Wassily Kandinsky and Abstract Art


The “blue” of Lake Ontario

“The deeper the blue becomes, the more strongly it calls man towards the infinite, awakening in him a desire for the pure and, finally, for the supernatural… The brighter it becomes, the more it loses its sound, until it turns into silent stillness and becomes white.” ~ Wassily Kandinsky (via Brainy Quotes)

I’ve wanted to write about Kandinsky for awhile now because he’s considered the father of abstract painting. Recently, I saw some of his work at the Art Gallery of Ontario, in an exhibit titled The Great Upheaval: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collection (1910 – 1918).

“The Great Upheaval spotlighted the dynamism of this fertile period — as artists hurtled toward abstraction and the ultimate “great upheaval” of a catastrophic war — while presenting some of the foundational modern masterpieces that shaped the art of future generations.” ~ The Art Gallery of Ontario

I believe he has much to teach us about the purpose of creative expression, the power of colour and design, and the importance of the emotional aspects of art.

Who Was Kandinsky?

Wassily Kandinsky (1866 – 1944) was born in Russia and studied law and economics in Moscow. He didn’t begin painting until the age of 30. After studying and teaching art in Germany, Kandinsky moved to France in 1933, where he produced much of his well-known pieces, and lived there until his death in 1944.

Read more at Wikipedia.

Kandinsky WWI.jpg
Kandinsky WWI“. Via Wikipedia.


The Purpose of Art

“The artist must train not only his eye but also his soul.” ~ Wassily Kandinsky (via Brainy Quotes)

Kandinsky saw art as a pointing towards the spiritual or universal. He believed that everyone had a spiritual longing and that this could be expressed through art.

The Power of Colour and Design

“Color is a power which directly influences the soul.” ~ Wassily Kandinsky (via Brainy Quotes)

Kandinsky was not only an artist, he wrote extensively about art theory, especially colour and design.

Wassily Kandinsky - Points - Google Art Project.jpg
Wassily Kandinsky – Points – Google Art Project“. Via Wikipedia.

“Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for color, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential.” via Art Quotes


The Emotional Aspects of Art

“Every work of art is the child of its age and, in many cases, the mother of our emotions.”

Kandinsky often interpreted art through emotion. Emotions give meaning and they can be expressed through colour and design.

More on Kandinsky and Abstract Art

Kandinsky via Brain Pickings
Kandinsky book – Concerning the Spiritual in Art
Website on Kandinsky
What do Abstract Expressionism and Graffiti have in common?

Abstract photography is different than painting because we are abstracting from a literal source something that is not literal – expressing a feeling or quality of the source itself or from the photographer.

But, like painting, it is an art form that is not necessarily understood, but felt. Abstract photography can teach us to tap into the emotional aspects of our work, which can be carried over into all of our images. Composition is as important here as it is in painting.

Going Abstract, a four week online workshop will begin November 3rd. Learn more here.

David duChemin’s book, The Visual Imagination, is another helpful resource for abstract photography.


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More than a Rock


From Newfoundland, an island of rock

One of my favourite writers (and photographers) is Guy Tal.

Tal lives and works in the desert southwest and his photographs are inspired by wildness and his intimate connection with nature. He has a deep grounding in visual elements and aesthetics, which allow him to express personal meaning.

Guy Tal’s blog essays are always well written and thought provoking. Recently, he came out with an e-book called More than a Rock, a collection of his blog posts organized by subject. And, the cost? Only $4.99!

I must admit the title drew me in, as I recently wrote about my own obsession with rocks.

These essays are quite philosophical in nature – on photography, art, and creativity. For a couple of weeks, these were my morning reading, and I wrote pages and pages of notes. Here is a sampling of my favourite quotes, ideas, and takeaways. All quotes are by Guy Tal, unless otherwise noted.

On Art

“At an early stage it is worth trying to articulate the concept in actual words. This helps bridge the gap between the spoken language, which most of us are taught to communicate effectively in, and the visual language. This may be the equivalent of learning how to translate simple expressions from your native tongue to one you are not as fluent in. Still, it is worth keeping in mind that, like any language, the visual language also has its own expressions and nuances that may not be expressible in others.” ~ The Concept

Like Tal, I believe that knowing why you photograph what you do and what emotional responses your subjects evoke is an important step in uncovering your artistic vision. Being able to talk about your photographs – beyond “I liked it” or “it was interesting.” These phrases tell us nothing.

In the first selection of essays from the book, Tal focuses on what it means to be an artist, especially one whose medium is photography. Art comes from our emotional response (or relationship) with a subject or place.

We need not worry about certain subjects being “done before” because each of us brings our own unique sensibilities and meaning to what we photograph. We must trust that what draws us is worthy. Our art (photography) will flow from that trust.

“What makes an artist? Not education, what other’s think, or even what they produce. What identifies an artist is passion, creativity and philosophy. By philosophy, I mean it becomes a metaphor for life. We begin to see and interpret and engage with the world through it; it is not something we do at random times andplaces between other activities. It is a constant in the way we experience the world everywhere, all the time.”


On Craft

Tal begins this section of the book by talking about teaching. He teaches workshops in the desert southwest, where he also lives.

“Teaching creativity, inspiration and personal expression are especially challenging. There are no formulas. The way to finding your artistic vision is to search your own mind. It’s not easy. Progress requires personal investment. There are no shortcuts.”

As someone who teaches workshops in seeing, I know that we first have to go within. What are we seeing, hearing, feeling? And, why is that important to me?

Craft is about more than learning composition or having the right equipment. It’s about learning how to communicate. It requires presence and deep looking, as well as self-awareness – of resistance, judgment, attitudes, emotions, ideas, concepts. It requires visualization and storytelling.

“A concept has significance – a message, emotion, a statement, a metaphor, a story. Many photographers never consider the need for a concept. Instead, they set out in search of aesthetically pleasing subjects and compositions, without considering any greater meaning.”

Be confident and truthful about who you are and what you want to explore and share.

On Experiences

In this section, Tal encourages us to be clear, deliberate, and passionate about how we live our lives and experience each moment. He left a corporate career to live on his own terms.

He posits that the experience or process of photography is its own reward. How do we measure this type of reward?

“These experiences are another kind of retirement savings – the moments and memories I will some day look back upon with the same bittersweet joy and immense gratitude as I did when experiencing them, and know that I had truly lived.”

The life of an artist is counter-cultural and not easy. Yet, it can lead to appreciation and gratitude for life. It can lead to a new definition of happiness.

“I’m not interested in any outcome. I’m not interested in any achievement. I’m not trying to get somewhere. I’m not trying to succeed in my life. My life is not about success. It’s about self-realization and fulfillment.” ~ Satish Kumar

With regards to photography, Tal encourages creating photographs that reflect our experience, not just the aesthetics of the scene. Rather than focusing on how to make an image, focus first on the why.

Guy Tal has a love for wild places and their preservation, which is reflected in some of the essays in this section. He says that preservation is not just for recreational use; that the experience of being in these wild places is good for the soul. And, we can photograph these places in a way that reflects their mystery.


The final section of the book contains meditations on life, art, and meaning … and how they’re intertwined. I thoroughly enjoyed his meditation on the significance of rock.

“It is hard to argue with a rock, and harder still to argue with a rock that used to be a living being, that has seen the rise and fall of species no longer in existence, and the feeble and fleeting lives of humans like ourselves. The rock is the great equalizer and the great liberator, the great reminder, the great setter or priorities and the great debunker of illusions, dissonance and delusions of grandeur.”

These meditations remind me that a meaningful life is about following your own hero’s journey and resisting the pull of conformity. Be your ordinary self, without concern of what others will think. Experience each moment of your life. Follow and trust your own discoveries, inspirations, ideas, and experiences. Learn focused attention. Be grateful and humble.

There is so much more where this came from. If you enjoyed these excerpts, I think you will find the essays as inspiring as I did.

Are you interested in learning more about photographs as metaphors? Sally Gentle Drew and I are co-creating a new online workshop on that topic that will include visual journaling. You can add your name to our interest list here.


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Are your Photographs Alive?


The forest is alive.

The word “alive” keeps coming up for me lately. According to Merriam-Webster, being alive is about having life, breath, energy, and alertness; being animate.

The quote below came in an email from Lauren Bacon (who asks great questions, by the way, via her curiosity experiments).

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” ~ Howard Thurman

She then asked us to consider three important questions.

What makes you come alive? Where are you going? And, who will go with you?

Important questions at any time. We can also ask ourselves what makes us come alive when we’re photographing.

Photographs are a two dimensional depiction of a slice of life – a moment of aliveness, so what we felt in that moment should come across in the image.

According to Ansel Adams, everything is alive.

“The whole world is, to me, very much “alive” – all the little growing things, even the rocks. I can’t look at a swell bit of grass and earth, for instance, without feeling the essential life – the things going on – within them. The same goes for a mountain, or a bit of the ocean, or a magnificent piece of old wood.” ― Ansel Adams via Goodreads

When we talk about getting to essence in our photographs, or making photographs that have impact or soul, we’re really talking about whether our photographs feel alive.

Sean Kernan, in his book, Looking into the Light, advises that, when looking at one of your own images, don’t ask whether it’s good, but whether it’s alive (Chapter 4).

Does it resonate with you?

Does it have energy?

Does it have meaning beyond what it is?

Does it make you feel something?

Is there an element of surprise?

Does it tell a story or invite questions?

Kernan suggests creating a folder of photographs that feel alive to you (Chapter 7). I’ve started an album for myself on Flickr.

In recent workshops, I’ve talked about the moment when we click the shutter on our cameras as being a type of “photographic namaste” – when the essence or soul or aliveness in you meets the essence or soul or aliveness of what you see.

It’s a moment of pure connection.

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