Abstract Art

Activity Guide by Kate Kwasneski
Intern, Grinnell College Museum of Art


In modern times, there are two main types of art: abstract and representational. Representational art is meant to represent something, it is meant to look realistic and depict something in real life. You can think about the difference between representational and abstract art as the difference between music that has words and music does not have words or instrumental music. Instrumental music uses things like harmony, pitch, and rhythm to engage us. Abstract art uses color, shapes, lines and textures to engage us. Today, we are going to talk about abstract art. There are two main kinds of abstract art: geometric abstract art tends to have specific shapes next to each other, while lyrical abstract art has more flowy colors and lines. Abstract art became most popular after WWII, but there has always been some abstraction in many kinds of art.

 Emmi Whitehorse, Untitled and Carrie Moyer, Untitled
Emmi Whitehorse (b. 1957), Untitled, 2015. Etching, 30.5 x 25.875 inches. Collections of Grinnell College Museum of Art, Marie-Louise and Samuel R. Rosenthal Fund. Carrie Moyer (b. 1960), Untitled, 2019. Print, 30 x 21.5 inches. Collections of Grinnell College Museum of Art, Marie-Louise and Samuel R. Rosenthal Fund. Featured in Let Yourself Continue.


Here are two pieces from the Grinnell College Museum of Art collection featured in the exhibition Let Yourself Continue. They are both very abstract. Look closely at them: what do you see? How are they similar, and how are they different? Do they remind you of anything in real life, even if they are abstract?  It can be fun to look at abstract art and try to find shapes in the same way people try to find shapes in the clouds. Make a list of descriptive words about the artworks. Island, map, layered, pond, nature, bright. 

Ida Rittenberg Kohlmeyer, Smogged In
Ida Rittenberg Kohlmeyer (1912 - 1997), Smogged In, 1973. Lithograph, 19.25 x 25.625 inches. Collections of Grinnell College Museum of Art, Marie-Louise and Samuel R. Rosenthal Fund. Featured in Let Yourself Continue.

This print is also in the Museum’s collection. What do you see here? It is called Smogged In. Smog is sort of like fog, but it usually happens in cities and is caused by pollution. This print could represent a pretty view of a city being hidden by the black smog. Abstract art can tell a story just as well as representational art, even if it is not meant to look like anything in real life.

Lily Deitchman Ente, Abstraction(#198)
Lily Deitchman Ente (1905 - 1984), Abstraction (#198), 1960 – 1970. Monoprint, 26 x 24 inches. Collections of Grinnell College Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Esrig.

A lot of abstract art uses color, as we have seen already. But you can also make abstract art with very few colors at all! In this example, the artist uses just black, grey, and white. She focuses on shape and texture to achieve an interesting result with very little color. When making abstract art with only one color, it can be helpful to think about the negative space – the places where the artist does not put anything. That would be the black parts in this print.


Today, you can create abstract art! Here are a few examples of some abstract art I made. You can use watercolor, like I did, or you can use markers, crayons, or just a pencil and paper. Think about how you will use lines, shapes, colors, textures, and layering. Look at your abstract art after you have finished it and see if it reminds you of anything from the real world!

Example images

In abstract art especially, it is easy to go fast. But if you stop and think about what you are making, you can have a lot more fun with it and be prouder of your final piece! Think about the shapes and colors that you are using, and how they interact. Think about putting shapes within other shapes, or having a line across all the shapes. Do you want to use more defined shapes or more blotches of color? Maybe a combination of both? Are all of your colors similar, or are they different? Think about whether your colors are warm or cool.


Tell the story of your art! Write about anything that you see in it. Or write about why you made the shapes you did. Sing the art! What sorts of rhythms and sounds can you imagine the shapes making? Or try writing a haiku about the art! A haiku is a type of Japanese poetry with 3 lines. The first line has 5 syllables, the second line has 7 syllables, and the last line has 5 syllables again. Here is a haiku that Tilly wrote about the example image on the left:

Inside, hot center.

Black seeds come dancing outwards

Beyond cool edges.

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