How to Draw an Abstract Drawing
(Abstract Still Life Drawing from Nature)
What is Abstract Drawing?
Abstract drawing is the opposite of realistic drawing, in that its aim is to veer away from pure representational art and instead focus more on expression and mood, mark-making, patterns and shapes, rhythms and tones, improvisations and the imaginary.
The purpose of the abstract drawing exercises
Nature is a wonderful source of abstract shapes, geometric designs and patterns. I found some interesting-looking succulents, stones and wood from the garden, and set them up on a table for my art students.
When we are learning to draw, our compulsion is to try and get all the exact details of the subject before us.
Perhaps it is our conditioning by the photographic image in our culture, that makes us believe an artwork should be as close to a photograph as possible.
This is of course, total nonsense.
A photograph is in no way an accurate representation of reality.
In fact, how can reality be represented accurately? There is no such thing.
Thus the purpose of drawing abstractly is to free oneself from slavishly copying.
And to focus instead on expression, on movement, on rhythm, on using our imagination, on manipulating and mastering the actual drawing medium, and above all — to let go and have fun.
The importance of doodling
Doodling is a fun exercise that we often do absentmindedly — especially while chatting on the phone. Most kids draw doodles all the time, while bored in class, or on the furniture.
I didn’t understand the concept of colouring-in within the lines of my colouring books as a child.
The point is: there are no rules when it comes to doodling. And scientists and psychologists have written many articles on doodling and brain development in children.
It’s a pleasure to not have to worry about making a drawing look ‘perfect’.
• It promotes spontaneity and freedom from limited A-type thinking.
• It silences the over-analytical mind because it becomes a kind of meditation.
• Allows you to tap into your subconscious.
• Doodling is a great stress-reliever in adults.
• And it stimulates our creativity.
• Free associative thinking allows our minds the space to conjure new concepts naturally.
• Doodling fosters design and composition ideas and encourages us to explore the medium we’re drawing with in different ways.
• It promotes improvisation.
• There is no problem to solve.
• You can take a break from trying to do perfect or be perfect.
• Doodling is fun.
Automatic drawing is a bit like doodling where you allow yourself to make completely random and spontaneous marks without premeditated intention.
This is a fascinating meditation. And it’s surprising what comes up.
Automatic drawing allows subconscious expression and suppresses the controlling, rational mind, thus freeing up our purest forms of creativity.
Automatic drawing is inherently abstract drawing, as its purpose is not to represent anything particular. Usually what emerges from the exercise is our own natural design, line or pattern making.
I call it one’s personal calligraphy. And of course, it is 100% unique to each of us.
Tapping into one’s personal calligraphy is quite revealing. Just as a person’s handwriting tells us something about the writer.
Doing little doodling or automatic drawing exercises is great for loosening up and exploring one’s natural line making. It shows up one’s inherent drawing style or ‘programming’.
And for manipulating and exploring the drawing medium itself.
It’s a very tactile and non-cerebral exercise.
If you don’t draw everyday, it can help you to ‘limber up’ and quickly get back the tangible feeling of drawing again. Like driving a car again when you haven’t driven in a few months.
It’s good to do before a figure drawing class, or an art lesson.
Automatic drawing was an important element of the Surrealist Movement and Abstract Expressionism. For further reading, see Astonishing Examples of Automatic Drawing by Widewalls.
What is abstract realism?
Abstract realism is in the middle of the spectrum between completely non-objective, non-perspective, spontaneous or random mark-making, through to realism.
It is the creation of an abstract design or pattern based on real life objects and inspired by objective reality.
Abstract realism is popular in contemporary art and ranges from the trite ‘drip’ face paintings that are so commonplace, to the emotive figure and portrait paintings of Andrew Salgado, Zoey Frank, Micheal McCaffrey, Alyssa Monks, Cecily Brown, Yunsung Jang, Martin Campos and many others.
Older well-known abstract realists include Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Chuck Close, Leon Kossoff, Gerhard Richter etc.
These artists vary the scale between abstraction and realism, creating artworks which merge the two opposites together.
Abstract realism is a truly expressive art style that is not governed by the rules of linear perspective, space, tone or colour accuracy, proportion or accurately depicting a subject.
Instead, the aims are expressiveness and emotion, the way it is painted, rather than the subject itself, ambiguity, and a distortion of reality in order to convey a feeling, intention or personal viewpoint.
Although, aspects within the artwork are still barely recognizable as everyday things such as figures, landscapes or objects.
How recognizable or ambiguous these recognizable features are is the choice of the artist.
A completely abstract painting departs even further from distinguishable elements.
An abstract realism still life drawing
By using the plants, wood and stones I gathered for the abstract drawing exercise, we were able to explore the range between representational drawing through to pure abstraction — such as automatic drawings and scribbles.
Abstract realism is art that is both abstract and realistic. We are able to ‘decipher’ certain shapes or patterns in the abstract design that indicate or remind us of certain realistic elements.
For example, I particularly like drawing the hooked-tooth leaves of the aloes and the swirling patterns of the bark, because these designs easily lend themselves to simplified motif of decorative shapes and lines.
The aloe thorns become a row of cursive C’s, and the pattern in the bark, a scribble of S’s.
By not worrying about details, the artist can emphasis the overall design or compositional aspects of the still life. As well as the gestural elements — motion, rhythm and movement.
The textures, line quality, and expressiveness of the mark-making, its weight, spacial qualities, balance, and tone, form the aesthetic nucleus of the artwork .
Abstract patterns in nature
We know of course, that abstract patterns are found everywhere in nature and in the world. You need only look at the patterns in wood grain, in clouds, water, the bathroom floor, sand dunes, animal skins, plants, snowflakes, crystals, cells — everywhere.
Types of patterns can be spirals, fractals, symmetries, meanders, waves, bubbles, spots and stripes, cracks, and tessellations.
These natural patterns may have obvious mathematical ratios such as the Fibonacci Sequence or the Golden Mean.
Nature is an inexhaustible source of inspiration for abstract art.
From the earliest cave paintings and Paleolithic carvings, nature and natural forms such as figures and animals, have always inspired the creation of abstract artworks.
Having an aesthetic appreciation for abstract art and for the patterns in nature opens you up to seeing the world in a uniquely rich, ever new and continuously fulfilling way.
As Picasso said:
There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality.”
All art is abstract anyway
A painting or drawing is a representation of reality on a 2-dimensional surface. Thus it is inherently an abstract distortion of reality.
Even a 3-dimensional sculpture can be abstract, in that it is representative or a manipulated facsimile of the object sculptured and not the object itself.
Therefore it is impossible for an artwork not to be abstract. Unless of course you are speaking of the the physical artwork itself — the canvas, the paint, the marble — which itself is real and exists in the world.
All paintings are abstract. Some abstract paintings also have pictorial representation or narrative content, but in essence they are first and foremost abstract because we have only paint.”
– Robert Bissett
To abstract means to extract or remove. All artists, whether painters or even photographers, must necessarily abstract from reality in order to create their artwork.
It is the choices that they make within the picture frame which determines the outcome; the colours, design, composition, proportions, the focus, etc.
What is excluded from within the picture frame is just as important. And is part of the artist’s intention and expression.
The painter can and must abstract from many details in creating his painting. Every good composition is above all a work of abstraction. All good painters know this. But the painter cannot dispense with subjects altogether without his work suffering impoverishment.”
Abstract also means an idea or a concept that is not tangible or material in existence.
The painting, photograph or sculpture itself may be physical, but the symbolism, the image, the representation, the interpretations, the meaning and feeling of the piece is abstract.
The role of the abstract in art
Abstract art helps us to detach from everyday reality because our brains struggle to categorize what we’re seeing. This may make us feel uncomfortable, or unfettered.
Abstract art may encourage our mind to become activated in a wider sense because it isn’t fixed to a recognizable interpretation.
Therefore, new ideas, emotions, memories, associations and creative paths may be triggered due to the void caused by a lack of definition.
This is a fertile place for the subconscious. Where we create our own meanings, interpretations and feelings. Abstract art speaks to us instinctively.
It cannot be objectively explained. It’s a personal thing.
Abstract art is a way of seeing order and chaos intertwined, from our own subjective viewpoint.
It’s an aesthetic that leaves behind binding conventions and allows us new sensations or perceptions. And a way to imagination unfamiliar realities or encounter ambiguous feelings.
Few people have imagination enough for reality.”
If you’re looking for meaning through art and want to know what the hell I think makes art good, check out What’s the Point of Art? and tell me what you think. It’s just my little personal take on the matter.
Please write a comment below if you have any thoughts or questions about abstract drawing. Or if you would like to share an interesting article with me.
Check out some of my figure drawings here.