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Inquiring Minds: How Can We Know What Abstract Art Means?

Lynette Ubel_what is abstract art

Abstract art is open to interpretation, which is both the beautiful and the baffling part about it for most people. Human nature tends to want to put things in boxes and put labels on them. It makes us feel uncomfortable, and somehow threatened, to not be able to assign meaning to something we see right in front of us.

Abstract art won’t come out and say, “This is what I am and this is what you should think of me.” Instead, it prods you to open up your mind and use a different, more visceral part of yourself than you might be used to using. An abstraction simply asks that you allow yourself to be taken in by the painting and stay aware of what feelings, emotions or memories emerge.

Let your eyes travel through the texture, color, and pattern of the artwork without expectation. Let it “speak” to you and be OK with what you “hear.” In this post, I’ll share a bit of background on abstract art as well as give you permission to just accept what you see. Hopefully this will help free you from the need to identify an exact meaning for a piece of abstract art.

2-lynette Ubel_art in environments

How many times have you gone to a museum or art fair and thought to yourself, or maybe even blurted out, “My child just came home from kindergarten and has a painting that looks just like that!” My first counter to that comment is to reflect on the truth in the quote by Pablo Picasso:

Every child is an artist. The problem is to remain an artist once they grow up. – Pablo Picasso

We all come into this world with the uninhibited freedom to dance, paint, sing and express ourselves without restraint. You’ve seen it. When music starts playing it’s the children very often who are the first, and sometimes only, ones spinning and dancing freely. Somewhere along the way society gives us so many rules that creative expression gets wrung out of us and packed away. We eventually forget that we are all naturally capable of expressing creativity with reckless abandon.

My advice: if your child truly has come home with artwork that catches your attention and looks “just like” a Mark Rothko or Joan Miro, please encourage them! Don’t quash that part of them, especially if they still have it as they get older and start looking at careers.

The other point I would make to those who think, “anyone can do that.” is that many people don’t realize that the best abstract artists tend to come from backgrounds that include a deep understanding of color and composition. They also tend to have the visual acuity and drawing skills to produce a tightly rendered apple or photorealistic portrait…but they choose not to. In my case, I used to paint and draw exactly what I saw in very realistic fashion. Now, I prefer to paint what I feel rather than what I see.


Understanding and appreciating abstract art does not come easily for everyone, and that’s OK. This art form is sometimes perplexing and evades definition, but it does have a history that may help with understanding. Abstract art, as we know it, has been around for well over 100 years. Some might even say that abstraction began with cave paintings from thousands of years ago and has held its own over the centuries.

Cave dwellers pulled from memory to create depictions of things they saw during the day. They most likely interpreted what they saw and drew abstractions of it on cave walls without real concern for accurate representation. They literally drew from experience, which is exactly what abstract artists do today. Whether the artist is creating an abstract variation of something literal like birds or painting a nonrepresentational abstraction of a feeling…it’s all considered abstract art.

Lynette Ubel_Birds of a feather
Abstraction of birds in painting titled, “Birds of a Feather.”


Rather than trying to figure out what an abstract painting is about, allow yourself to be taken in by the experience of being present with the artwork. Fully experiencing art is best if you stand with the painting in person. Position yourself in the space the artist would have occupied to soak up the size, color, texture, pattern, and brushstrokes. What you are taking in at this point are the technical qualities that make up the physical form of the artwork.

Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not.– Pablo Picasso

After you have gotten a look at the details from the vantage point of the artist, back away and consider how it makes you feel. Notice if it triggers memories or emotions such as joy, fear, anger, playfulness, and so on. If you feel nothing when you look at the art, sit with that nothingness for a moment without judging the art or yourself. Eventually, the nothingness will evoke something. That’s how it works!

The majority of my work is nonrepresentational abstract expressionism, and there is generally nothing intentionally literal that people can name in it. But when they open their minds up, I am constantly fascinated by what others do see in it. Occasionally something gets pointed out to me that I hadn’t even noticed in my work. Something that is so clear that I wonder how I missed it!

lynette Ubel_Chromatrail Series
Three paintings from my Chromatrail series that I’ve been told feel like wind, water, and waves. [Left to Right] “Breakers,” “Unbridled” and “Off On Cloud Nine.”
It wasn’t until an art advisor interested in my paintings for a hotel by the ocean said, “I see air, wind, and water in some of your Chromatrail series pieces.” I hadn’t painted that intentionally, but I see it now…wind and water are clearly represented!

The truth is there will always be frustration in the fact that there’s no universal agreement to the answer of the question: What is abstract art and what does it mean? As an abstract artist, I hope to ease your mind by letting you know that there is no perfect answer to what you should, or should not, see in a painting. It’s all about how you feel in the presence of it!

Viewing art is an intensely personal process, and as the viewer, you are free to come up with your own meaning for a piece or to declare that it has no meaning for you at all.

Are you an abstract art lover that leans toward abstractions of identifiable objects like, “Birds Of Feather”? Or, do you prefer nonrepresentational work? Leave your take on abstract art below.

While Lynette’s 25+ year career has produced a versatile portfolio of award-winning photography and design, it is her calling as an abstract painter that is emerging in full, vibrant fashion today. Her artistic vision now manifests itself in contemporary abstract acrylic paintings that feature an explosive style of remarkable depth, motion, and fluidity.

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