An abstract picture never gives the superficial likeness, even if it starts from a real object. It is trying, rather, to express how the painter felt as he looked at a thing, a person, or a scene.
We all have these feelings, but we are not all inclined, or inwardly ready, to bring them to expression. Let us consider a few examples, which can, of course, elucidate only the author's own sensations. It is certain that other people will feel quite differently, and it is precisely this difference or even opposition of sensations, natural among different people which explains why an abstract representation can never be generally understood.
If the author recites the days of the week he sees Sunday as orange-red, Monday as gray-blue, Tuesday as dark yellow, Wednesday white with gray shadows, Thursday violet, friday graygreen, and Saturday a brassy yellow. He also see colors in numbers: one is white with gray, two is light yellow, three is blue, four is brown, five is light red, six light gray, seven orange, eight bluegreen, nine red-brown, and zero is light blue. Combined numbers have yet other colors.
In these examples, which could be extended to include letters and even verbal concepts of feeling, the author reaches an abstraction only through color, and this seems natural: where there is abstract form or a concept which cannot be attached to a form, the abstraction can be expressed only in color. What awakens a sensation in these examples has already been formally abstracted.
Numbers and letters consist of lines, and the line itself is, in drawing and painting and even in geometry, the abstraction of a surface. Where something is already abstract it cannot be abstracted further. How much the line is already an abstraction can be proved thus: there is no object which consists only of lines; it would have no substance. Objects are made up of surfaces, and surfaces in pictures are abstractions of the solid forms of which the whole universe consists.
Every artificially created form is an abstraction: a bottle, for example, but not a gourd or a pear. These latter growths clearly assume their form according to an ideal which could be expressed in universal terms by the outline of a white wine or champagne bottle. The formula for all these natural forms (let us refer to what was said at the beginning about aiding drawing from memory by using basic shapes) is, on a surface, a simple, symmetrical figure, described by continuous curves or straight lines, like the oval, parabola, or unequal triangle. Multiple symmetrical forms, like the circle, ellipse, or equilateral triangle, occur less often in the larger works of nature but are more frequent in flowers, fruit, or smaller, almost microscopic things.
Every pictorial representation has always to deal with two problems of abstraction, one of color and one of form. Even color by itself must have some form definition or it could not be seen. All abstractions must ultimately be dominated by form and color as their means of expression.
Suppose we hear, or say to ourselves, words like "tram" or "nude" or "winter morning." The very sounds of the words, or the sight of them if we are reading, evokes something pictorial. It usually derives from something remembered, sometimes from something dreamed. If we set about painting or drawing this pictorial impression the immediate memory' fades. Then we begin to think: "What was it like?" or "What belongs to it?
What is the essence of a winter morning? Which winter morning?" This is not what is wanted here! As soon as we think and draw we seek the whole impression, the whole form of the object. With practice we can learn to fix the first idea without trying to complete it. This will produce something of the same effect we find in many of Picasso's pictures, an assemblage of fragments.
Perhaps we first see a tram's buffer, the yellow of the seat, the knee of a passenger, the number plate on the outside, rails between paving stones. If we depict this assemblage it is still no abstraction; it is a stage towards it, in that we have learned to concentrate on what the memory unconsciously has retained from the whole. But abstraction also means selection.