Nefelibata: Cloudwalker

The word Nefelibata has drawn my attention recently. The word originates in Portugese, derived from ‘nephele’ (cloud) and ‘batha’ (a place to walk.) It refers to one who lives in their own imagination or dreams, or one who does not abide by the precepts of society, literature or art; an unconventional, unorthodox person.


One of the things I often repeat in my workshops is that I’m ‘not encumbered by reality.’ I am inspired by reality, but I don’t feel obligated to try to reproduce it. In fact, when I come too close to reality in my artwork, I’m often unsatisfied. I feel that the interpretation of that reality is more interesting than accuracy. I’m drawn to work that ‘riffs’ on reality. It is the individual’s response to reality that I find interesting in art, writing and music.

In looking for a painting to embody this concept, I chose one that recently returned from the Portland Art Museum’s Rental Sales Gallery. I found I’d never posted it on my site before! I often send pieces out into the world before I have a chance to promote them… and this piece is one of those. I’ve always loved the activity and detail of this piece. The texture and line work are so evocative of memories of ‘major’ (in my memory) thunderstorms.

Summer Storm, ©Ruth Armitage, Watercolor on Paper, 22"x30" $1950

Summer Storm, ©Ruth Armitage, Watercolor on Paper, 22″x30″ $1950

Thinking about Meaning in Art

This spring I was privileged to receive a critique of my work from an artist I respect. The artist giving the critique works in a realistic manner. One word they used to describe my abstract work was ‘facile.’ This has been bothering me for a while now… and I think I’m almost over it.

One reason it bothered me, is that I don’t find abstraction easy to do. Not at all! I think abstraction is more difficult than realism. I also feel that these particular paintings embody (for me) more personal meaning than many of my more realistic paintings.

Another reason this comment disturbed me might be more subconscious. With abstraction, I feel that I’ve found a way of working that feels natural. Not easy, mind you, but natural – suited to my skills, my aesthetics and my content. Maybe this is why the critiquing artist thought the work looks ‘facile.’

The definition of facile:

(especially of a theory or argument) appearing neat and comprehensive only by ignoring the true complexities of an issue; superficial, simplistic, oversimplified.
I feel there is a fine line between capitalizing on our strengths and challenging ourselves to fit others’ expectations. However, I do want my work to suggest a mystery, a deeper meaning and a personal response to the world. I don’t want it to appear simplistic or superficial.
What are your thoughts? Do you find abstraction (particularly mine) to be less meaningful than realism? Don’t worry about hurting my feelings! I can take it… Thanks for joining the discussion.
Don’t miss these new workshop offerings: New Workshop Listings
Pareidolia in Abstract Art

Pareidolia in Abstract Art

Pareidolia is a psychological phenomenon in which the mind responds to a stimulus, usually an image or a sound, by perceiving a familiar pattern where none exists.  Classic examples might be seeing a face in the full moon, or imagining that cloud shapes represent a dragon or dolphin.

Cloud-gazing sounds so good today!

Cloud-gazing sounds so good today!

I think that we are hard-wired by our survival instincts to identify subject matter in abstract shapes. Who hasn’t imagined a shadow in the woods to be a bear or some other predator? This subject came up in two of my recent workshops about abstract art. Viewers often ‘find’ subject matter that the artist did not intend. Once an image is identified, it is hard to ‘un-see’ it.

It Happens to Us All

Pareidolia is natural, but a sophisticated art-viewer knows that it is more acceptable to ask questions than to volunteer what their imagination has come up with. For example, a viewer might ask the artist “Am I meant to see a figure implied here?” If the artist says yes, great! You can discuss what you see, what it means etc. If the artist says no, an appropriate response is to keep your perception to yourself and discuss the artist’s intentions further. Viewers can follow up with another general question such as “What was your intention for the work?”

Interpreting art is a delicate balance between the artist’s intention and the viewer’s response. Both are important, and sharing our viewpoints can be mutually satisfying. In fact, artists love it when viewers are interested enough to ask about the work.  Share your experience: does pareidolia inspire or frustrate you?

The internet has many good articles about understanding abstract art. The Collector’s Corner of Art Mine summarizes it this way:

The most important thing to understand about abstract art is that it does NOT have to have a meaning, narrative or even a singular explanation.

The main purpose of abstraction is not to tell a story, but to encourage involvement and imagination. This art form is mostly about providing its viewers with an intangible and emotional experience – more often than not, the experience is completely different for every individual depending on their personality and state of mind.

Therefore, it is really up to the viewer to decide whether the painting in front of them has any meaning or provokes any emotion. As we mentioned, abstract art is all about freedom.

That’s a fitting subject for Independence Day!

Further Reading:

Click here to read the whole article from Art Mine. You’ll also find a list of Do’s & Don’ts for discussing abstraction. I’ll have another vocabulary post coming up soon. Watch this space! New workshop listings coming soon too! I’m always interested in your reaction to new work. Leave me a comment, and don’t forget to share with friends.

"Sediment" ©Ruth Armitage, Acrylic on Paper 15x22"

“Sediment” ©Ruth Armitage, Acrylic on Paper 15×22″

“It is not that the meaning cannot be explained. But there are certain meanings that ar lost forever the moment they are explained in words.”                -Haruki Murakami

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