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Between Abstract Art and Figurative Art, we can draw more parallels than one would expect… What distinguishes these two Art Forms? Are they opposite poles or rather two distant cousins?

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When looking at a figurative painting and an abstract work, they give us the impression of coming from two different worlds. One is clearly grounded - based on the objects which surround us; the other appears as a product of the artist’s mind.

Conventionally seen as two extremes, the distinction itself arrives from the emergence of Abstractism, a strand of Modern Art…

What is the difference between Abstract and Figurative Art?

This distinction has become a central one to the Arts, but it is more fragile than one would assume.

The fundamental difference lies in what we see: is it a clear and realistic representation of a subject or a specific object, or rather an indistinct mass of colours and pure geometric forms? 

Some sustain that the source or origin of the subject stands between the two. However, the sensations and atmospheres come from the real world, inner and outer stimuli. Abstract or concrete, the two overlap in our perception and understanding of the world.

Therefore, in reality the two take from the same world, trying to present the power, subtle tensions and fine emotions faithfully representing a state, subject and theme. In contemporary works the two forms are often combined, overlapping and merging as the boundaries between the two become even more indistinct.

But how can we differentiate the two?


Raaymond Gantner, Juntos, 2020, Courtesy of Galerie Anna25 ©2021 Kooness.


What is Figurative Art?

Firstly, Figurative Art refers to artworks which retain aspects of the real world. Directly and explicitly representational, it can refer to works which are based on objects, subjects, figures or landscapes which are reproduced in all their details.

Physical objects, real people, recognisable items, light and shade, chiaroscuro effects – this is the vocabulary of the representational and objective opposite pole to Abstract Art.


Hiromi Sengoku, Someday, We Will Go There In A Sparkling Green Boat, 2011, Courtesy of Galerie Bruno Massa ©2021 Kooness.​​​​​​


Hiromi Sengoku, Beyond Beyond The Summer, 2018, Courtesy of Galerie Bruno Massa ©2021 Kooness.


Rhed, Boy Blue, 2019, Courtesy of Tanya Baxter Contemporary


Living and working in Tokyo, Hiromi Sengoku is a Japanese artist born in 1982. We can describe her work as figurative. It clearly represents subjects that we recognise: children in a swimming pool. It is not difficult for us to see this and perhaps it makes us think of the atmosphere and our own memories. It is a faithful representation of a subject, which captures the uniqueness of the moment.

US based Justin Wheatley's painting depicts a surreal scene of 10 houses. The composition shows them in a circle. We cannot doubt that these are houses. They are unquestionably identifiable, even though they become a symbol for something else, gathered as if they were having a discussion.


Justin Wheatley, Morning Pep Talk, 2018, Courtesy of Abend Gallery ©2021 Kooness.


We recognise the subjects and objects depicted in Figurative works. We admire the mastered technique and ability to reproduce exactly, rather than the power of emotionally charged strokes, pure lines and geometric shapes.

What is Abstract Art?

On the other hand, Abstract Art literally distinguishes itself from the Figurative. Also known as non-objective art or non-representational art, it can refer to works which are based on objects, subjects, figures or landscapes which have been simplified.

German artist Alvar Beyer plays with natural sceneries. However, his works are impressions of journeys which are more distant from a realistic depiction of the view.


Alvar Beyer, Tolkien, 2021, Courtesy of Galerie Probst ©2021 Kooness


The works capture intense experiences through bold colours and allusive shapes. Reduced to schematic forms, geometric shapes and gestural strokes, the tie with the material is weakened – ‘till breaking point.

Italian artist Ornella Uboldi’s paintings are abstract and minimalist. Her research is based on the use of colours to evoke positive feelings and emotions in the observer – therapeutically inviting introspective reflection.

The connection with the physical is hardly visible. It gives space to abstract thought – the space of emotions, impulses and imagination.


Ornella Uboldi, Christmas shopping, 2017, Courtesy of Hysteria Art ©2021 Kooness


How can we connect the very distinct Abstract and Figurative Art Forms?

However absurd this may sound; Abstract artworks and Figurative paintings can be seen as closer than what one could ever imagine.

At first glance, the works we have described are complete opposites. But by focusing on a subject - an object, form or theme – the idea of all artists is to capture the essence, sensations and fleeting emotions.

The more we look towards Contemporary Art, the more we realise that the two art forms are not very different today. In fact, ‘Abstract Figurative Art’ is becoming more and more common as the borders blend.

What is Abstract Figurative Art? It is the combination of these two Art Forms in one work, giving importance both to inner sensations and physical objects. 

Even though Abstract Figurative Art does not officially represent an art form in itself, many artworks feature sketched abstract figures mix with recognisable details. We can see it as a new category which breaks the blunt separation. But we can also recognise it as proof of the similarity between the two art forms.

Only by understanding the Abstract Figurative artworks as an application of different methods, can we fully comprehend these artistic techniques.They grasp a sensation through figurative prints, abstract figures in paintings and confusing surroundings which give brief glances of detailed shapes.

Look around you, more works can be seen as Abstract Figurative mixture, than those which can be ascribed to only one of the two styles.

Nowadays, we see freed aesthetics which combine, merge, blend and overlap techniques, topics and styles. The two cousins, Abstract and Figurative Art, are closer than ever before.


Valeria Feliù, The Ley’s Whitebeam guardian keeper, 2021, Courtesy of Kristen Keagli ©2021 Kooness.


Cover image: Raaymond Gantner, Juntos, 2020, Courtesy of Galerie Anna25 ©2021 Kooness.

Written by Zoë Rivas Zanello

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