Good and Bad Abstract Oil Painting: What’s the Difference?

abstract art

How do you know if abstract art is high quality or not? Read more to find out! Photo by Anna Kolosyuk

Some critics argue that any person throwing paint at a canvas can claim they are an artist under the umbrella of abstract art. Many realistic painters claim abstraction requires no skill, that it is made up of chance and chaos.

But that form of thinking does true abstractionists a terrible disservice.

In order to explain why this thinking is so flawed, you must understand what true abstract painting is and the difference between a good and a bad abstract oil painting.

Art, everything from hyper-realism to full-blown abstraction, has to do with intent. This is where quality abstract art separates itself from the masses.

Abstract Art is About Intent

Picasso was a skilled realistic painter before he became an abstract artist. This is one of his paintings called "Portrait of the Artist's Mother."

If you are going to paint a portrait there intention. The intent is for the painting to faithfully represent your subject in a particular way or style. There is a purpose behind every mark.

With abstract oil painting, a person who is just throwing paint on a canvas doesn’t have intent. They are waiting to see what the result is of the mess that they’re making. They hope that a portion of their experiment looks cool enough to cut out and frame.

True abstract artists work from a place of intent. They know what they want the painting to look like specifically. They go and they paint utilizing and controlling values, colors, and edges.

abstract oil painting

Abstract Painting by Mijodrag Jankovic.

Abstract Art Represents a Vision in the Artist’s Head

Miodrag Jankovic is an incredible example of intent in abstract art. His work is not representative or derivative of anything. It is purely abstract but there are some truly concrete places in the paintings and some ephemeral areas where you can’t make heads or tails of what they are. You can see through his control of color that he is specific with.

He has a series of paintings that are colored in the same way where he utilizes warms and cools for the sake of vibration.

Everything he’s doing is for effect. Hard edges, gradients — they’re all there for a reason but they’re not there to represent anything other than the abstract idea that he has formulated in his mind.

His intent is to represent what he has envisioned in his head. That vision is not necessarily connected to anything representative. That’s true abstraction.

An abstract piece of art by Picasso called "Woman Sitting in an Armchair."

Highly skilled and executed abstract art is a thing of true beauty. It is an incredible thing to be able to do this and there aren’t a lot of people who can.

But it starts with intent. To be able to stay away from the beaten path and not produce something representative while still utilizing these tools to bring your intentions to life is an incredible challenge.

It requires an extraordinarily well-developed mind and set of skills.


How to Tell Good Abstract Art from Bad?

Can you really tell a good abstract oil painting from bad?  It’s like music: you know when you’re hearing noise and you know when you’re hearing music. We all have personal preferences when it comes to music, but there are some musicians within certain genres who, when you hear them, you immediately feel that they have a certain mastery. 


You can hear it and it’s no different in art. We know when we’re looking at something that was made with intent and something that was made haphazardly.


The issue with visual art is that there’s a system in place that tells us whether it’s good, rather than allowing us to decide for ourselves.

“Athena” 48×24 Oil 2017 by Rick Berry.

Curators and collectors try to tell us what is good and bad. When you go to a restaurant, you don’t need anyone to tell you whether the chef is awful. When you listen to music, you know if it’s good or a mess, regardless of genre.

But once you spend a little bit of time immersed in it, you will know what the really good stuff is compared to what you have seen and experienced for yourself.
It comes down to “are there components in place” or is it purely random? I can show you abstract oil paintings that are similar in style; one that is random and one that is done through an understanding of the components of art-making. One of them resonates. It vibrates. It doesn’t even look like it’s sitting still. 


The play of color, temperature and edge and value make the one painting dance and come alive.


This comes back to intent. The intent is what separates good and bad abstract art and is visible to even the newest, most inexperienced art lover.

“My Parents before I Knew Them” by Rick Berry.

When Abstract Art Blends with Realism

Some artists combine abstraction, but still with intent. Rick Berry blends abstraction with realism. He mixes traditional and digital art back and forth.

He generates work based on intellectual impulse and emotional intent. He formulates an idea, crystallizes an intent, and then brings it to life.

Some of the time it crystallizes in something representative and other times it doesn’t.

Let’s say Rick is painting a figure. There will be portions of the figure that are tightly designed as a figure; they are concrete and you can almost smell the sweat on the figure.

But the figure is not even made out of flesh — they’re made of bronze. And then another portion of the figure is completely abstracted and hidden under layers of the painting.

Abstraction over realism over abstraction over realism over who knows what.

He’s able to do it because he has complete control of the moving parts of making art. And it is impossible to not recognize that when you look at the work.

Some of Evolve Founder Kevin Murphy's work has utilized abstraction to create landscapes and portraits.

Using Art to Impact the World

When you make a piece of art, regardless of style, you’re looking to impact people. You want to draw them in. The worst thing that can happen to an artist is for somebody to walk past their art without slowing down.

A powerful piece of art captivates. You lose track of time standing in front of it. And you don’t have to connect words to it because it’s just a visual stimulation that draws you in and it engages you on emotional, visual, and tactile levels (meaning you can hear, smell, taste, and feel the painting). It doesn’t have to be a realistic painting.

Final Thoughts on Abstract Oil Painting

Abstract art is intentional, nuanced, and made with skills and intuition developed over time.  Realism can help to develop these skills, and they are honed over years of practice, success, and failures. Abstract oil painting may not be for you but there is a definite place for it.  Leave your comments below on your thoughts of abstract art.

Again, art, everything from hyper-realism to full-blown abstraction, has to do with the intent of the artist.

Learn more about intent and the language of art here. 

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  1. Yeah…so I’m not so sure Picasso said that quote. It, unfortunately, is like a lot of quotes, taken out of context, appended, attributed to a famous person; and, with the assistance of the Internet, spreads like wildfire. Here’s one reference I found but I know there are others, I just haven’t had the time to check them for you. (http://www.levraphael.com/blog/tag/snopes/).

    That photo of Athena is remarkable, but it’s been truncated – most likely by the artist. I’ve emailed him to see the entire picture because if it is truly 48X24, it’s possibly designed on a Root 2 rectangle and I’d love to see the rest of the painting. (https://www.screencast.com/t/Sy3Adqu9)

    Which brings me to my final point.

    There is an additional critical element I’d suggest is a part of all great paintings — design. It is, after all, in every Old Master painting. Design also separates the wheat from the chaff.

    Great post, BTW. You articulate much of what I’ve believed about art for years, and tried, unsuccessfully I might add, to share with others. I guess the old saying (if indeed it IS an old saying) is true — you don’t go to the doctor until you realize you’re sick. (Or something like that.)

  2. Hi!

    Thanks for highlighting the amount of brain power, knowledge, skill, and creativity that all good art requires of the artist. Good abstract art is immediately recognizable as distinct from poor abstract art, because it is sophisticated, nuanced, and created from a place of intuition infused knowledge. The knowledge base of the skilled abstract artist also includes an understanding of art history, and application of a broad range of techniques that are not limited to works created by abstract artists. I do not think that the word intention truly describes what it is that separates good from bad when it comes to abstract art. The intention must stem from a warehouse of knowledge that the artist possesses. This knowledge-base comes from study and practice. Thus, we could say that the intention is informed. Good abstract artists might throw paint on a canvas, but they know why, where, when, and how, to throw it! They also use interesting or novel materials and application methods, with understanding. I could go on and on. Lol. Anyway, thanks again for the article, and Happy Thanksgiving!

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