Ask the Art Professor: Does an Abstract Artist Need to be Proficient in Traditional Art Techniques?


Jackson Pollock

“Do you think a dedicated abstract artist needs to be proficient in traditional drawing and painting in order to be taken seriously as a visual artist?”

I don’t think traditional skills are in any way required to be taken seriously as an abstract artist. If the abstract work is strong and compelling on its own, then I don’t think most people will care exactly how you got there.  For example, many art dealers could care less about whether you attended art school or not, the same way that they likely won’t care whether you have traditional drawing and painting skills.  What it really comes down to for the art dealers is the current work itself.

At the same time though, an argument could be made for traditional drawing and paintings skills to precede abstraction. Many of the historically well-known abstract artists created abstract works as a part of their natural evolution as an artist.  Jackson Pollock didn’t just wake up one day and decide to become an artist who made drip paintings, rather his drip paintings emerged after many years of prior experimentation with a number of different styles and techniques. For many of these historical artists, traditional skills were learned first, and created a departure point for experimentation with abstraction. Traditional art skills can provide a springboard for abstraction.  After all, the formal concerns of composition, color, contrast, etc. are the same, regardless of whether you’re working traditionally or abstractly.

Pat Steir

Painting by Pat Steir

Whether or not traditional skills matter is really up to each individual artist to determine on their own.  If you feel that having a grounding in traditional skills would help you be a better artist, then absolutely take the plunge and make it happen. If traditional skills are not interesting or enjoyable for you, and you’re learning them simply out of obligation, then don’t put pressure on yourself to learn them.

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8 thoughts on “Ask the Art Professor: Does an Abstract Artist Need to be Proficient in Traditional Art Techniques?

  1. I believe evolution plays an important role in art, but that is a personal belief on my part and we all know what the true meaning of ‘belief’ is. When I was very young (5-14), I drew horses, airplanes and pirate ships and tried my very best to be as accurate as possible. In later years, when the hormones kicked in, the focus shifted to the female form (naturally) and drawings of beautiful women flowed profusely.

    Graceful lines became more important than reality itself.

    Then, as my years advanced and ‘marriage/children/career’ turned the focus from drawing to painting, it was theme and colour which fascinated me. Art became my escape from the rigour of the daily grind and I began to experiment in all sorts of unexplored ways, including pure abstraction.

    Today, I have no idea what I’m trying to accomplish, but I keep doing it anyways because I love the process more than the finished work and the process could never have come to this point had it not been for the various stages which have filled my 60 years of artistic pursuit.

  2. i disagree.
    knowing the rock solid basics i believe gives you a lot more room to soar abstractly. it may not be necessary but it makes getting out of jams a whole a lot easier. knowing how to tuck a line to help make a shape pop or recede, know what colour to lay next to another and why will help immensely.
    i do not think any artist (anyone for that matter) should stop learning and gathering knowledge , makes the work richer and deeper. knowing the rules allows you to bend, break and shatter them with glee. knowing there is another layer to your work and a reason.

  3. i loved your reply to the abstract art question.

    people should be able to do the kind of art they enjoy without art professors/ professorial artists telling them they are no good because they can’t draw realistically.

    lol i am not an abstract artist, but might have been if i wasn’t told it was the easy way out ( it’s nothing but easy, you still have to be artful and you still have to put in the time i think.)

    anyway i was painting today and thinking about your posts… and i have a question- how do you know when your work is good enough to show to the world?

    and would you be launching an art-mentor program? i mostly do art on my own and some hand holding would be wonderful 🙂

    1. Thanks for your thoughts! Great question, I will answer it soon and send you an email when it’s online. What did you have in mind in terms of an “art mentor program?”

      1. someone who is a guide, who helps you articulate your goals, evaluate your work, assess your progress etc

        and more importantly, guides you as to how to get your work out, to become an earning professional artist.

        i often think that artists’ children often become successful artists, musicians kids become musicians because they get the right environment, tools, education and encouragement. and they see a role model in someone who’s made a successful life with their art/talent.

        though it’s impossible to replicate that with a mentoring program (hah you’ll have to start mentoring at two years old, adopt the person lol) something along the lines of this is doable, you can do it and i’m here to support.

  4. Is there a website where I can post a picture of a piece of art or a sculpture and get advice from artists on how to create something similar, using the same materials?

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