options; Abstract or Realism. It was not an easy task to divide these categories into only two options but we had to keep in mind that the listing is for members of the public looking for an artist. In my experience, many people tend to know what style of art they prefer. They either want something that is reflective of the world around us or not. This being said, sometimes determining what is abstract and what is realism can be quite confusing or hard to define.

To help explain the difference I am going to use artwork in our online shop and explore their characteristics. Before we go there we need to define each word.

A quick Google search defines abstract as the following;

"Not recognisable as anything, anyone or anywhere, in particular."

Whereas realism is defined as the following;

"Recognisable and representative of people, places or things, from realistic to less obvious. "

Both of these artworks, from our "No Strings Attached" exhibition are great examples of Abstract. Neither appears to be representing something of a physical existence. The painting on the left, "Close" by Jas Streten, is without a doubt, an abstract painting. It displays no attempt to depict anything physical and the title gives no indication of it being so. It could be argued that the one on the right, painted by Kathy Best, looks somewhat like a landscape, and it's name "Nature's Beauty II" suggests that. But as it isn't obvious it can still comfortably fit within the realm of abstract.

These two artworks are part of our "Smörgåsbord" exhibition and the next two pieces I would like to examine. The title of "When My Kids Eat Blueberies", painted by Avanthi Ravindran immediately indicates what it is without me pointing out which one it is you knew it was the one on the left. This alone means that while it looks abstracted to a degree, it would still be considered Realism. The blueberries are objects that are recognisable in the world around us. In contrast to this, the painting on the right, by Kirsten Dunkley, titled "Blue No.1" is evoking a different response. You are trying to work out what the shapes represent and what the title is referring to. This is where a statement about the art is helpful. The statement that was submitted with the, now SOLD, painting goes as follows;

"The colour blue is is abundant in what we see everyday but it doesn't exist naturally in the food that we eat and we often find blue food to be repellant. Blue No. 1 food dye was developed to fill the lack of a stable natural blue dye alternative. In this piece, I've explored my aversion for artificial flavourings and colourings in our food and the psychological impact colours have on what we eat."

Without a statement you can still reach your own conclusions and in some cases the artist may want you to do that, but in this case, we are given the inspiration and context of the work. So looking back on the definitions, we are unable to relate the shapes, colours or composition to anything recognisable or representative of people, places or things. Because of this the painting would be categorised as abstract.

To finish off let's take a look at three submissions in our "Shadows at Play" exhibition. The first one, "Soul Immersion" by Rishu Kapoor, has something recognisable about it but it an incomplete and curious way. Perhaps you can see a seated person and the title would suggest a figure or soul being immersed. So is it a person being immersed by their surroundings? In this case I would suggest that this is abstract with elements of realism, based on the recognistion of a figure. In a more complex set of categories this might be considered semi-abstract, or perhaps you may see it as abstract. Niether is an incorrect conclusion.

That being said the three dimensional ceramic piece by Marlise Myburgh, titled "Light Through Shadow" is very easy to categorise at Abstract. It is not recognisable as anything that I'm aware of and the statement gives no indication of what the form is except as a reminder not to judge a book by its cover.

"We need to remember the good (light) in everyone even if they are rough, shadow and curvy on the outside they can shine happiness (light) in your life."

The last piece, "Light Study I", by Kalina de Bruin, at first may appear to be abstract because of the style in which it is painted. However, taking a closer look you can see that it is dappled shadows created by an avenue of trees. The ability to recognise this takes away the abstract element and puts it into the realism category.

I hope that this has helped to differentiate between the two categories and given you some things to think about the next time you create something or are viewing art.


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Kathy Best
Kathy Best
Jun 08, 2022

Thanks for including my painting in your blog. 😀


Thanks for this Peta. I am often confused when I paint loose watercolours for example if they are abstract, because they aren't totally realistic so I don't feel I can call them that. I have also just started painting in acrylic and learning about abstract painting so your explanation will really help me in the future. Many thanks.

Peta Tranquille
Peta Tranquille
May 27, 2022
Replying to

You're very welcome Robyn. I'm glad the blog is helpful. Regards, Peta

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