Abstraction 101: How to Turn Realistic Art Into Abstract Pieces

Abstraction opens up a world of limitless possibilities for artists. Below, Margaret Davidson shares her tips for transforming an artwork into an abstract piece with a simple grid exercise.

By following Davidson’s simple approach, you are well on your way to creating abstract masterpieces. Enjoy!

Approaching Abstraction in Art | Paul Klee | Artists Network

by Paul Klee, 1923, oil and gouache on paper bordered with gouache, watercolor and ink, mounted on cardboard, 17 1/2 X 11 1/2. Collection The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York

The Origins of Abstraction

Abstraction in art is a fascinating thing, as it is both quite young and very old. Some abstract images — such as grids, squiggly lines and patterns of dots — have been found in prehistoric caves and are roughly 30,000 years old.

But artists in the Western world did not actively promote and pursue abstraction until the late-19th century when, thanks in large part to the influence of Cézanne (1839–1906) and the Impressionists before him, artists began to pay attention to something other than the subject.

Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, artists have continued to explore these questions by delving deeply into concepts of abstraction. Artists such as Piet Mondrian (1872–1944), Paul Klee (1879–1940) and later Chuck Close (1940– ) explored one method for arriving at abstract images: They reinterpreted realistic images through a grid.

There are many ways to do this, and those three artists produced very different work even though they started from the same general idea. In this articl, we’ll learn one particular way of starting with a recognizable image and reinterpreting it through a grid to produce an abstract image.

Really, as soon as you apply a grid to any image, you are entering the world of abstraction, which is only slightly different from the world of realism. Both are full of beauty and subtlety, and both are worth spending time in.

Realism is a world of illusion, and one reason artists pushed their art into abstraction is because they were searching for truth, as opposed to illusion. They found that truth in flatness, and you can too.

Reinterpreting Realism through a Grid

Let’s begin with a basic still life I drew showing two pears and a small patterned vase filled with leaves. I set up the still life high enough so it was nearly eye-level, shined a light on it from the left and drew it in graphite.

Approaching Abstraction in Art | Paul Klee | Artists Network

Illustration 1: This is a fairly basic still life, set close to eye level and lit from the left with a desk lamp.

Next, I drew a 1- by 1-inch grid on a piece of clear acetate and laid it on top of my finished drawing.

Approaching Abstraction in Art | Paul Klee | Artists Network

Illustration 2

This view, through the grid, showed me what to do next. I took another piece of paper the same size as my drawing and lightly drew another 1- by 1-inch grid.

Then I went square by square through my original drawing and chose a single value to be the sum of all the tonalities in that square. I filled the corresponding square in my new drawing with this value.

This is when the fun began. On another piece of paper, I lightly drew a matching grid. I then shaded each square with a single tonality that represented the sum of the tonalities that reside in that square in the original drawing. Figuring that out is actually quite interesting.

Approaching Abstraction in Art | Paul Klee | Artists Network

Illustration 3

I did not limit the number of tonal choices — many values are represented over the entire gridded drawing.

You can see that the gridded image is no longer recognizable as a vase, leaves and pears. All of that is gone, replaced by a flat network of squares of various values.

However, you can see that something has determined where the different values go; there is an influence coming from somewhere.

Repeat the Exercise on a Larger scale

To make things even more removed from the recognizable image, I made a 2″-X-2″ grid and laid it over my original drawing.

Approaching Abstraction in Art | Paul Klee | Artists Network

Illustration 4

Then, when creating a gridded version of my original drawing, this time I applied even more restrictions. I reduced each square’s collective tonalities to one of only four values: black, dark gray, light gray or white.

Approaching Abstraction in Art | Paul Klee | Artists Network

Illustration 5

The larger grid leads to an even less recognizable image, putting us firmly in the realm of abstraction. The main structure in Illustration 5 is its flatness; it certainly inspires no more thoughts about vases or pears, and not even about space or depth.

The rules of composition apply but just to the balance of the values of the various squares, and the thoughts this drawing inspires all concern values and the relations of the squares to one another.

Adding Color and Pattern

You can take this gridded abstraction exercise further by substituting other elements for the original tonalities. They can be different colors or patterns — anything as long as the value relationships remain the same.

I made two more pieces based on my larger gridded image. The image below is composed of squares of colored paper, with the values of each corresponding to my limited four tonalities, discussed above.

Approaching Abstraction in Art | Paul Klee | Artists Network

Illustration 6: You can continue this exercise by turning the gridded abstract drawing into a cut-paper assemblage, with different values of colored paper that correspond to the values in your gridded drawing.

You can even substitute other images for the tonalities, as long as the values match. In the image below, I used photocopied textiles as my source for squares of paper in four values.

I created these photocopies myself, but you could use pictures cut out from magazines, wallpaper samples or anything that creates an understandable visual tonality.

Approaching Abstraction in Art | Paul Klee | Artists Network

Illustration 6: This piece is made from squares of photocopied textiles, again keeping the values consistent.

What we like about drawings by Rubens and Wyeth is that they take us away from the truth of the flatness and out into fields and trees. Realistic art takes us into a beautiful illusion.

Abstract art, meanwhile, keeps us right here with the paper and the marks. It gives us a chance to understand, if we take the time to look, that there is beauty here, too. Interpreting your own drawing through a grid is one way to explore this for yourself.

This article first appeared in Drawing magazine. Peruse through past issues here. 

Are you an abstract artist with any tricks up your sleeve? Tell us in the comments below!

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The post Abstraction 101: How to Turn Realistic Art Into Abstract Pieces appeared first on Artist's Network.


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I am obsessed with water colours and have been painting since I could hold my first brush, I have a huge passion for my own work and others, I love to teach and inspeier others. I'm a very proud Dad with 3 girls and amazing wife who shares my passion for painting.

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