Abstract & Constructivist-definitions

The word “abstract”

The word “abstract” is commonly used to refer to a wide variety of paintings. Therefore, there is clearly some confusion as to precisely what it means. This is partly because its usage by artists and critics has evolved over the years and partly because its subtleties have been degraded by an uninformed public. One unresolved issue is where to draw the line between “figurative” and “non-figurative”. Few nowadays would describe Paul Cézanne as an abstract artist (see image below), yet his working philosophy exemplifies the original meaning given to the word.


This Post, like many others, is an illustrated excerpt from “Having fun with creativity”, Chapter 10 of “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity”. What is meant by “having fun”, is enjoying a process by which thoughts, however trivial or wrongheaded, lead to a mushrooming of other thoughts and, thereby, to an exploration of issues that otherwise might be passed over. What follows, not only touches on the subjects of abstraction and construction in painting, but also how these relate to the processes by which the eye/brain systems synthesise meaning from visual input. The four sections are headed: 1ABSTRACTION, 2-CONSTRUCTION, 3-CHANGES IN MEANING and 4-IMAGES OF PAINTINGS (illustrating, “Abstracting the essence” and “Constructing from the basic building blocks of visual perception”).




What is an abstract painting?

So what qualifies as being an abstract painting? An explanation as to why the word “abstract” was chosen in preference to other words offers a start to the answer. Why not “extract” or “subtract”? It is worth asking such questions because doing so can help a process of refining understanding. It enables the use of same/difference judgments within the domain of words as a means of creating and/or nuancing our sense of their meaning. Thus:

  • The word “extract” means take something out of something.
  • The word “subtract” means take something away from something.

In either case the original something is diminished. In contrast:

  • The word “abstract” means distilling the essence of something, with the implication that this can be done without loosing essential meaning.

Accordingly, the word “abstract” seems best of the three because it implies the possibility of finding what is valuable with the least collateral damage. This is why it was chosen.

Eye/brain issues

However, there is still much ambiguity that requires clarification. If we take the example of the “abstract” of a scientific paper, it is easy to see that however well written, something must have been lost, since otherwise there would be no need for the paper itself. In the case of artists’ abstractions from natural scenes, the situation is less clear,  particularly since the image of every scene that comes to our consciousness is produced in the first place through the mediation of eye/brain processing systems that arrive at their conclusions by means of a complex blend of selective and constructive processes. We look at a coffee mug differently according to whether our intention is to drink from it or to make a drawing of its outline. When we want to drink from it, we will normally bypass all information about it except that which is necessary for picking it up and putting its brim to our our mouth. When we draw its outline, we need to make judgements of relativities of position, length, orientation, curvature, etc., and we can safely ignore the information needed to drink from it.

Nor, in this context,  should we ever forget that what we experience as “seeing” depends heavily on information coming from non-visual sources accessed (a) by other sensory systems and (b) by memory-stores that have been built up and refined during a lifetime. Thus, both the knowledge that it is coffee time and the smell of coffee, provide context that helps our visual systems to home in on the coffee mug. When we are confronted by a landscape, the way we look at it and the information we derive from it are determined by a mixture of current contingencies and our life’s experience. No two people would find the same essence in it. Indeed, it is now clear that in creating conscious visual experience, our eye/brain systems ignore a great deal more of the information coming into our eyes than they make use of. A mathematician might suggest that they ignore an infinite amount of it.

So how do these facts help us to think about looking at paintings? What differences are there between looking at a real world object and an image of it found in a painting? Generally speaking, when we look at a painted image, situated in illusory pictorial space, the information available will be much less than can be accessed from the real world object. For example, no matter how photographically realistic it may be, an image painting onto a flat surface will not provide the eye/brain systems with the kind of spatial-depth information that is created by means of either stereopsis or motion parallax. Likewise, a sketchily produced portrait will contain much less information than an actual face.

But what is the effect of this impoverishment of available sources of information on the efficiency of the eye/brain visual systems? Does it make their task more difficult? Not necessarily so. As indicated above, all correct classifications are achieved without taking a great deal of potentially relevant information into account. It is worth remembering that efficiency can be defined as achieving an objective with the least possible effort.  In the case of the impressive efficiency of eye/brain systems, this means overlooking as much visually available information as is feasible. If we take full advantage of contextual information coming both from other sensory systems and from memory, it can mean overlooking practically all of it. Elsewhere, I give the example of a blur of redness being a sufficient cue to identify a familiar dress in a familiar wardrobe in which it is known that no other red dresses have been placed.

This impressive degree of parsimony has interesting implications for artists. For example, does it mean that a blur of red could adequately represent the dress in a painting? The answer to this question depends on what is meant by the phrase “adequately represent”. In the obvious sense, the answer must be “no”. Nobody would expect the woman in question to reach out for the painted image of a red dress in the wardrobe in the expectation of being able to wear it. On the other hand, the red in the painting might trigger either “feelings” or “memories” associated with the history of the dress that the real dress would not. If it does, how could this influence the experience of people looking at paintings? Two questions, bring us nearer to an answer:

  • Could feelings be stimulated by a particular red as itself. For example, it is perfectly possible for the colour of an individual stick of chalk pastel to access deeply embedded associations that trigger powerful emotions. If so, could these be added to the experience generated by a pastel painting of the red dress? Of course they could: I thought of the example because I know of an artist for whom love of her pastel sticks was integral to her way of making paintings.
  • If the the act of seeing the patch of red paint triggers “memories”, how much information could be added from memory stores? And, would these additions be more or less authentic than the information that would be accessed by the woman, if confronted by the actual dress? Since, the real object presents a maximum of information about its characteristic, there is no doubt about the theoretical answer to this question: the real dress has every advantage.  But the question for the artist is not whether the red dress would provide more information, but how much of it would be used in practice and for what purposes?

Remember that efficiency can be defined as getting the best results by means of the least amount of effort. In the case of locating the real dress in the real wardrobe, this means identifying it with the least amount of looking. As explained above, the eye/brain systems regularly achieve wonders of parsimonious looking by making maximum use of “context” and “memory stores”. It follows that, the very familiarity of both the dress and its location would make it possible to achieve the goal of finding the dress while overlooking the totality of information other than the blur of redness. 

However, the question arises as to whether this massive overlooking mean that the pictured dress might have the advantage over the real one when it comes, either to the amount of information about the dress actually acquired or to the potential for providing stimuli for the creative imagination? In both cases, the answer must be in the affirmative, since it could be argued that a pictured dress:

  • Would provoke the eye/brain systems into extra analysis, on account of its being less familiar than actual dress.
  • Would leave extra room for flights of the imagination, on account of its lack of interpretation-constraining details.

In other words, there are good reasons for concluding that, in practice, if not in necessarily in theory, an image of a depicted object perceived as being in illusory pictorial space will regularly, if not always:

  • Provide the eye/brain with more information than the real world object it represents.
  • Act as a better catalyst for the creativity of the imagination.

Needless to say, this is one of the many advantages that paintings have over nature.

The influence of others

Another possibility is that the dress-owning woman may fail to make a connection between the patch of red in the painting and the dress it was intended to represent, but that a friend does make a connection. If the friend shares her experience with the woman, by doing so she will be adding another level of context and, thereby, in all probability, causing a change in the meaning of the patch of colour for the dress-owning woman. Significantly, the revised significance could be achieved without making any changes to the actual colour.

But this is not all. One thing of which we can be quite certain of is that the representation of the dress in the head of the friend will be very different to that in the head of its owner. There is no possibility that both will have the same associations between the dress and happenings in their very different life stories. The interesting implication for artists is that what applies in the case of the two friends, also applies to them.  When they apply a colour to a painting, they can have no way of knowing all the associations it might trigger in any one other person. Speaking generally, all human beings can say or do things that act as catalysts to the experience of others that are inaccessible to themselves. Indeed, it is difficult to see how communication between individuals could take any other but in this essentially catalytic and creative form.


But all this talk about “abstraction” in paintings and by the eye/brain systems has a soft underbelly for, as we all know, for some time now, the word “abstract” has been routinely applied to paintings that have absolutely no reference to nature, let alone to some essence extracted from it.

In the early 20th century, a number of painters and sculptors acknowledged the significance of this flight from representation by calling themselves “Constructivists” . These pioneers of non-figurative art adopted a radically new approach to their work that had much in common with the physicists of the day, who were on the trail of the building blocks of matter and the principles by which they are combined. Thus, the artists sought to identify the “primitives” of visual perception and to find objective principles for assembling them into art works.

By the fact of approaching paintings in this way, these artists saw themselves as challenging the long held assumption that painting should start from nature. Accordingly, it would be inappropriate to describe their work as distillations of it essence. For a growing number of them, including Kupka, Malevitch, Kandinsky and Mondrian, an alternative was needed that would be founded on a combination of the most basic elements they could think of and simple principles of construction. Over the years, this change of emphasis was reflected in the emergence of a host of different words or phrases to describe how different artists approached building on these foundations –  “Constructivist”, “Non-objective”, “Concrete”, “Op”, “Systems”, etc., but all could be places under the umbrella of  “Constructivism”.


As time passed the situation became more and more complicated. On the one hand there were critics trying to provide more precise classification and on the other there were artists exploring an ever expanding range of possibilities. Distinctions got blurred and terms like “Abstract Expressionism” confused the issue. The artists who were known by this name, were no longer abstracting from nature but rather attempting to make manifest their innermost feelings or allow universal forces to become manifest through them. In this situation, while artists were likely to choose and cling to one or other of the cavalcade of different meanings, the generality of people adopted the catch-all, common usage of today. For them the word “abstract”  means anything that is not too closely tied to representation.


Students sometimes ask me to explain “abstract art” to them. As this request is almost invariably made by people whose focus has been on representation, I tend to answer in terms of the origins of the word. I point out that artists living in the second half of the 19th century, influenced by recent developments in the science of visual perception, became aware that all paintings could be described as an “assemblage of regions of colour on a picture surface”,* as interpreted by eye/brain processing systems. Once this conceptual step had been taken, it was only to be expected that, for some artists at least, the idea of looking to nature as the fount of all inspiration was bound to be questioned. From then on, it was only a matter of time before many artists either loosened their ties with representation or completely cut themselves off from it.

As for deciding which word we should choose when talking about any particular painting or group of paintings, including ones we have painted ourselves, my answer would be to take your choice in the light of the considerations discussed above. Perhaps, the main objective should be that you yourself understand the issues, at least well enough to be able to explain them to anyone who asks questions about your work. Meanwhile, the general public will continue to think of “abstract” as more or less anything non-figurative and pretty well everyone will have personal opinions about what counts as figurative. The difficulty lies in deciding on which point on the figurative/non-figurative continuum.



Abstracting the essence


Paul Cézanne sought to represent the permanent, underpinning constancies of natural appearances. He had little interest in depicting the ephemeral surfaces of nature, which, according to him, the Impressionists were doing their best to capture in their paintings. His aim was to tap into what he saw as the essence of nature.


Like Cézanne, Pierre Bonnard had no desire to paint fleeting effects of natural appearances. Rather, his objective was to capture the experience of coming across a scene for the first time. This explains why his method was to catch the moment by roughing out what he was seeing by means of a quick feelings-based pencil study and then “get away from nature as quickly as possible”.**After that it was a matter of holding onto the memory of the feelings and the colour nuances long enough to guide him through a first stab at a painting. The rest was a matter of allowing the memories and the feelings to mature and guide the progress of the painting. In this way he hoped to recreate something that reflected the essence of his experience.


Pablo Picasso‘s idea was to get closer to the essence of our everyday  experience of visual appearances, which regularly involves integrating information coming from different viewpoints into one perceptual construct.

Piet Mondrian moved through figuration to abstraction, before turning to construction. In the painting illustrated here, he was seeking to abstract the essence of a tree in terms of the pictorial rhythms it suggested to him.


Jackson Pollock sought to go beyond personal taste and make manifest aspects of the common ground in human experience. This he believed could be accessed by getting in touch with the collective unconscious posited by Carl Jung. To bypass his personal prejudices, he entered a trance like state that, according to him, allowed an essence of humanity to “come through” into his painting.


Constructing from the basic building blocks of visual perception

Piet Mondrian abandoned abstraction as a result of his efforts at constructing what he described as a “spiritual space”. According to his philosophy this prioritised the elimination of illusory pictorial space. This is why he determined that his paintings would provide neither object reference nor perceptions of in-front/behind relationships.



Georges Vantongerloo used mathematical procedures as a method of determining the structure of his compositions. In this respect he was a precursor of  the many later artists who were to adopt systematic approaches to the composition of their paintings.


Bridget Riley sought to create optical excitements using systematic transformations based on the rules of linear perspective.


Michael Kidner’s project was to use simple systems to take him beyond the control of personal taste into unimaginable worlds. In constructing this massive painting he used a code, based on variations in the vertical dimension of otherwise standardised vertical, rectangular, black elements, to represent regular transformation of the curvatures of a four sided column (see below), as revealed by systematic changes in viewpoint.  Key to the variations produced in the painting was the fact that each of the contours of the the four surfaces of the column were based on different mathematically determined wave forms.  In a very real sense, Michael’s procedure could be described as a much more recent variation on cubism.

The above painting with the column in front


* Quotation from the Nabis artist Maurice Denis.

** Quotation from Bonnard.



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8 thoughts on “Abstract & Constructivist-definitions”

  1. This is a broad ranging and important subject in painting that you have bravely begun to address in this post. Everyone who is serious about painting would benefit from reading this and thinking about the issues you have raised in terms of their own work and the work of others.

  2. Another interesting excerpt from your book. I was struck (again) by the way your “mushrooming thoughts” echo the philosophy of language I studied 50 yrs ago at Oxford. However I am less sure about a painting providing more information than the real world object it represents. Surely that depends on the viewer’s experience and background knowledge – I probably spend much more time looking at the natural world than at paintings. I think my experience of the natural world and inexperience of looking at paintings may influence the amount of information I am processing.

    1. Hello Liz, I am glad you found this Post on abstraction and construction interesting. Also, I am grateful to you for pointing out one of its shortcomings. The problem is that it is very difficult to make generalisations in relation to what or what not the eye/brains of different people will pickup from the same input. As you suggest, it is a matter of how their information pick up skills have been trained by life experience. For example, your interest in nature has trained you to notice things in nature that others would overlook, just as my interest in paintings has trained me to see more in them than many other people. Another factor is that life experience may have trained some people to look rather cursorily at paintings. However, the interesting question is, if people do look at them, does the fact that the paintings differ fundamentally from the subject matter they refer to (e.g. on a bounded flat surface and made from an assemblage of patches of paint) mean that they are likely to have their attention drawn to things in them that they might overlook in the real world context? I would argue that the answer is certainly “yes”. However, if their lifetime’s experience has not trained them to give particular importance to what their eye/brain systems pick out, their awareness of them may be fleeting and their attention pass rapidly other things of more interest to them. In all cases, as explained in the Post, the gift of evolution-honed efficiency of eye/brains systems will always carry a penalty of massive overlooking.

  3. A question for me is whether a painting – because of it’s fundamental difference as described by you – will alert the viewer to things in the original object that may be overlooked in “real life” or whether what is perceived is not in fact a detail of real life that has been overlooked, but an aspect that has been filtered by the artist’s eye and may not match exactly what I see… but is valuable indeed as an insight into what the artist sees? I’m not sure that I am saying anything very different, but it seems to me to be about what if anything is inherent in the object as distinct from what is filtered through an observer’s viewpoint.

  4. Thanks for carrying the conversation a step further. Here are three reasons why a painting that represents objects, and their contexts, in three dimensional space is necessarily different from the scene it represents: (1) As explained in the Post, because it is made of pigment and medium-based colours painted onto a flat surface; (2) because it is theoretically impossible to mimic colours perceived in the real world with pigment-based colours and because it is practically impossible to copy real world shapes with absolute accuracy; and (3) because artists both subconsciously and consciously select and distort. All three reasons result in an image that differs from its model in ways that catch the attention of viewers and, thereby, have the potential to extend their awareness. I suspect that they would not have to be aware of receiving this gift of their visual systems, for it to have an effect on the way they will perceive what they are looking at in future. Whether or not you call (3) “an insight into the way the artist sees”, it is your awareness that is being expanded. If you want this to correspond to what the artist sees, you may well have to find out a great deal about the history of his or her experiences and ideas.

  5. Francis,
    I recently had a discussion on the meaning of these terms with friends. Thank you for the clarity of your insight and the accompanying visual examples. They give us the basis for continuing our conversation with a few, now shared, points of reference.

  6. A provocative post, Francis. Thank you. Here is a point or two upon which I’d appreciate clarification or comment.

    When I think of the Constructivists seeking “‘primitives’ of visual perception,” as you wrote, I think of Mondrian and his lines and rectangles providing no “object reference.” I then think of Cezanne and his proposition to “deal with nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone,” which seems similar to Mondrian’s quest (without his spiritual angle). If Cezanne saw these forms through his study of nature as essential, and if Mondrian, like Picasso, was influenced by Cezanne’s project, to what extent does Mondrian truly stray from nature if he is, in a way, heeding Cezanne’s advice? Is it simply because nature was not physically in front of Mondrian as he painted? Perhaps I’m splitting hairs since humans are, of course, an element of nature. “I am nature,” said Jackson Pollock.

    The other point I offer concerns the notion of “unlimited semiosis,” the possible proliferation of meanings that can be generated from a sign. You offer the example of the red dress, noting that its representation in illusory, pictorial space may “act as a better catalyst for the creativity of the imagination” than the actual object. Perhaps in this first instance of its representation, I may agree. I wonder if this holds true as representations of representations occur? For example, one paints a red dress, one writes a description of the painting, that description gets published on a respectable online site, I text the link to my artist friend who derives inspiration from it, etc. After some time, it seems the original object gets lost through the modes of representation used to signify it, does it not? Keeping the notion of unlimited semiosis in mind, how can we really speak of a pictorial representation as “catalyst for the creativity of the imagination” as being more or less generative than any other sign, including the object itself?

    1. Hello Ken, I love the way you try to unpick an argument. It expands to realm of discourse in interesting ways. However, in this case, I am afraid it shows a lack of clarity in what I have written. What I would have liked to communicate about the words “abstraction” and “constructivist” is that they both emerged as artists attempts to say essential things about their concerns. Knowing this helps us to understand how loosely both words have come to be used, rendering them less interesting. More importantly, I would like those who have read what I have written to realise that trying to relate them to actual paintings, as you have done, will inevitably show just how difficult it is to separate them out. In the final analysis, all paintings combine abstraction with construction: a realisation worth thinking about.

      In your second comment, you have taken a similar analytic approach to a subject that clearly interests you. As far as I understand it, the trains of possibilities and implications you draw is of the very essence of “semiosis”. I confined myself to one train with the aim of clarifying the point I was trying to make. Your approach is thought-provoking in a more general way. I hope other readers took advantage.

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