Why does that piece of art you love look the way it looks? One key to understanding and interpreting art is a basic understanding of art styles. From figurative to abstract, there are many art styles to choose from, each of which offers a unique avenue for artists to express their vision, capture a subject or evoke an emotion. Below, we’ve rounded up five major art styles and explored their origins. Whether you are brand new to the art world or need a refresher on the basics, you’ll find a starting point here for refining your personal aesthetic and taste.
While discovering different art styles to focus your art collecting, consider the following broad categories. Each style and its correlating subject matter, intentions, and ideology speak in broad strokes for the work to be found in each category. And, as always, keep exploring Artrepreneur’s Curated Collections page to find out how artists from around the world interpret these art styles and many more to make them their own.
Perhaps the logical style, to begin with, is the most representational of the styles, by which I mean it contains subject matter clearly derived from the real world. Figurative art is classified by its ability for the subject to be recognized with relative ease. Subjects can range from the human figure to observed landscapes, found objects to animal studies.
While figurative does mean representational, it does not necessarily mean realistic. It is important to note that the figurative form does not limit an artist’s expression of style. The Mona Lisa is figurative just as much as Van Gogh’s self-portraits.
Another representational style, one could include still life within the figurative art umbrella. This type of work captures one moment in time, typically prearranged, shown on a surface. As the name suggests, there is no movement to be found in a still life. Common motifs include commonplace objects, such as bowls, vases, fruit, pipes, and flowers.
Though artists have often used this style for demonstrating mastery of form and light, still lifes as standalone pieces can speak to the artist’s priorities, and surroundings, or even convey an underlying message. For example, a popular type of still life artwork called vanitas (as in “vanity”) includes symbolic objects that represent the fragility of life alongside the evergreen, lingering presence of death.
Easily recognized, portraits are another figurative style that, at the most basic level, involves the depiction of a face. Portraits can range from the hyper-realistic to the hyper-stylized, depending on the artist’s intention for the piece. These works often speak to the character or personality of the subject, and sometimes even their mood at that particular moment.
Portraits are an especially powerful art style given the immediacy of the subject. The men or women depicted will often meet the gaze of the viewer, creating a moment of eye contact that maybe isn’t as direct in other styles. These works are confrontational and personal; they ask you to get to know the person who has been painted.
Back in the day, portraits were almost exclusively commissioned by the wealthy as commemorative works, often in the form of a memorial. It was most important at the time to immortalize the subject. Though still a priority in portrait painting even now, more modern takes have allowed for greater nuance, such as contributing to a cultural movement or making a political statement. Very rarely is an artist simply asking you to look at a face.
What could very well be known as the black sheep of art, the abstract style is generally misunderstood. For many, the word conjures images of Jackson Pollock hovering over his floor canvas or Mark Rothko rendering giant painted rectangles. Though accurate, these ideas often bring with them a kind of joking, “Well, I could do that” connotation.
While abstract art does include Pollock’s paint-splattered work and Rothko’s color fields, the style at its core is focused on the non-representational. As opposed to figurative works, abstract ones are more about evoking feelings in the viewer. When coupled with the artist’s process—calculated, physical, on a whim, or otherwise—a distinct message can be revealed.
This departure from representation is, in fact, what the word abstract means: “to withdraw something from something else.” As a sort of dilution of the original subject, it may take longer for the intention to resonate with a viewer. However, given the open-ended nature of the abstract styles, that resonance may have more strength since there is room for a viewer to impose a personal take. You may feel that you “understand” the work on a level deeper than other viewers—abstract art has a way of awakening and nestling into the subconscious mind.
Curious about how to look at contemporary art to discover whether or not it speaks to you? We recommend “Seeing Slowly” by Michael Findlay on our list of Best Art Books for Beginners for a primer on orienting yourself in the modern art landscape as you find your perfect art style.
In the geometric style, one can find heavy use of shapes to guide the composition. Geometric art often leans into pattern and symmetry, but it can also cross into the abstract with more loose definitions of balance. It can even become representational—just take a look at Picasso and the other cubists.
The roots of geometric art can be traced back to the vases of ancient Greece, and its design elements heavily influenced the Art Deco movement of the 20s and 30s. With the speedy emergence of new technologies, geometric works took a dynamic turn at the height of Futurism. Since then, with the onset of the Internet, the style now naturally brings to mind images of computer hard drives, binary code, and keyboards. The geometric style can simultaneously represent the language of both order and chaos, thus is the nature of tech.
When you see a piece of art that you love, knowing the art style it belongs to can help you learn more about it. It can also propel you to discover even more like it — and, should you decide to bring it home, allow you to acquire more works on a similar theme for a cohesive collection. Though this is not a comprehensive list of the fundamentals, these five styles will help budding art lovers to plant their roots. If you are interested in exploring more art styles, visit Artrepreneur’s Curated Collections page and glimpse more movements such as maximalism, surrealism, vintage, and botanicals.
What is your favorite art style? Let us know in the comments.
Kendall McKinnon is a freelance writer based in Savannah, GA. Her work has been featured in Savannah Magazine, France Today, District, and more.