Sum it up: Figurative, abstract and semi-abstract paintings

By STUDY28|Violette Stepaniuk

We have looked at a number of paintings so far, some easier to understand than others. Although figurative art is relatively straight forward, distinguishing between abstract and semi-abstract works can be challenging for beginners. Let’s take another look at three of the paintings we have already looked at to summarize the key features of figurative, abstract and semi-abstract art.


• The subject of the work is recognizable, whether it’s a pond, a person, or a house.
• Although we may not understand what the artist is trying to tell us, we can recognize the individual elements shown.

Example: Reflections by Tanya Kirouac

Reflecting byTanya Kirouac

Courtesy of Tanya Kirouac

Tanya Kirouac | Reflections | encaustic on wood panel | 60 in x 40 in (152 cm x 102 cm) | 2013

There is no doubt as to what Tanya Kirouac’s impressionistic painting Reflections depicts. The subject is clearly a pond or a bay of a lake. We can see lily pods and wetland grasses. It’s a calm, sunny day. The blue sky and white clouds are reflecting in the smooth surface of the water. Read: Tanya Kirouac’s Reflections pays homage to Monet


• Non-representational – the subject of the work is not recognizable.
• Evokes a feeling of something rather than depicting it.

Example: Between the Melt by Chrstine Nobel

Abstract painting Between the Melt by Christine Nobel

Courtesy of Chrstine Nobel

Christine Nobel | Between the Melt | oil on panel | 32 in x 70 in (76 cm x 183 cm), triptych | 2014 © Christine Nobel

In this work Christine Nobel evokes a feeling of an end-of-winter landscape, when the snow is melting, and grass and flowers are poking through. The artist is not showing us what the landscape looks like but only suggests what it feels like. The dots and lines of yellow, red and darker green suggest flowers and grass. We are meant to feel the landscape, not to see it. Read: Christine Nobel layers six months of landscape study in abstract


• Abstract but with some figurative elements. For the most part, the subject of the work is not recognizable, but some representational elements are included. (There appears to be a sliding scale with respect to semi-abstract art.) Works depicting a recognizable but very stylized subject are also considered semi-abstract.
• Like abstract, semi-abstract evokes a feeling or a sense of something rather than depicting it.

Example: Enchanted Space VI by Eliane Saheurs 


Courtesy of Eliane Saheurs

Eliane Saheurs | Enchanted Space VI | acrylic on canvas | 48 in x 48 in (122 cm x 122 cm) | 2014

At first glance Enchanted Space VI is nothing but patches and smudges of colour; the subject seems to be unrecognizable. If we look closer, however, we can see rocks and water – a landscape begins to emerge. Although the artist gives us a bit more than just a feeling of a landscape, the recognizable bits that she is showing us are not enough to make this a figurative work, a fully recognizable landscape. Read: Eliane Saheurs creates enchanted spaces

Tip: If a painting seems to be abstract, look a little closer, give it some time, try slow looking. Are there any recognizable objects or a sense of space? If no, then the painting is most likely abstract. If yes, then you are probably looking at a semi-abstract work.

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