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How to View and Understand Abstract Paintings

Welcome to the Kenyatta Harden Art Blog! This space is designed to give you an even closer look at my art process; a no filter peak inside my head to discover the ins and outs of creating the finished pieces you see on social media (Instagram link, Facebook link) and the online store (store link). Today, we’re talking about how to view (and appreciate) abstract art and turn you into a tried-and-true art lover!

Have you ever taken a stroll through an art gallery or your "explore" feed on Instagram, only to come across a piece of artwork that made you think "What does this even mean?!" If you've ever looked at an abstract painting and thought it looked like something you did in Kindergarten, then this is the post for you! (And a friendly bonus tip before we start: never, ever, never...tell an artist that their work looks like something a child could do. Don't say I didn't warn you!)

There are no "correct answers" in art, which is one of the reasons I love to paint, and "it just felt right" is a good enough reason to paint just about anything. (Suck it, calculus.) Viewing art is an intensely personal experience, and there is no right or wrong way to do it. (Take that, calculus.) Understanding abstract art, especially, will be unique to every person, because you and I can look at the same painting and have two totally different experiences. I might feel devastated and heartbroken, while you feel deeply connected to the beauty of world. It’s my opinion that art (in any form) is a 60/40 partnership between the artist and the audience. 40% the work that a creator will do to present a story through their chosen medium, and 60% the personal experience and imagination of those who will consume it.

So where do we start in order to comprehend abstract art?

“Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird? …people who try to explain pictures are usually barking up the wrong tree.”
— Pablo Picasso

This is one of my favorite quotes, and Mr. Picasso has a point; appreciating art is a journey, not a destination. Now this might be my background in the performing arts talking here, but I firmly believe that the audience should take stake in the creative process, rather than expecting to be hand-fed theme and thesis. My personal painting style doesn’t tend to shout at you “HELLO! THIS IS WHAT I MEAN!!” where’s the fun in that? 😉 Sometimes after sharing a piece, I receive a lot of questions about what it means and requests to share the story behind it. If a piece is exceptionally bold or edgy, I’ll share a bit about the process and backstory, but I like to use those comments as opportunities to engage in deeper conversation about what the viewers think is going on in the art. Just because I painted something while feeling a certain emotion, that by no means, is the end-all-be-all context of that work of art. If my creations only had ONE possible interpretation, I’d be embarrassed at the lack of depth or original thought. Art is meant to speak to the deeper parts of our beings and be an experience, so it’s sometimes necessary to let go of our need to “understand” and put things into tidy boxes that are easily verbalized, and let ourselves go a little deeper into the unknown.

Please pause for a PSA: However true the above statements are, please don’t misunderstand me, abstract art does have real and trust meaning at its core just as formal artwork does (think landscapes or realistic object paintings). Through an abstract painting, these formal qualities such as line, texture, composition, color, and process are explored and expanded upon in various states to create another type of viewing experience. Abstract does not mean random.

colorful original abstract art
"In The Beginning" -Kenyatta Harden

When I view art and when I create it, I approach my work way I would approach a script or playing in an orchestra; I don’t just focus on one part, I let the entirety of the piece speak to me, knowing that sharing the experience is the goal. Rather than focusing on what a certain shape or spatter means, or wondering why the line is there, when it would fit better there, try to notice the emotions you feel, and the thoughts that are lingering at the back of your mind when you look at a piece of art. Allow yourself to be taken in by the painting, and let your imagination run wild.

Remember when you were little (or last week, if you’re like me), and you used to stare at the sky to find shapes in the clouds, and make stories out of them? Try view art like that. What story can you see in this piece? And remember, you have enough life experience to understand and connect with art on your own if you let yourself do it. But that's not to say that you need to have a great spiritual awakening with every piece of art you look at. Sometimes, you’ll look at a piece of art and feel…nothing. Newsflash: that’s okay too! You're still doing it right.

Understanding abstract art requires bravery and a little bit of focus in order to enjoy yourself. It’s common for us to have a goldfish attention span when it comes to viewing art in the age of "double tap and scroll", but I want to challenge you to spend some time with the art in your life (or to get some art in your life), and let it really speak to you, until you have more to say about a piece than “it’s pretty.”

Just like us, the beauty of artwork lies well beneath what a passing glance will give you. If you don’t have any abstract art in your home, you can try a gallery in your community, or search online, but find a piece that intrigues you, and dig in this week! Not only will you learn more about viewing and appreciating art, but you’ll probably even learn more about yourself. I hope you found this helpful and inspiring.

Have fun and surprise yourself,


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I love the content you've been so kind to share with us! I am inspired by your insights and talent!

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