“I could have painted that”—Complex simplicity in abstract art

Abstract art: Jan Nelson (Australia 1955) Summer Collection (2004). Enamel on linen. RHS Abbott Bequest Fund 2004.20

Jan Nelson (Australia 1955) Summer Collection (2004). Enamel on linen. RHS Abbott Bequest Fund 2004.20

Abstract art is often ridiculed by the uninitiated observer—”I could have painted that” are words you often hear whispered in galleries.

This statement contains a hidden argument: This painting could have been created by me because it requires little technique. I am not an artist; therefore it cannot be considered art.

Summer Collection by Jan Nelson is a case in point. The straight horizontal lines are indeed something that anyone with a basic ability to hold a paintbrush ostensibly could recreate. But is this a valid argument against the status of this painting as a work of art?

Abstract Art

Traditional concepts of visual art are focused on skill, with the highest level of skill perceived to be the faithful representation of what we perceive to be our external reality. The history of art seems to follow an evolutionary trajectory from the early beginnings in caves to the photo-realistic oil paintings of the seventeenth century. For the casual observer, this evolutionary process is reversed in the early twentieth century when abstract art makes its entry. The strip of images shown below shows this evolution, starting with a naturalistic painting of a tree.

Dutch artist Piet Mondriaan started his career by painting impressionistic works, such as The Red Tree from 1908, seen second from the left. Mondriaan later became inspired by the cubist movement and painted The Gray Tree in 1911. He experimented further with abstracting the idea of a tree and produced Flowering Apple Tree. Later in his career he became mainly known for his compositions with strict geometrical patterns and primary colours iconic for the De Stijl movement.


Contemporary art is no longer restricted to a copy reality, but a way to interpret reality through the observation and technique of the artist. Originality and visual impact are now more important than mere skill of faithfully reproducing what is seen.

Next time when you hear somebody say that they could have painted this, simply ask: “Why didn’t you?”.