Lesson: Tomma Abts: Abstract Painting

  • Grade Level: High School (9-12 grade)
  • Subject Area: Visual Art, English
  • "Meko," 2006."Meko," 2006.
  • "Weet," 2006."Weet," 2006.
  • "Jelth," 2003."Jelth," 2003.
  • "Keke," 2006."Keke," 2006.
  • "Kobo," 1999."Kobo," 1999.


This lesson investigates the artwork of Tomma Abts and elements of abstract painting pertinent to her work. When Tomma Abts’ paintings first came to public attention at the turn of this new millennium, abstraction was not widely found among artists practicing in centers like London, Berlin or New York. Paintings of a decidedly narrative kind, with roots equally in old master paintings and vernacular illustration, was the focus, guiding the discourse towards a happy-go-lucky visuality, delightful to the eye and amusing in an untaxing way to the brain. Abts’ paintings delivered a shock: each of their elements was counter to prevailing taste. Small in size and subdued in palette, they are profoundly non-representational.


  • Students will use writing activities as a means of interpreting and understanding visual art and poetry.
  • Students will develop an understanding of the exhibition and abstract art


Abstraction is an artistic language that frees itself from subject matter to concentrate instead on content; that content is an essential expression of an idea or feeling, rather than a representation of an object from the real world.
Line is an element of art used to define space and contours, and to suggest mass and volume; a surface mark that can vary with width, direction, length and intensity.
Shade is the darker value of color made by adding black.
Depth is the illusion of distance in a two-dimensional work of art.
Flatness is the lacking of depth in a work of art.
Hue is pure color.
Complementary colors are any two colors opposite each other on the color wheel, such as green and red, blue and orange.
Tone is the gray quality of a color produced by adding its compliment.
Gradation deals with the gradient or shift of shadow and shade.
Non-representational are artworks without any recognizable subject matter; also referred to as nonobjective art.


Tomma Abts images in the Digital Archives

Lesson Strategy

An Introduction to Abstract Art
Since abstraction was introduced into Western European art at the beginning of the 20th century it has been defined as an artistic language that frees itself from subject matter to concentrate instead on content. It is that content that is an essential expression of an idea or feeling, rather than a representation of an object.

Non-objective art is not an invention of the 20th century — humans have made non-objective art since they first drew pictures in the dirt. In the Islamic religion the depiction of humans is not allowed, and consequently the Islamic culture developed a high standard of decorative arts. Calligraphy is also a form of non-figurative art. Abstract designs have also existed in Western culture in many contexts. However, abstract art is distinct from patternmaking in design, since it draws on the distinction between decorative art and fine art, in which a painting is an object of thoughtful contemplation in its own right.

Abstraction is the opposite of information. Information is the universal medium of circulation, and can be converted into and disseminated as data. But abstraction is inconvertible. True abstraction creates a singular experience of suspending meaning, the exhilarating sensation on the horizon of perception, opening up and the mind reeling as new ways to see, think, and feel become tangible.

Open discussion
Discuss the concept of abstraction with students including vocabulary of formal qualities like line, color, shape, etc.

  • What does it mean when something is abstract?
  • What does it mean when something is non-representational?
  • Are there other forms of which you are aware that are forms of non-representational art?

Read and discuss poetry and how it is interpreted. Billy Colin’s
Introduction to Poetry

Look at Tabel, 1999. Acrylic and oil on canvas. 18 7/8 × 15 in
Describe in your sketchbook the following:

  • How does Tomma Abts use formal elements in her paintings? Describe the color, value and hue.
  • Describe the paintings tonality.
  • How does the artist use shading and light? To what affect?
  • How does the artist use volume and space in this painting?
  • To what affect does the artists use gradation?
  • What in the painting is hidden and what is visible?
  • Is there any sign of process in the painting? What evidence do you see?
  • How would you describe 3-dimensionality within the work?
  • How would you describe the layers of paint on the canvas?
  • How would you define the artist’s process?

Look at Weet, 2006. Acrylic and oil on canvas. 18 7/8 × 15 in
Describe in your sketchbook the following:

  • How does Abts use complimentary colors?
  • What affect does it have to place these colors side by side?
  • Where does the artist use gradations of color in this work?
  • It has been said that Abts’ art is an art of decisions, revisions, corrections and adjustments, and that the cumulative textures, like scar tissue, give the impression that the final pictures are hard won. What is meant by this statement? Where do you see the evidence of this statement in the work?

Look at Kobo, 1999. Acrylic and oil on canvas. 18 7/8 × 15 in
Describe in your sketchbook the following:

  • Where is the light source coming from in this painting?
  • What evidence tells you this?
  • Is this contradictory information? To what affect?
  • List five other things that you notice about this painting.

Look at Keke, 2006. Acrylic and oil on canvas. 18 7/8 × 15 in
In your sketchbook describe:

  • What methods does Abts use to convey energy and movement?
  • Describe the energy/movement?
  • How does Abts create tensions in these paintings?
  • Are the angles and vectors in these paintings orderly and precise?
  • How do you think the artist made them?
  • How does the artist use highlights and shadows in this work?
  • Is there something unsettling about where the shadows fall? What is it?

Look at Meko, 2006. Acrylic and oil on canvas. 18 7/8 × 15 in
In student sketchbooks:
Consider how Abts’ choice of line, shape, size, and color affect the meaning of the work and message(s) that it communicates. Describe the movement in this painting.

  • What formal elements does the artist use?
  • Is there anything in your experience that reminds you of this painting?

Look at Jelth, 2003. Acrylic and oil on canvas. 18 7/8 × 15 in

Chose one painting and respond in the following manner:

Part I Decide if you would like to respond by writing an essay or poem.

Part II Abts’ paintings all have proper names; do the paintings have certain energy or personae that associates them with their names? Choose one painting and write a biography of the painting.

Her paintings bear first names as – or perhaps instead of — titles, as if they were representations of individual characters. The connection between a first named and the person who bears it is close and intimate. The names unearthed by Tomma Abts to serve as titles for her paintings seem to be appropriated from an isolated area and from a culturally remote people. By their strangeness the names also imply a different sense of time: one could imagine the people bearing them living their lives at a slower pace than we live ours.

Additional Resources

Laura Hoptman, Tomma Abts: Art for an Anxious Time
Abstract Art
See Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, Painting by numbers: Komar and Melamid’s Scienfific Guode to Art (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1997)
Jan Verwoert, The Beauty and Politics of Latency: On the Work of Tomma Abts
New York Times Article
Adam Szymczyk, The Pursuit

Keywords: Abstraction, painting

Lesson Plan: Tomma Abts: Abstract Painting