Definitions, Found drawings and a bridge


Realism in art, representational art, abstraction and non-representational art? How we love to categorize our work and label ourselves. I am as interested in the cross-over points as I am in the red blooded variety of any category.

Quite simply, representational art represents something. For instance that might be a person, a book, a landscape, an animal, a seascape, a dream.

To the other extreme, non-representational art is not trying to represent any “thing”, any object or view.

Realism purports to define objects or situations in a representational way. High Realism leaves out no details. Every nick and scratch is seen. It’s a two dimensional illusion (trompe-l’oeil – fools they eye) that you are looking at something rounded, three-dimensional, or having depth and texture. It sometimes manifests in the animalier school which some artists lightly call the “hair of the dog” school of art in which every hair of the dog is evident. Robert Bateman is admirable in his pyrotechnical ability to make a person feel that if you just touched the painting you could feel the fur and feathers.

If you think of representational and non-representational art as two opposite poles of a continuum then you will be able to situate many different manifestations of art along its long slope from one end to the other, Realism being at the furthest reach on the Representational end of the spectrum.

Another example, Alex Colville, who taught at Mount Allison University for the greater part of his career, freezes a moment in time in the lives of ordinary individuals; or Mary Pratt who studied with Colville at Mount Allison U and became a high realism painter capturing ordinary household events such as canning jellies or preparing chicken for dinner in intensely detailed images that glow with light. This type of realism competes with photography, often uses photography for reference and surpasses the ordinary person’s vision of the same recorded event by elevating it and separating it out of its context. While essential details are minutely defined; unnecessary details are eliminated. Here are some Internet references for these Canadian artists:

What separates the fine Realist painter from the vast number of artists who chose to paint this way are the choice of subject, the abstract qualities of the composition, the mood and the ability to imbue the message with some kind of statement that transcends the object with meaning.

Bateman has an environmental message; Pratt brings an awareness of an intrinsic vision of beauty to the common woman’s household tasks; Colville is depicting emotional tensions in daily life.

Realism is at once a category of its own and a part of representational art.

I like to think of Mark Rothko and his large superimposed colour fields as the other pole of the spectrum – the non-representational.

His intentions are not to represent any real thing except the relationship of one colour to another. His work is a deep seated exploration of a very specific, narrow concern from the gamut of abstract concepts that artists use to compose visual statements with. His are not random marks on a canvas but studies in colour relationships and they became a fixation for a large portion of his production. The strength in his work comes from the profound exploration he undertook and expressed.

With the same kind of involvement, Joseph Albers explores colour. His work is less emotional, a bit more pedantic in my view, and still very beautiful. It’s more of human scale and therefore more intimate. I find his work meditative, not only in the use of colour but in the quietness of the compositions.

He worked with a persistent precision to explore relationships of colour. He chose to use simple squares and rectangular shapes to minimize the attention to shape and to maximize the viewers understanding of colour in what he was painting.

Paintings of such apparent simplicity sometimes baffle uninformed viewers. It looks simple. It’s the same simplicity that an Olympic figure skater brings to the skating rink. It looks simple. However, just try, and with varying degrees we slip or fall. It’s not as easy as it looks.

Now for the last of the four definitions I started out to explain, Abstract is the hardest to come to terms with because it has several meanings in the English language. I always go back to the etymological definition “from ab(s)- “away” + trahere “draw” to explain how I understand it in the artist’s context. For me, it broadly means drawing out the essence of something. As a result of there being a something to draw something out of, I see abstract art sitting right in the middle of the representational-to-non-representational spectrum.

Jean Riopelle exemplifies an artist working in an abstract mode. Originally, he leaned far closer to the non-representational pole. In his later years, he returned to representational work incorporating a private language of non-representational forms as he drew from nature. Look at some of his marvelous lithographic work. It’s full of abstract forms of bugs, animals, plants and his Northern Quebec landscape so dear to his heart. His series on geese is very visually inventive. He alternates calligraphic non-representational marks with representational snow geese that are only an abstract of the bird form. There are no feathers evident but the bird shape is as essentially “goose” as can be.

Piet Mondrian was drawing a fruit tree. After drawing a fairly classic rendition of the tree, he started to explore the essential directions of the tree limbs. On a third and fourth time around, the lines became more abstract (drawing out the essence) than representational. Here is the cross over that I’m interested in. The tree he is drawing from is real. The first drawing is quite recognizably a tree. Then next is an exploration of tree-ness and branch-ness. The next is less clearly a tree. This drawing sequence was pivotal in his work and pivotal in art history. He began to look for the purest form. In that search, he eventually abandonned representational work and worked with simply, purely rectangular shapes and primary colour strategically placed. His journey into abstraction passed through a phase of Cubism which Braque and Picasso had coined, and moved forward into a purification of form that had spiritual meaning rather than a physical shape or representational meaning. The second of these Internet references shows an excellent sequence of his tree drawings wherein he passes from the representational to the abstract to the non-representational

Now, at the beginning of this post, I gave you a picture of an overpass bridge on a Montreal highway. My cousin and I were trying to get home as a heavy winter snow storm was beginning to fly. A vehicle had slid out of control and was blocking the highway in front of us. We waited almost an hour, inching along as the traffic slowly was directed around the semi-truck trailer that had caused the traffic jam.

The picture that I have shown of the overpass is definitely real. One can recognize the support beam as similar to other highway structures. The buildings behind it give it scale. For sure, there is only a small portion of the overpass captured in the photo frame but it doesn’t ever look like something else and, being a photo, it is clearly not a painting or an abstraction of an overpass.

As my cousin and I were bored and waiting, I started to observe this bridge and the numerous markings on it. Some were from the weather – water staining, white effluorescence from salts leaching from the concrete, graffiti from enterprising individuals born to paint, and some curious repeated marks – dots, dashes and rectangles – that I finally figured out were markings of a structural engineer or inspector.

There has been a lot of concern about the integrity of infrastructure – bridges, overpasses, highways, culverts, water mains, et cetera, lately following some disastrous collapses. Now the municipalities and provincial authorities are obliged to inspect and identify what needs to be done to ensure public safety. The first phase is to do a condition inspection to see what needs to be done. The second phase is to prepare a report giving priority to required works. The third is to get approval and funding for the work and the fourth is to get the work done once the funding is in place.

Without some indelible markings to remind one of what was found in phase one, the work would need to be re-identified at the time of repairs. So the inspector marks all the necessary repairs with an engineer’s code of markings in spray paint. The marks mean something to the engineer. To a non-initiated, they are just like children’s drawings – an esoteric shorthand.

So here are some pictures that I took that have transcended the “realism” category by their “non-representational” appearance. They rapidly move out of our comfort zone as “real” and enter a zone in which we ask, “what the heck is that?”


You can still see this is a work in concrete and since you know it is part of an overpass you have no difficulty in determining that it is a small slice of “overpass”.


This is where I get excited about the images. In effect, it is a found drawing. As I say, this must mean something to the engineer and it is a piece of real concrete with important information coded upon it. But for me, for others, it is out of context. By virtue of having cropped the photo of the “overpass” I have something that seems at easiest, an abstract image; or, if you come by this on its own, without the explanatory text, it seems something totally non-representational.




Funnily enough, with the last photo here, the very recognizable graffiti makes this image more representational than the two previous ones. There is context to help translate what is going on in the image.


3 Responses to “Definitions, Found drawings and a bridge”

  1. forestrat Says:

    I just found your blog. It looks very interesting. (sorry, that’s the most pithy comment I can come up with at the moment).

    I have no formal art training and I can’t draw my way out of a paper bag, but I love to learn about all forms of art. My outlet is photography where of course I struggle with what is art and what is merely recording.

    I’ll be back when I have more time for contemplation. Thanks.

  2. Gandalfthe5000ator Says:

    Thanks for posting these pics. I scrolled down to them and found myself imagining an artist at work on them.
    Are you suggesting with your recognizable graffiti photo that this might be in fact a reminder for future repairs to be done on structures?

  3. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Not to mix up two things here:
    The engineering department markings are drawings in and of themselves. They are “work” or informational drawings, in this case quite specific and esoteric to the engineering world. The engineers using them know what they mean. They indicate structural repairs to be done; that’s my educated guess, having worked in the Property Management field for many years.
    The last graffiti photo is different. It is not informational for future repairs. Rather, it is a decorative statement superimposed on the structure and has no related meaning to the bridge as far as I can tell. Again, it’s an educated guess. Some people would argue with me about the “decorativeness” of it.
    In this creative world of Art, capital A, many styles emerge without the general populace being able to understand the purpose of them nor the form. Graffiti art of this type has become endemic. It’s all over the place in all countries. It’s the bane of Property Managers. It’s terribly expensive to get rid of.
    But I’ve noticed that some building owners have actively sought out graffiti-ists, if you can call them that, to decorate their buildings. There seems to be a respect between these street artists, where they will leave alone certain building walls if they have a mural on them or a full sized graffiti decoration.
    Discussion of graffiti could take up a whole book at this point. It’s no longer a cutting edge art form.

    What I was trying to explain in my last comment is that realism in art describes work that is something you can see and replicate. If a person painted a portion of a bridge with graffiti on it as accurately as he or she could, then that would be a realist painting; but the painting would need sufficient information to identify the bridge structure and the graffiti as it is. The end result might look abstract by the way the bridge-plus-graffiti was depicted because of the cropping or framing a fragment of the bridge as the subject.
    It’s precisely this grey area (which I find quite difficult to explain in words) that I find interesting. I go looking for found drawings where the working man has superimposed informational drawings on real things – roadways, structures, construction sites, etc – where the image becomes abstract because it is taken out of its context while at the same time being something tangible or “real”.

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