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Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.

Abstract painting by Ivon Hitchens in shades of blue, green, yellow and white

How to understand abstract art (with the help of Ivon Hitchens)

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We have taken some words of wisdom straight from the sketchbooks of the great abstract landscape painter Ivon Hitchens to help us understand how to read abstract works of art.

For many people, looking at abstract art can be intimidating. It can feel like you are missing something but there’s no right or wrong way to look at an abstract work.

You may perhaps be more used to artworks that are telling a story. History paintings, for example, try to tell the story of a real or imaginary event. But abstract art doesn’t need to have a narrative or even a meaning.

Its purpose is to give viewers the freedom and space to have an emotional experience – perhaps one that is difficult to describe or even fully understand. These experiences don’t need to be the same for everyone. One painting might make you feel happy, but enrage another person. It may be that how you feel about it changes over time.

The important thing to remember is that your reaction, whatever that is, is completely valid. You don’t need to have any art knowledge – just take the time to look at the artwork and pay attention to how you feel.

Slow looking can help you to see and appreciate individual artworks more fully. Just by spending more time looking at an artwork can help you to see more details and perhaps change the way you feel. Check out The Art of Mindfulness to find out more about slow looking.


My paintings are to be listened to.

Ivon Hitchens


Ivon Hitchens is best known for his abstracted views of the landscape surrounding his home in West Sussex. Every day he packed up his art supplies and took a walk, searching for a place that he liked. He frequently wrote in his sketchbooks, revealing his thoughts and reflections on the art he was creating, including how people could look at his paintings.

We’ve pulled together some of his quotes to help you look at his paintings. You could also apply these insights to abstract works by other artists and see if they affect the way you view them.

I seek to recreate the truth of nature by making my own song about it.


Hitchens often compared his work to music, feeling that his canvases should be read like a musical score, from left to right. He wrote about the ‘visual sound’ of his images, declaring that his pictures are “painted to be ‘listened’ to” and that “There must be organic movement” – art must be made with “visual directions”.

Take a look at the painting below and try reading it from left to right. Does it remind you of any melodies? What rhythms do the brushstrokes and spaces suggest to you?


Abstract brushstrokes in a wide variety of colours ranging long sweeps of blue towards to top to concentrated squares of red and dashes of yellow to the right.

Pay attention to the colours – and the spaces

The essence of my theory is that colour is space and space is colour.


Hitchens created a sense of rhythm in his work with expressive brushstrokes and blending colours and tone harmoniously. He believed strongly in notan, a Japanese term which literally means “light dark harmony”. Like many artists, he used this to explore different arrangements of light and dark elements in a painting.

His later works include more white areas. These allowed the painting to breathe, and allow the viewer’s eye to travel across the painting easily “instead of being engulfed or drowned in a morass of paint representing or aping realism”.

Try focusing on the blank areas in this painting. How do they relate to the darker elements?


Abstract brushstrokes in a wide variety of colours ranging from blues and purples to browns and yellows.

Ivon Hitchens, September Water, 1961, oil on canvas, Private Collection © The Estate of Ivon Hitchens

Don’t overthink it

Don’t think, what is it? What does it mean? Try to read what “happens” inside any particular area or shape and how these colours move & see them in relation to other parts of the same picture.


Although Hitchens was frequently painting from life, he had no desire to directly replicate on paper the view before him. He was acutely aware however that both drawing and painting have very different properties. Painting has a life of its own and that in order to paint something that satisfied his vision, it would sometimes change radically from his initial sketches.

These changes often pushed the final painting into full abstraction. To Hitchens, this was a kind of freedom, allowing him to depict how he felt in a particular location.

Where do you think the painting below was painted? What kind of atmosphere does it capture?


Abstract painting by Ivon Hitchens in shades of blue, green, yellow and white

Ivon Hitchens, Arno II, 1965, oil on canvas, 51 x 117cm, Private Collection © The Estate of Ivon Hitchens

This painting is in fact called Arno II, named after the river near Florence, Italy. It was painted in 1965, the year the River Arno flooded the city extensively. However, it was not actually created in Florence, nor does it even depict that river. It is part of a series depicting the River Rother and River Itchen in West Sussex. Hitchens chose the name to create distance from the locations to further emphasise the painting’s abstract qualities.

Does knowing this change what you thought of the painting?