How to Tell Good Abstract Art from Bad

By Nicole Tinkham

How to Tell Good Abstract Art from Bad

When looking at a famous abstract painting do you ever think “I could do that”? If you’re wondering how something so simple can be considered a masterpiece, you’re not alone. Is it really as easy as we think or is there true artistic talent behind these works of art? Believe it or not, there’s science proving that there is in fact a difference between a painting done by a professional and random splatters on a canvas. Before trying to re-create a masterpiece hoping to make millions, pay attention to this blog and see what the experts have to say as well as what to look for in a professionally done piece.

The Research

A study done by two psychologists shows that statistically people CAN tell an abstract painting done by a professional artist vs a child, chimp, gorilla, elephant, or monkey. Which is surprising considering those monkeys aren’t half bad🙂 In the study, 72 undergrads (40 psychology and 32 art majors) were asked to determine which painting (shown side by side) was done by an adult artist. Paintings were grouped together by similar attributes such as color and medium. Non-art majors chose the professional painting 65.5% of the time and art majors chose them 67.5% of the time. Researchers concluded, “ people can recognize that a work is good, but still not like it.”

What to look for in “good” abstract art

Just because this research tells us we can distinguish an abstract painting done by a professional vs a non-artist, that doesn’t mean it’s easier for us pick out certain paintings from others. Here’s how to tell good abstract art from bad.

1. Consistency
This refers to the consistency within a painting as well as the consistency of an artist’s portfolio. If a portfolio is all over the place with a few stunning pieces mixed with low quality work, the artist is either still developing or doesn’t quite know what they’re doing. Same goes for within a single painting. The flow must be consistent from one side of the painting to the other with planned and precise strokes.

2. Color
Colors that don’t mesh well together are a dead giveaway that the artist isn’t a professional unless of course it’s done deliberately in which case it has to be obvious.

3. Texture
Most of the time, good abstract art is compiled of layers. There’s typically and underpainting and these layers often create texture.

4. Meaning
All great art has some sort of meaning behind it. Some type of emotion, whether positive or negative gets thrown onto the canvas. There’s thought and planning put into it. You’ll know when an abstract piece is done at random. It lacks personality.

5. Complexity
As an artist completes more and more pieces, they grow and learn new techniques, which is evident in their work. In contrast to what you may think about abstract art, the techniques used in this style (by a professional) cannot be easily replicated.

6. Comfort
Uncomfortable paint strokes will tell you right away that the artist is an amateur. Experienced artists are confident and produce every mark with intention. Paint splatters may look random but they’re put there for a reason.

There are so many different feelings toward abstract art. There are many people that simply don’t understand it, others that think they can replicate it, and of course the abstract artists themselves who put much more time and thought into it than many non-artists realize. Tell us, what do YOU think? Does this research and qualities of good abstract art change your mind about it?

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79 thoughts on “How to Tell Good Abstract Art from Bad

  1. It has been said that everyone is an artist.children like to draw and paint because they have fun doing it.if adults cannot have that same kind of fun then whats the point? Having read scores of articles on art i have come to the conclusion that there many different ways to draw and paint. It really doesnt matter to me if a piece of art is abstract,impressionistic,expressionistic,or surrealistic.everyone has a different way to draw or two people are going to draw or paint the same picture the exact same way.because if everyone could do that there would be no more originality.

      1. Art is in the eye of the beholder so they say If you like it that’s all that matters forget the rest Far too many post mortems about art You can hate a so called masterpiece and love a finger painting by a 6 yr old kid People try to read far too much into art Like John Lennon said about some of his lyrics that he wrote in 5 minutes and experts then read paragraphs into it JUST ENJOY ART WHATEVER FORM OR VENUE Now if your an investor that’s different but I would never buy art as investment but rather what I enjoy looking at and interpreting it my own way CHEERS

      2. Ken, I agree completely. I do not paint, draw and write to sell. I do it because of the challenge and the self satisfaction when something comes together. Praise and price are just icing on the cake. It is great to sell, since any working artist accumulates volumes of work that must go somewhere. And, we all hope for some place other than a trash heap.

    1. I agree completely. In fact, I hesitated to even refer to myself as “an artist” for the LONGEST time, even though I was doing it semi-professionally out of a bona fide group art studio. I didn’t consider myself a “real” artist because I didn’t do “real” art. I qualified my title as an artist when introduced. (“I’m a stencil artist…”) In my mind at the time, “real” art meant near-photorealistic oil paintings and beautifully sketched portraits and murals and precise watercolor landscapes. I didn’t understand the point of purely abstract work. I created none of those things. In fact, those are probably my biggest weaknesses as an artist, which I now do full time lol.

      Now, I actually embrace my eclectic, non-traditional style and have no problem referring to myself as an artist without qualification. I create my art through weird and loose watercolors (not a bucolic rolling hill in sight haha) and mixed media and collage. I explore every medium, tool, technique and style I can get my hands on because I think truly great art comes from being able to express exactly what you want to express.🙂

      1. Kat, We just took a look at your site and absolutely LOVE your work!! You are incredibly talented! It is tough to finally consider yourself an artist but so glad you are now embracing it! We can’t get over your fun style. Keep doing your thing girl!🙂

  2. probably true ,, for me ,, all the rules are too much ,, i just want to play … art is in the learning stages … i am learning to have fun ,, and thr it ,, is my soul ,, my inner child … it is so important that i don’t shut down ,,, i am screaming to exist thr me art …

    1. I think Abstract art is a lot of design elements and a good abstract would have those elements in it. A bad abstract art would be colors, shapes etc. but not harmonized and pleasant to the eyes.

  3. Being an abstract artist and abstract art fan myself, I whole-heatedly believe there is skill, practice, style, and technique in a truly great painting. Many superb artworks get dismissed because they look childish or easy to make, however, they are very difficult to replicate. Non-artists can appreciate or be disinterested by a painting pretty quickly but have trouble putting their finger on what it is exactly about the art that makes them feel so. Emotion is hard to pin down, because we don’t really know what makes us feel what we feel just based on what we see.

    Abstract art is a high-level of art because of how much is at work beyond what is obvious. Thanks for outlining the characteristics of great art so concisely. It’s refreshing to get some perspective and insights on how to see and understand abstract art so that we can appreciate it more.

  4. Your points of what to look for make an excellent guide for teachers who need to create a rubric for their students abstract art. Its not easy to do but you have practically given us one. Thanks!

  5. Art is subjective. Period. Abstract art is the expression of one’s inner turmoil or joy or frustration… I do not believe for a moment that every brush stroke is thought out. It’s randomness and the freedom of the artist to express themselves without all the “rules”, that’s the beauty of the abstract.

    1. We do agree with you Kim, but we also do believe that the only person who knows if each stroke (or piece) is planned out is the artist themselves. The interpretation is up to the person viewing the piece! Like you said, beauty is found the freedom and randomness to express yourself. Thanks for the comment!

    2. I agree. Unfortunately the article harps on technique rather than the essence of abstract art. Unfortunately, the article left me unenlightened about abstract art

  6. I agree with the Consistency to some degree although pushing the envelope is part of what makes you an artist. I don’t agree that every stroke should or must be deliberate/planned or precise. Intuitive painting calls for one to let your body do the strokes. This comes from deep inside and the artist won’t necessarily know what’s coming until it shows up or even until she has studied the piece a great deal.

    1. I’m with you on this Catherine. My abstract art is unplanned and it’s done mark by mark, each decision comes from within. I never plan what I want it to end up like

  7. These have been thought that linger in my head these few months as I make simpler and simpler works while seeing a whole world of abstracts bombarding the net.

    There is no ruler to measure if one believes in art for art’s sake.

    But in terms of quality, we must study the effort, the intention, the dedication, the temperament, the cause, the charisma, the experiments, the spirit, the philosophy…over mere colour, shapes, texture, consistency, the size, the popularity…etc.

    Having said these, I welcome criticisms and comments towards my work for improvements

  8. I agree with Catherine., There are some good points in this article. However, when I do expressionism or abstract I like to do it freely and find my inspiration from within. Sally.

    1. We love that there are so many different opinions on this topic. Makes for great conversation! And we totally agree that you should find your inspiration from within! Keep being great, Sally!

  9. Nice article with interesting points but as an abstract artist that sells most of her paintings I don’t agree with majority of the points. Some art is trash. Art is not about thinking it all through. For me it’s about personal creativity, expressing a feeling, lifting us out of ourselves, the victory of the human spirit. It comes from the heart. Rather, it is spiritual in a way. Can you tell when it comes to art I love it!

  10. In my opinion a good abstract or non-representational artist needs to know and understand the principles and elements of design and have a good knowledge of colour theory and mixing. There is a lot of structure in these types of artwork even though it is not always visible to the untrained eye. With this groundwork entrenched in one’s brain it is possible to be ‘free’ to paint in an emotional and intuitive manner and be assured that the resulting painting will be strong in all aspects.

    1. Agreed. I really disliked abstract art until I took a Principals of Design course for my graphic design degree. I loved my teacher, and nearly his whole curriculum revolved around teaching the 7 design principals using abstract projects and history. I learned so much about the elements that go into good art and design, like balance and rhythm an pattern. Not only has it made me a better artist and designer, but I now have a profound appreciation for good abstract art and actually create my own…

      And nobody will still ever convince me that Pollock was an artistic genius, haha.

      1. Many people don’t understand abstract art or the design principles that go into it. It’s completely understandable for anyone who hasn’t learned a thing or two about design to simply not get abstract art. It is a personal preference as well. We all have our own styles🙂

  11. I am a new artist, which I am sure you can tell in at least some of my art. If any of you would be willing to provide any advice both for my art or business tips, I would greatly appreciate it. I do not have a mentor nor do I have an education in art. I am a late bloomer, but really do want to make this my full time passion.

    1. You have a great site, Brittany. Well thought out and the layout really works. Your art is really good too. Keep finding ways to network and get your name out in the public. Make sure you develop a presence on social media too. The best of luck to you!

    2. The best way to get your art out there is to network. It sucks, but it’s true. Check out the events in the Weekly. Go to gallery events and Art Walks and Art Fests and First Fridays and Saturday Markets. Invest in a few gridwalls, a folding table and a canopy and start doing pop-up shops at those events. Talk to the artists and gallery owners. Gallery owners at no-brow galleries are always looking for new art and usually charge relatively low hanging fees and/or commission. Approach local coffee shops about putting your art up on consignment and cutting them in for a percentage. (It’s a win/win for them). Like local galleries on FB and join local artist communities. Pay attention to the upcoming events they post.

      That’s how you get your name out locally. At least, that’s what we do in Vegas haha. In the world of local galleries and artists, everyone knows each other. Getting your art in smaller no-brow galleries and in local public places gets your name out there. Interacting with other artists leads to invitations to group shows, tables at art fests, everything. You wind up making friends and contacts through these repeated events because many of the same people are at each one.

      Not to be crass, but networking, not talent, really is your #1 greatest tool in advancing your art as a business. As proof of this, I know some absolutely atrocious artists who do very well for themselves because of the people they know and the events they attend. You do have talent though, so that should make things much easier, lol.

      1. Thank you so much Kat for your insight and incredible tips! Networking is a huge part of growing your art business and it can be a very scary thing. We can learn a lot from you🙂 Thanks again for all the valuable info!

  12. I do personally prefer to have balance in every painting, even in abstract you can see if there is any composition and colour balance or just “whatever”… I do like to give every my painting a “title”-it’s just like a person-with or without name….
    Unfortunately, the price for your art depends a lot not only on the quality of strokes but also on how you are being promoted or endorsed …..

  13. Thanks Nichole, I just love this subject so challenging. I think it is very often overlooked that the best abstract artists have done their apprenticeship in representational art. Artists such as de Kooning were excellent draftsman; it is this grounding that helps produce great abstraction. The quality of the artists experience will shine through – best ashar

  14. I heard a really good quote on abstract art just the other day to the effect that a good artist paints that way because they want to and a poor artist paints that way because they have to.

  15. This is such an interesting topic and discussion…the more I paint the more I am being pulled towards the abstract area…I have been drawing and painting for years, I put lots of time developing my skills, drawing realistically and creating something that is a replica of something I see…but the pull is so strong to explore the abstract…Abstract is in a way more difficult to pull off than a representational drawing/painting…because you have to rely on your gut and intuition more….very challenging!

  16. Great article! I’ve always wondered what makes an abstract “great” art. As a person who is an avid DIYer, I am creative but not artistic in the art world sense. I love art, studying art, reading articles, collecting art, etc. and have many times tried to recreate abstract art. It’s fun but as you said in your article, the emotional feeling isn’t there, my paintings lacked something that I never really could put my finger on but now I know what it is. When I I look at a an abstract that is painted by an artist or a masterpiece in a museum, there is a flow that makes sense, like a piece of music, it has depth, is balanced and has the ability to be deeply emotional.

  17. Not sure about some of this.. We have friends who spent $10,000 on a painting by a known artist, that we later found out the artist sprayed paint onto the canvas and then applied a piece of paper on it and removed it to achieve the effect. How is that art??? How is that talent? I don’t care how great those colors look next to each other…(and even that is questionable on this painting) anyone could accomplish that. The only worth in that painting I guess would be the money spent on the oils. But other than that…

  18. Well written and very interesting article. I’m glad you wrote this, because it was sure to spark conversation! I do a lot of jurying of artists of all types, including abstract work. And you are correct – it is easy to tell who knows what they are doing, and usually even who went to art school. Abstract art can be sublime, or it can be a wreck. Those artists who have a great concept and skill and have gone deeply in a chosen direction will create a body of work that reflects it. Other artists who are not producing the best abstracts may be closer to the beginning of their careers, and they can always improve. Art definitely can be learned, it’s an evolution. So I like to give credit to those artists with less than stellar work, because they are willing to get out there and share it!

  19. Enjoyed reading this, and very helpful. The level of experience with line, shape-form-mass, pattern, scale-proportion-space, analysis-dissection, lightness-darkness and colour, and texture…all these formal elements of the language of painting… will be evident in a confident and assertive abstract painting, and do in the end serve to conduct an underlying emotional impact which will make a painting stand out.

  20. I like to compare abstract painting to jazz music…they both have their own unique language…in the case of painting…color, shape, line, texture, space are designed to express an emotion or experience. The key
    is the skill involved by the artist. (For some reason it seems easier to recognize good music than painting
    perhaps because we listen to music all the time.) Skill is the key to any kind of artistic expression, which
    can only be gained by lots and lots of time and energy. There are no shortcuts to good art.

  21. Abstract art is not as easy as non artists seem think. It is not just random globs of paint, there are definate art principles involved, color theory, proportion, contrasts, etc. to name a few. Even if a piece is not planned, a true artist is using the principles of art to achieve an artistic composition.

    1. yes . I learn as I go and have some training too and put that into practice. Playing with what pleases my eye, trying new things

  22. i think that abstract art is like poetry. Great poetry may be difficult for the reader to understand but it is a far cry from putting random words on paper. There must be more to any art than pure randomness. Question, does anyone think that a painter must first be able to be a good literalist painter before moving to expressionism then to abstraction?

    1. This is a very subjective question…. But from our experience we know that an artist should be free to express himself/herself in a way that is comfortable to the individual. With that said, there are masterful abstract painters with amazing abilities of design and may not be comfortable doing a formal portrait in realism.

      1. I am a rather decent realist (literalist) artist. I also wonder if most literalists move toward expressionism then on toward abstraction, which both seem to garner greater respect in the formal art world?

  23. Through my own experience as an abstract artist have i realised the absolute intention that goes into abstract. I paint from an emotional perspective for sure and research my technique and over time have developed a process. Most of the work goes into my visual diary working on colour, texture, layering and method but i work fast when irs time to apply all of that to canvas. Although far from professional i completely agree there is a difference. I’ve had people say how far I’ve come and developed my individual style.
    Great article.
    Insta: Jeffreysmithartist

  24. The first time I saw a Rothko painting it took my breath away. I’d never been so moved by an artpiece ever. The very thought of an amature replicating one of his paintings is out of the question despite the fact most people see nothing more than color blocks. Up close Rothko’s painting run deep in layers of color with edges stopping at a precise point. He was a troubled man and in a beautiful way his paintings reflect that. That said I believe a better understanding of abstract art can come from knowing something about the artist.

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