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The Fine Relationship between Abstract Painting and Drawing

Painting of Mona Lisa

Do you need to know How to Draw to make a successful Abstract Painting?

The question of whether learning how to draw was needed to create an abstract painting was posed to me recently, and the question seems to have buried itself in my mind. Another way to ask it is: Is classical training in art, including drawing rooted in realism, required for producing a successful painting?

The short answer: No, but…

A good starting point is to define what we mean by Abstract Painting.

If you ask Google, an abstraction as it relates to our query is defined as “freedom from representational qualities in art.” Upon the first read, this definition may seem to offer an answer to our question by asserting the notion of “freedom from”. This definition implies that it is the adherence to representation that limits abstraction in its pure form, and since classical art training is deeply rooted in representational visual practices, we could presumably deduce that classical art training is, therefore, the antithesis of abstraction in art.

However, of course, having training in representational art is not the same as producing representational works. I argue that it is no coincidence that the foundations of abstract art are indeed rooted in classical training.

To test and illustrate this proposal, that drawing does serve an important initial purpose in the gradual process of abstraction, let us examine the careers of two famous abstract painters, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock.

Two Pillars of Abstract Painting: Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko

Two styles of abstract painting that serve as an embodiment of non-representational art are the iconic works of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko are both important figures in the abstract expressionist movement, which emerged in the 1940s and 1950s in the United States.

While both artists reached the pinnacle of their abstractions towards the end of their careers, both artists began their formal art education at the Art Student’s League of New York.

They share several similarities in their approach to art-making, including:

  1. Emphasis on the process: Both Pollock and Rothko placed great importance on the process of creating their abstract paintings, and their works often reflect the physical and emotional energy they put into the act of painting.
  2. Use of color: Both artists used color in innovative ways to convey emotions and convey ideas. Pollock’s dripped and splattered paint creates a visual language that is both energetic and chaotic, while Rothko’s fields of color evoke a sense of serenity and contemplation.
  3. Interest in the subconscious: Both artists were interested in exploring the subconscious and using their art to tap into the collective unconscious. They sought to create works that would resonate emotionally with the viewer and elicit a powerful, intuitive response.
  4. Rejection of traditional representation: Both Pollock and Rothko rejected traditional representational art in favor of abstract expressionism, which they saw as a more honest and authentic form of expression.
  5. Interest in exploring the boundaries of abstract painting: Both artists were interested in exploring the boundaries of what painting could be, and pushed the medium in new and exciting directions.

As we see, Pollock and Rothko, though having distinct artistic styles and philosophies, shared a similar relationship to art, similar training, and a similar skill set which allowed them to use abstract painting to express themselves in their work. Even today their contributions have had a profound impact on the art world.

Mark Rothko: Abstract Painting as a Devolution of Form

Though you couldn’t tell by looking at his most known works, Mark Rothko did receive classical training as an artist. He was born in Russia in 1903 and immigrated to the United States with his family in 1913. He studied art in Portland, Oregon, and later attended Yale University, where he studied classical art and the works of European Masters. After leaving Yale, Rothko continued his studies in New York City, where he was influenced by the works of contemporary artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

Rothko’s classical training is evident in his early works, which are more representational and often depict scenes from Greek mythology. Rothko himself described the beginning of his life as an artist as the moment he entered a classroom at the Art Student’s League and saw students drawing from a live model.

However, as Rothko evolved as an artist, he became increasingly interested in abstract expressionism and moved away from representation towards more abstract forms of expression. Despite this shift in style, Rothko’s classical training had a profound influence on his work and informed his use of color, composition, and form.

With time and practice, Rothko’s adherence to realism starts to drift and his subjects become more stylized.

Then Rothko discovered Nietzsche and chaos ensued. Figures were replaced with totemic forms to transform man into mythological planes. The paintings themselves in this period serve to show an internal struggle of the most existential nature.

At one point, we lose all connection to any form completely, and Rothko himself explains the transition from totemic figures to planes of color in part by saying that “…the familiar identity of things has to be pulverized…” 

No 61 Mark Rothko
Fair Use. This image is a historically significant painting, “No. 61 (Rust and Blue)“, by Mark Rothko in 1953. Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

I use to find something sublime and peaceful in these works, as Rothko replaced Nietzsche’s Death of God, with a death of the Egoic Self. Now, instead, I see these color fields as expressions of eternal separation. Rothko’s work continued on a long dark path toward death as he eventually committed suicide. His last paintings were all appropriately in shades of black.

Jackson Pollock: Letting the Paint do the Talking

In the early part of his career, Jackson Pollaok was primarily a representational painter and produced works in a more traditional style. However, he was also interested in exploring new forms of artistic expression.

Jackson Pollock developed his style through a combination of experimentation, intuition, and a deep engagement with the artistic process. He was interested in exploring new forms of expression and breaking away from traditional techniques and conventions. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, he was exposed to the work of European Surrealist artists and Native American sand paintings, which inspired him to begin experimenting with automatic drawing and other unconventional methods.

Jackson Pollock did show a more immediate affinity to less-representative styles of painting early on. In his painting, Man, Bull, Bird, we can clearly delineate all three figures but their likeness to reality is executed with very broad strokes. Both influences of Cubism and German Expressionism are revealed.

Pollock’s mature style began to emerge in the mid-1940s when he started working on large canvases that he laid out on the floor. He would pour or drip paint onto the canvas, using sticks, brushes, and even his hands to apply the paint. This process allowed him to work spontaneously and freely, and it allowed the paint to flow and spread in unpredictable ways.

As Pollock stumbled onto his Drip and Pouring techniques, he derived his own expression directly from the paint and less from form. His style and approach were often described as being frantic and obsessive. His paintings also began to loosen and his canvases were filled with repetitive swirls representing somewhat ghostly figures.

With time, Pollock’s style became more abstract and his compositions became more complex, layered, and dense. He was also influenced by his interest in psychology and spirituality, which he explored through his art.

relationship between abstract painting and drawing jackson pollack work
Fair Use. This image is a faithful digitalization of Blue Poles (original title: Number 11, 1952), an abstract painting from 1952 by the American artist Jackson Pollock.

But on the other hand, Pollock’s devolution of form also coincided with increasing internal turmoil as he battled alcoholism.

Pollock’s artistic process was also a source of stress for him. The pressure to maintain his high level of output and to produce works that lived up to his reputation was overwhelming at times. This, combined with the intense criticism and scrutiny he faced from the art world, likely added to his depression and anxiety.

Jackson Pollock died in a car crash on August 11, 1956. He was driving under the influence of alcohol when he lost control of his car and crashed into a tree. He was killed instantly. His death was a shock to the art world and to those who knew him, and it was seen as a tragic end to the life of one of the most important and influential artists of the 20th century. Pollock’s death at the age of 44 cut short a promising career and left behind a legacy of groundbreaking and innovative art that continues to be celebrated and studied today.

The conclusion here, however, isn’t that Abstract Painting leads to a dark downward spiral to inevitable death, but that the artists’ increasing preoccupation with a large and ungraspable topic lent itself towards abstraction as a mode of comprehension.

In other words, Both artists, Rothko and Pollock, demonstrated their ability to represent the world but chose not to. Their early years show an experimentation with style and technique that was generally reflective of Pre- and Post-War angst, but as they lost themselves in an internal struggle, they lost the visual vocabulary to express their deepest fears and concerns. Abstraction was the only accurate way to universalize their issues.

Does Abstract Painting Start with an Idea or a Technique?

For some artists, the starting point may be an idea or concept that they want to explore through their work. This could be an emotional response, a political or social issue, or a personal experience, for example. The artist may then choose techniques and materials that best suit their idea or concept and allow them to express it in the most effective way.

For other artists, the starting point may be a technique or a process that they are interested in exploring. In this case, the artist may be more focused on the physical act of creating and the exploration of materials and techniques. Over time, they may develop a style or approach that becomes more structured or intentional, but the focus remains on the process of creating.

In the case of Jackson Pollock, for example, his approach was more focused on the physical act of painting. He was known for his spontaneous and intuitive approach to creating, and his paintings often emerged from an exploration of the materiality of paint and his own physical movements.

In short, both ideas and techniques can be the starting point for abstract painting, and it ultimately depends on the individual artist and their approach to creating art.

Abstract Painting: A Personal Take

It’s funny to think about where exactly the fine line is between a representation that is abstract and one that is realistic. At what thickness of stroke do we depart from the real? Despite years of classical and life drawing, for my mother, for instance, most of my paintings have always been abstract, whereas, I never really considered myself an abstract painter at all. For me, as long as my lines and forms were connected to real-world things, that meant my technique was still based in the real world.

I would use abstraction as a tool to find some fundamental truth to a landscape or situation. In a sense, all peripheral information would be filtered out, leaving only the essential lines and forms.

Sima Zureikat. Petra Mountain Haze, 2004. Acrylic on Wood.

Funny, however, is that with time I find that my images began to become more concrete as the form began to take on more weight and presence, although the lines are still reduced to thick delineations and texture is rather defined by color.

Sima Zureikat. Karl Marx Allee #3, 2012. Oil on Canvas.

In some sense, the change towards greater representation coincided with the change from internal identification with emotions and experience to externalized identities — i.e. fitting into a new country or environment.

Drawing and Seeing

It is my assertion that the more practiced and nuanced a person is with their ability to draw, the greater their visual vocabulary is in regard to expression through painting.

However, in addition to expanding your visual vocabulary, learning to draw can help one to develop the basic processes of communication:

  • The Ability to Perceive (the visual world)
  • The Ability to Understand and Process what is perceived
  • The Ability to Convey the Understanding (visually)

Formal art training will also give one an understanding of composition, color theory, and balance between positive and negative space. These all become tools under a painter’s belt.

Of course, it is possible to nurture these skills outside of the classroom. There is a long line of self-taught Outsider Artists, who managed to develop their craft independently of the art world. Sure, most of them were mentally deranged, but that didn’t seem to stop them or shield them from some mainstream recognition.

Adolf Wölfli‘s Irren-Anstalt Band-Hain, 1910. Public Domain.

But it is also likely that an aspiring painter will at some point feel the limitations of their technique and seek out more training. Anyone can splash some color on a canvas and say, I feel sad, I feel mad, or confused. But the moment you want to expand your inner world out to draw parallels and find new depths in your expression, you will want to have more synonyms at your disposal.

So back to our short answer…

Do you need to know how to draw to make an abstract painting: No, but it helps, a lot!

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