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8 Essential Art Styles Explained

Written by: Kris Mercer


Art that does not attempt to represent or depict a person, place or thing in the natural world but instead use shapes, colours, forms and marks to achieve an effect.

Composition VIII 1923 Geometric Abstraction

Wassily Kandinsky who was a Russian painter and art theorist, is generally credited as being the pioneer of abstract art. He wrote a famous theoretical work ‘On the Spiritual in Art’. He also wrote about how different colours, shapes and shades could be assigned to different emotions.

Nowadays abstract art encompasses a wide range of styles and methods although it still remains true to the original concept of expressing creativity through colour, form and pattern. Studies have also found in more recent times that it can have an emotional effect on its audience because it frees the mind from reality.


Expressionism differs from abstract art in that it does not necessarily abandon all representational elements. It refers to art in which the real-life image is manipulated in order to make it expressive of the artist’s inner emotions or ideas.

It has its origins in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century but is an art form that has grown and matured in time. Some of the early exponents of the movement were Edvard Munch (The Scream) and Vincent Van Gogh (Starry Night)

Starry Night – Vincent Van Gogh

Different forms of expressionist art have evolved but probably the most well known is abstract expressionism. A major figure in the abstract expressionist movement was Jackson Pollock. (1912-1956) His large scale drip paintings were called action paintings for a reason. It was a very physical process used to produce them, his works blend the terms abstraction and expressionism perfectly.

There is a wonderful YouTube video on Jackson Pollock’s ‘Blue poles’ [Number 11, 1952] a film narrated by Christine Dixon of the National Gallery of Australia. It immerses you into the world of Pollock and the artwork. You see the sheer size of the painting and also hear of the controversy that surrounded its purchase by the NGA in 1973.

Fine Art

Artworks that are to be appreciated primarily for their beauty and meaningfulness. The word “fine” does not denote the quality of the artwork in question, but the purity of the discipline.

Mona Lisa


In 1874, a group of artists calling themselves the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors and Printmakers put on an exhibition in Paris. The society included artists such as Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissarro.

Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris), gave the Impressionist movement its name when the critic Louis Leroy wrote a scathing review which appeared in the newspaper Le Charivari that was critically titled “The Exhibition of the Impressionists”.

Artwork by Cezanne

The artists’ loose brushwork gives an effect of spontaneity and effortlessness that masks their often carefully constructed compositions.

The impressionists tried to capture the temporary effects of the weather by working quickly, in front of their subjects, in the open air (en plein air) rather than in a studio. This resulted in a greater perception of light and colour in the natural scene.

Brushwork became rapid and broken into separate dabs in order to render the fleeting quality of light.

The independent collective had eight exhibitions organized between 1874 and 1886, with the number of participating artists ranging from nine to thirty. Pissarro was the only artist who exhibited in all eight shows. The individual artists saw few financial rewards from the Impressionist exhibitions. Although their art gradually did win a degree of public acceptance, even in the official Salon, as the new language with which to depict modern life.

Nowadays the style is more focused on the word “impression’. Contemporary painters will categorize their work as impressionist without necessarily trying to adhere to the old principles of en plein air painting
or trying to capture that fleeting moment of sunlight.

Pop Art

It is not widely known but the style originated in Britain, founded by the artist Richard Hamilton. “Pop art” the British artist wrote, would be: “Popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous and big business.

British Pop Art followed the progress of American society but viewed at a distance it was expressed somewhat romantically or with a touch of humour. Britons, David Hockney and Peter Blake are among the most famous of the time.

American Pop Art directly soaked up the culture. The artists there were living with the consumerism and the art produced was more an immediate result of that experience. American art was more emblematic and its artistry and attributes were more defined. Pop artists celebrated commonplace objects (such as soup cans, road signs and comic strips) and in this way looked to boost popular culture to the same ranking as fine art.

Roy Lichtenstein, Masterpiece, 1962, in 2017 the painting sold for $165 million

The New York artists Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist were part of an international phenomenon. This was a major shift for the overall direction of modern art of the day and identifiable images were reintroduced back into artwork. A drastic shift from the popular movement of Abstract Expressionism.

Pop art was readily accepted as a form of art suited to the highly technological, mass-media-orientated Western society. The public initially did not take it seriously, but by the end of the 20th century, it had become one of the most recognized art movements.

Today even a slight change to a celebrity figure or an item’s overall appearance can turn the image into a piece of Pop Art.

Quirky Art

Quirky art is not a particular style nor is it an art movement but it can be characterized by not readily falling under any other designated art term, although the artworks may be included in some.

It is usually art that is unusual in an interesting or appealing way Subjects can be whimsical, cute, bizarre or just plain out of the ordinary. I personally would classify some of the artworks of Craigie Aitchison in this genre.

Artwork by Craigie Aitchison


In the mid-nineteenth century, a new artistic movement came about in the style of realism. It was characterised by subjects being painted from everyday life in a naturalistic manner. It is also referred to as naturalism, as it attempts to represent the subject matter truthfully. Even if that is mundane, sordid or plain ugly.

Before this time paintings of events had been romanticised, idealised or quite often a work of fiction with mythological creatures being incorporated into a scene.

Gustave Courbet is often considered the leading figure of Realism. After exhibiting his painting “Burial
at Ornans” he commented “it was, in reality, the burial of Romanticism. Realism today no longer has to be gritty but it still encompasses the reality of life.

Gustave Courbet – Burial at Ornans


Surrealism officially began with the writer André Breton’s 1924 Surrealist manifesto, but the movement formed as early as 1917, inspired by the paintings of Italian Giorgio de Chirico, who captured street locations with a hallucinatory quality. (Although his imagery most often reflects his affinity for philosophy and for the mythology of his birthplace in Greece.)

Giorgio De Chirico Il Vaticinatore

The movement itself is often considered both cultural and revolutionary. The art form dedicating itself to portraying the subconscious and thus being a fundamental separation from any other traditional art styles.

Abstract objects in fantasy landscapes, irrational themes and unnerving, illogical scenes sometimes painted with photographic precision were the norm.

The centre of surrealism was Paris and they were known for collectively taking part in group actions, the most famous of these are Max Ernst, Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte.

Surrealists groups and literary publications have continued to be active up to the present day and contemporary artists are still highly influenced by this movement.