The Language of Art: Representation, Abstraction, Line and Color

Table 1: A Continuum from the Real Object to Abstraction

looks recognizably similar to something in the real world
increasingly moves away from the naturalistic image although it is still somewhat identifiable
non-representational: the origins of the composition and image are not in the real world; some abstraction (objective) does not appear to be representational but is

When we talk about representation or its absence, we're talking about the visible content of the work of the art.  We may be talking about the meaning of the work but what we see in the painting is not always identical to the meaning since the objects we see might be symbols of something else. To describe something as representational or abstract or stylized is a formal description, not an interpretative one.

Terminology related to the above diagram:
representational, figurative: figurative refers more specifically to the inclusion of human figures but many writers use this word interchangeably with representational
naturalistic: one of the most representational forms of art (it looks "natural" or like nature)
realism: often confused with naturalistic but this term refers more to the specific content of the painting than to the fact that is looks natural
real: some art uses real content and experiences; the art work, of course, is also real, even if the image in the painting is not
non-representational, non-objective

Hans Holbein, the younger: Erasmus of Rotterdam, ca. 1523--note the amount of detail used in the carved column in the background, in the robe worn by Erasmus, and the book his hands rest on. This painting is representational and naturalistic. Raphael: The Betrothal of the Virgin, 1504. The naturalism in this painting comes from the illusion of deep space leading back to the church; the figures are less naturalistic than the treatment of space or building.  We can't use the term "realism" for this painting because the subject matter is not realistic.
Courbet: Burial at Ornans, 1849.  This painting falls into the realist movement of the 19th century.  As a realist painting, it is also naturalistic but not to the same degree that the Holbein painting is. Magritte: The Betrayal of Images, 1928-9.  Magritte's painting is a commentary about the relationship of the image in the painting to the real object, about the nature of the artistic illusion.
Hanson: Woman with a Dog, 1977.  When the object looks so real, we begin to confuse representation with reality.  That, of course, was the point that Magritte was making in his painting. Perhaps Hanson makes it even better with this sculpture. Rogier van der Weyden: Portrait of a Lady, ca1460.  Certainly this is naturalistic in the sense of flesh, the texture of the materials, the face and hair, but idealized is probably a better description, as the composition is carefully planned to give a message about this woman and ideals of women in Flemish society. 

The Naturalism/Realism/Abstraction Continuum

(this diagram is an expanded version of the diagram at the top of the page, focusing more on the various degrees of abstraction)

Rosa Bonheur: The Horse Fair, 1853 (both naturalism and realism apply--there is a subjective quality to this, although the horses are very naturalistically painted) Franz Marc: Large Blue Horses, 1911 (semi-abstract, primarily because of the colors and some simplification of the horses' bodies)
Deborah Butterfield: Jerusalem Horse 5, 1980 (semi-abstract: we still recognize this as a horse but our attention is drawn to the materials and the contrast between them and the nature of a live horse) Theo van Doesburg: Study for Composition (The Cow), 1917 (objective abstraction, despite the difficulty in recognizing the cow; complete sequence shown below)

Abstract, idealized, and stylized are sometimes used to mean the same thing: a process of simplifying or standardizing a real object in some way, such that the representation no longer looks naturalistic.  All three words do imply that the image began with a representation.  We should probably limit use of the term "abstraction" to art work done in the 19th and 20th centuries, because that was the goal of the artists.  Earlier artists who stylized or idealized their art were often trying to capture a spiritual, religious, or iconic essence of their subject.  As a result, more than one artist may have stylized or idealized a subject in the same way, and it is not always possible to differentiate individual artistic styles when the work is highly stylized for religious or other cultural reasons.  Sometimes stylization results from the materials used in the art work, because some textures or qualities of materials lend themselves to certain forms more easily than to others.  Sometimes it results from a conscious decision to emphasize one feature of an object more than another, often for symbolic reasons.

four stages in Theo van Doesburg's sequence of abstraction of the image of the cow (this is not stylized or idealized; it is unlikely that any other painting of a cow would look like this one)
Virgin and Child, Auvergne region of France, ca 1200 (stylized according to religious symbolism associated with Mary and according to the sculptural style of the French Romanesque period) Durer: Self Portrait at 28, 1500  (idealized, because the image is not precisely what Durer looked like although it does resemble him; it is also naturalistic in that the hair, the face, the textures are all extremely believable)
Gentileschi: Self Portrait (La Pittura), 1630. Idealized using the iconic symbol of Painting, always shown as a woman, but a woman in this case who also looks like the artist herself, which means this is also naturalistic. Picasso: Portrait of Ambrose Vollard, 1909/10.  Abstract, without question, but you can make out the man in the painting and there is a surprising resemblance to what he looked like.

What this should suggest is that in almost every case (idealization, stylization, abstraction), there is something recognizable or natural.  This means that naturalism is probably the least useful of all of these terms since it doesn't tell us enough.  It might help in some cases to distinguish between naturalistic form and unnatural color, telling us that the colors were chosen for some other reason than truth to nature.  But in almost all cases, naturalism in art conforms to certain ideas about what things should look like and how to represent them.  In other words, almost all art is stylized in some way, to some degree, and for some reason.  Knowing why it was stylized may be more important than knowing how.

Test Yourself:

1. 2. 3.

Which is the most naturalistic of the above three examples? Is it realistic?
Which is the most abstracted?  Why?

The Formal Elements of Art

I.  Lines

Lines are easy to recognize when we look at a drawing but we find lines in paintings and sculpture.  Some lines are created when two different colors meet; lines may be created in three-dimensional work by textural patterns on the surface or by a change in the relief or movement of the surface.  Lines serve different purposes: they may direct our attention, they suggest movement, they contribute to the mood or emotional quality of a piece, they outline objects and forms, and they may be decorative. The table beneath the examples gives you a list of these qualities.

Test yourself: Which picture above best illustrates the function listed below?

express movement
create texture
indicate direction and speed
demarcate boundaries, create outlines
indicate mass, volume and shadow
decorate surfaces
in which picture are the lines created by the meeting of different planes of solid color?
find another example of implied lines in the images above

II.  Color

a few words about color:
color: electromagnetic energy of varying wavelengths; the spectrum is the sum of all of these wavelengths
properties of color: hue, value and intensity
hue: a fragment of the spectral band

Colors can be primary, secondary, and tertiary. Complementary colors "complete" one another; one color in the pair absorbs the colors which the other color reflects; the result?  gray or neutrality

Value refers to gradations of darkness and lightness.  Adding white or black to a pure hue changes the value.  Intensity refers the purity of the hue.  An intense violet may look like it has a dark value, even though the color has not been compromised by the addition of black.