What do you see when you glance at a painting? Shade, contour, line, and texture are the tangible elements that connect to make up the image. A collection of hazy, complex shapes may influence you as dark; light, airy images as mystical; steady, and mild forms as peaceful. Pattern, colour, and design have meaning in and of themselves. We respond emotionally to these details even if they create no recognisable purpose for us to hang onto. Thus, a painting of rough, angular forms in deep reds will provoke an entirely distinct feeling from one in light curves of yellow and white.
The approach of space, or the fantasy of space, is an added element in the artist’s toolbox. Are you pulled into a world of three-dimensional space stretching past the framework of the painting, as you might be in a panorama? Or are you kept visually tight, as a skater on a pond, floating across a two-dimensional surface? The hypothesis of intensity, perspective, airiness, solidity, and other spatial connections are created and regulated by the artist.
The overall style or design of a painting is what controls the viewer’s eye. Have you ever gazed at a painting or photograph and felt it was off the scale? One of the big contrasts between inexperienced snapshots and professional photographs is the essence of the composition. In an amateur photo, maybe all the work is centered on the left, with nothing but space on the right. The lopsidedness gives you a feeling of unease.
The composition is one of the primary tools an art student is taught. The goal is to have a remainder of optical elements without making the weight so impartial that the art becomes boring. If everything on the left is precisely equal to the right, and the top to the bottom, you may have balance, but you lose interest.
Getting the balance right, or balancing the elements of color, line, and shape while managing a productive tension, is a major distraction of the painter. If you add a sky-blue brushstroke to the bottom left-hand corner, for example, you may have to adjust something in the top right-hand corner because of it. You can’t focus on one section at a time, overlooking the rest of the canvas, and expect to end up with a composition that works.
Energy is the life force that is present in all good art. This is not something that is clearly defined, but it is the opposite state of static flatness. It is this power that makes a painting speak to you and makes an artist’s work unique and identifiable as the work of that artist. Energy is created out of the artist’s elements and tools, but the end is more than the means in the same sense that a musical composition is so much more than a bunch of notes.
The next time you look at an abstract or “modern” painting, don’t begin by examining for some identifiable object from your world. Instead, try to penetrate the world the artist created. Relax and let your eye gradually ramble over the painting’s surface. Let your soul and spirit react to its tones, patterns, and forms. Let yourself be drawn into the illusion of its spaces, the action of its lines, and the mood of its atmosphere.
Step back and look at the painting from a distance. What is its impact as you approach it?
Move up close and traverse the complexities of brushstrokes, paint thicknesses, and compositional specifications. See how the parts are composed together to form the whole.
Give the painting time. No artwork can be experienced and acknowledged in a 5-second glance. Good art should grow on you, growing more engaging and more delightful to look at as you live with it.
You may still see things in abstract paintings, finding birds and trees and animals buried in the forms. This is as real as turning clouds into recognisable patterns. But by opening your eyes to the probabilities of the world the master created, you may see more than you ever supposed to see in conceptual art.