Speaking of Abstract Art

Sometimes an abstract painting—that is, a non representational painting such as Moon Walk by P.A. Pearson—can seem harder to critique than a painting with identifiable subject matter. For one thing, talking about a non-representational picture is more difficult because there are no objects depicted, such as “that tree on the left” to refer to. The terms "foreground" and "background" are usually irrelevant as well. This makes is a bit harder to direct attention to any problem areas in a critique. Nevertheless, all the same rules of a good painting apply to an abstract image as they do to a traditional, representational one.

A good painting should be unified, but have eye—and mind—satisfying variation. A good painting should have one color family (or colors of the same temperature) dominant. Finally, a good painting should have contrast—usually contrast between lights and darks, but other contrasts as well, such as between textures, lines versus curves, hard versus soft edges, etc.

When we examine Moon Walk (watercolor on Arches 300# bright white HP, 13 x 9) we can see that for the most part, this painting is a successful endeavor. To begin, the painting is unified. There are no areas that obviously do not belong together; nothing “sticks out.” There’s a satisfying variety of shapes, textures, and colors. For example, there are shapes that suggest flowers, lunar crescents, ice crystals and many others, all with different textures.

In other words, there is plenty to attract, entertain and retain the viewer’s attention. There is some figure-ground ambiguity, particularly in the lower left, which intrigues the eye and mind. Repeated scans of the picture are rewarding. Warm colors are dominant in Moon Walk, but not overwhelming. These warm reds and violets are perhaps overly concentrated in the lower half of the composition, which tends to divide the image in half: a warm lower half and a cool upper half.

Almost all of the values are in the middle range; there are no very light or very dark areas. Both of these observations suggest possible improvements: some warm colors in the upper right, and some areas that are darker than the existing values in the lower left could add extra interest to the picture.

Because a non-representational painting must rely on the formal elements of color, line, shape, and texture rather than the identity of objects depicted, the artist has to apply the basic principles of design (unity with variety, dominance, and contrast especially). P.A. Pearson has done this remarkably well to create a very satisfying painting.

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