Wandering around in the world of art & trying to find your "type"...

Barb Toland

Today we're going to talk about the 3 major types of art ... figurative, abstract & non-objective. It's one of those art concepts that should be straightforward, but isn't really as cut & dry as it seems.

And as you'll see, once we get into defining them, there's some overlap here & there. They fall more on a continuum or a spectrum, rather than following any hard & fast rules. 

So the first type of visual art that I mentioned is "figurative".

This one is the simplest to understand, because it's basically any art that depicts actual subjects & objects as they exist in reality. Most people more easily identify with this type of art, since it comes from recognizable things in the world around us.

[Sometimes the terms "figurative" & "representational" are used
interchangeably, depending on who you're talking to. To simplify things,
we'll stick with using "figurative" in this discussion.]

We'll mainly look to the art of Henri Matisse for examples, because his work is some of the most diverse. During his lifetime, as he gained confidence & clarity in his own creative voice, his art would change rather dramatically.

So let's start with one of Matisse's earliest paintings, which is in keeping with the first type of art we'll be discussing, "figurative". It's pretty clear his intent is to work realistically from something in the physical world:

Woman Reading - 1894, Henri Matisse

As you can see we know EXACTLY what the subject of his painting is, namely a woman reading a book by lamplight in a parlor. The scene is also depicted in a realistic way, as if you're looking at it in the real world. Thus, this is a great example of figurative (or representational) art.

Pretty simple, right?

But here's an example where the line between figurative & abstract begins to blur...

The Dinner Table - 1896, Henri Matisse

You might say to yourself that this LOOKS like something realistic, and thus in the figurative style. And yes, I'll give you that.

BUT if you take a good hard look, you'll see that Matisse is beginning to care less & less about the subject, and so much more about the light & about the shape of things instead of their details. He also tilts the picture plane to the point where everything looks like it's going to come sliding off the table.

And if you blur your vision just a little, you'll see larger blocks of color & less detail, thus Matisse is starts to push a little further into the realm of the second type of visual art, "abstract".

So let's define abstract art a little more, before we dive into the next painting.

Abstract art still begins with objects from reality, just like figurative does. But unlike figurative art, abstract art goes on to distort these objects by varying line, color &/or shape.

In other words, they are intentionally presented by the artist in such a way that even though they're still somewhat recognizable, the subject is transformed from what it would look like in the real world.

[Abstraction is relatively new to the art world, having it's roots in the work of the Impressionist painters such as Monet & Degas in the late 19th century. During this time artists started to take a more intellectual approach to their work. Compared to figurative art, which dates back to cave paintings, abstract art is still very much a baby! Although one COULD argue that the depictions on those cave walls were more abstract than figurative. But we'll save that discussion for another day!]

So let's take a look at the next Matisse painting where clearly he is stepping off into the world of abstract art:

The Dessert: Harmony in Red1908, Henri Matisse

In this one there is only a slight trace of the use of depth & perspective, everything is intentionally flattened onto one plane - even to the point that there is little variation in color & pattern between the table & the wall behind it, confusing the eye even further. We can't even tell whether that's a window or a framed painting on the back wall, and all of the colors are highly saturated.

This painting is highly abstracted from what it would look like in the real world.

And let's take a look at this Matisse:

Young Girl Reading - 1906, Henri Matisse

Do you see that, although it's based on something in reality, other than this everything has been distorted? The colors are bright & super saturated, there are very few lines, more like just shapes of varying color.

Once again there is little attempt at depth perception, and most of the objects lie on the same picture plane.

Here's the last Matisse painting we'll talk about. This one, unlike the others, falls way towards the opposite end of the abstract art spectrum. Even though the title of the piece is called "The Snail" (you can detect the hint of a snail in its overall shape), there is very little left in this piece that actually resembles a real life snail.

The Snail - 1953, Henri Matisse

It almost falls into the third & last type of art we talk about next - non-objective.

Nonetheless, it remains on the very outer edge of what's considered abstract because it's derived from an object in reality - in this case, a snail.

With abstract art, the artist starts with a concrete subject from reality, even though it may not be fully recognizable in the finished work. And, as I said, in this case "The Snail" comes pretty darn close to the third type of visual art, "non-objective". 

Basically, non-objective art has no recognizable connection to anything that exists in the physical world. Unlike abstract, non-objective art is not derived from anything else. It exists entirely on its own, with no intent on the part of the artist to mimic anything real.

In the case of Matisse's snail above, if he had not titled it "The Snail", we may not have known what it was, and could easily have labelled it as non-objective.

Alas, since Matisse (as far as I know) never quite got to non-objective art (he got so darn close!), we'll take a look at the work of a couple other artists for non-objective examples.

Here is the work of Mark Rothko:

Yellow, Cherry, Orange - 1947, Mark Rothko


As you can see from this Rothko painting, his art takes nothing from reality. The sole intent of the artist is to produce a piece of visual work created purely for aesthetics & contemplation.

Many people find it difficult to understand the difference between abstract & non-objective art.

But it's really quite simple...

If the artist intends to begin with something from the physical world, and then somehow distorts it thru line, color, shape etc., then it's abstract art.

On the other hand if the artist creates with no intention or reference to anything existing in reality, then the work is considered non-objective.

Eazy peazy, right?!!

While an abstract work may appear similar to a non-objective one, the starting point and the intent of the artist is different. For this reason, non-objective art gets its own category.

And here's another example of non-objective art by artist, Jackson Pollock:

Number 48 - 1949, Jackson Pollock

And last but not least ... here's one of my few forays into the realm of non-objective art, and quite frankly it began as an exercise in color play that accidentally ended up being one of my all-time favorite paintings...

Happy Accident - 2008, Barb Toland

I started out with no reference whatsoever to anything that exists in the real world. My only intent was to play with color, but after recognizing how delightful it was, I decided to keep it in my collection & call it a painting!

Artist Bob Ross was right when he said that happy accidents are the best ;-)

Ok, so that about wraps it up for discussing the 3 major types of art.

Now it's your turn.

What are your thoughts on the 3 major types of art? Do you have a favorite?

Let me know in the comments. I'd love to hear more about your thoughts on this!



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