The question is, can you teach abstract painting? Actually, the question is, can you teach painting at all? There are people who argue that art is something you’re born with, that it’s not a series of technical skills that can be learned by rote and that a taught painter is like a monkey with a typewriter. On the other hand, there’s the atelier method, which was the one favoured by the Old Masters (who did not wear mortar boards and have leather patches on their elbows, stop sniggering at the back there!). In this, students spent years filling in body colour and copying other paintings before they were ever let loose on a composition of their own. Whenever an art historian says “school of”, what they mean is that it was painted in the artist’s studio, possibly with some input by the artist himself, but largely by a student. The style is there, but that extra brilliance that betokens the master himself is missing.
Anyway, none of that, you’re all wrong. Art is, essentially, the ability to put down on paper or canvas a representation of what you see in a way that tells the viewer something they couldn’t get just from looking at the scene itself. It’s the “artist’s eye” and that is something you do have to be born with at least a spark of. That’s not to say you can’t develop it by talking to and reading other people or just looking at other artists’ work, but it’s a million miles from the mechanical process of applying paint and that, at least to a certain level, is something that can, indeed has to be, learnt.
Anyway, what of the Abstract? Well, it’s largely a way of seeing. Once you move away from straightforward representation, you start not merely to tell the viewer what you saw, but what they should see. In an abstract work, the viewer doesn’t just see the subject, or may not see the subject at all, but is rather given a set of instructions and visual clues that allow them to assemble the image for themselves. In a way, it’s a bit like reading a review rather than reading the book itself. In this piece, I’m not going to tell you what’s in the book (at least, not in page by page detail); rather, I’m going to give you an idea of what the book feels like. I want to create the impression that you own it, except that you won’t have it, so you’ll have to make up your mind whether you like the feeling of ownership and want to buy it.
So far, all I’ve done is waffle on and tell you what the abstract is (and made a faint attempt to tell you what painting is, too). So, let’s refine the question: can you teach abstract painting in a 64 page book? The answer is, rather surprisingly, that you can, indeed that it may very well be the best way of doing it. Abstract painting is, as I’ve been trying to explain, a state of mind and you really need to have got that before you start trying to do it. What Laura Reiter does here is give you some clues to applying this in practice. She’ll tell you about design, shapes, composition, the use of colour and how to use those visual clues evoke an emotional response. And the great thing is that she won’t labour the point.