Do you need to know how to draw to be a good abstract painter?

This was a question someone asked 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 with Abstract Painting.

If you ask Google, an abstraction as it relates to our query is defined as “freedom from representational qualities in art.” Upon 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 to 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.

Two Pillars of Abstract Painting: Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko

Two styles of painting that serve as an embodiment of non-representational art are the iconic works of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Both artists reached the pinnacle of their abstractions towards the end of their careers, and both artists began their art education in the Art Student’s League of New York.

Abstraction as a devolution of Form.

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.

Mark Rothko, Head of a Woman, c. 1932. The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., New York; gift 1986 to NGA.

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.

Mark Rothko. Archaic Idol. 1945. Ink and gouache on paper, 21 7/8 × 30″ (55.6 × 76.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. TheJoan and Lester Avnet Collection, 1978.

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…” 

This image is a historically significant painting, “No. 61 (Rust and Blue)“, by Mark Rothko 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 towards death as he eventually committed suicide. His last paintings were all appropriately in shades of black.

Letting the paint do the talking.

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956). Man, Bull, Bird, Circa 1938-41. Oil on canvas

Jackson Pollock showed 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.

 A cropped image of Jackson Pollock’s Mural, 1943. Photograph: Rebecca Vera-Martinez/The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

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

Pollock, 1952: Blue Poles / Number 11, 1952drip-painting in enamel and aluminium paint with glass on canvas

Pollocks devolution of form also coincided with increasing internal turmoil as he battled alcoholism, and he too met a fatal demise after a drunk driving accident claimed his life.

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

In other words, Both artists 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 abstraction start with an idea or a technique?

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.

Sima Zureikat. Two Figures, 2002. Oil on Canvas.

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 regards 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 the understanding of composition, color theory and balance between positive and negative space. These all become tools under a painters belt.

Of course, it is possible to nurture these skills outside of a classroom. There is a long line of self-taught Outsider Artists, who managed to develop their craft independent 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.

Richard Kurtz, “Multi Flash,” detail of artist accordion book, casein on paper. Photo © Jennifer Esperanza/Esperanza Projects.

But it 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, or I feel mad, or confused. But the moment you want to expand your inner world out to draw parallels and find new depths to 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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