The Mental Characteristics of Abstract Artists

It is ironically something of a left-brain thing, but the question is often posed with regards to whether there are a common set of character or personality traits that define a person as an artist.

Interestingly, this question appears to be more than one of passing curiosity, particularly when considering that a study was commissioned by the Department of Experimental Psychology at Belgium’s University of Leuven to study artists’ and non-artists brains to determine whether significant physiological differences existed.

When critiquing a work of art, the natural tendency is to study the qualities and characteristics of the work itself. Perhaps it is fortuitous to give some time to the study of the qualities of the artist themselves.

Creativity and the ‘right brain’

By broad consensus, the creative individual is considered to be ‘right-brain dominant’ – that is to say, those individuals are predominantly driven by the right side of the brain, which appears to be responsible for intangibles like emotion, insight, and inspiration. The right side of the brain deals in feeling, non-verbal concept, intuition, and imagery rather than in logic and quantitative analysis. Indeed, the functions of language, analysis, and logic actually lie within the left side of the brain.

So whether it be translating that intangible imagery and inspiration onto a canvas or simply deciding how to kill time in an airport lounge, we can broadly categorize artists as right-brain dominant individuals.

Narrowing the field

To suggest that a person is simply ‘right-brained’ falls somewhat short of the question of defining characteristics and personality traits. Perhaps a more detailed description of the characteristics of an artist can be found in the studies of surgeon Joseph Bogen and the subsequent work of Nobel Prize winning psychobiologist Roger Sperry.

From their findings, it can be said that the artists have qualities of curiosity, a desire to find solutions, metaphorical thinking, playfulness, and a sense of taking risks.

This certainly makes it easier to understand the creative impetus that drives the mind of the abstract artist!

The ‘whole brain’ theory

A further extension of the ‘right brain dominant’ theory postulates that the artist, whilst driven by the creative right side of the brain, actually utilizes the functions of both interconnected sides of the brain to translate inspiration into artwork. In fact, science proposes that the creative person can iterate back and forth between these specialized modes to arrive at a resolution – in this case, the resultant artwork.

The left brain serves to keep the right brain grounded and ‘sensible’ – it is suggested that if the spheres of the brain were allowed to work disconnected, the right brain would tend to concoct fantasy imagery, pipe dreams, and ‘weird’ ideas, which seems to describe the field of abstract art neatly!


So, where does this leave the question of the mental characteristics of the abstract artist? It would appear that perhaps over and above an artist in more formal fields of still life and landscape painting, the abstract artist is more so driven by the right brain and less inclined to entertain input by the more logical left sphere of the brain.

Perhaps better understanding the mental nature of the abstract artist might lead to a deeper appreciation and understanding of the abstract work itself. What we may indeed be seeing in abstract art is something closer to ‘pure’ spirit, in the sense that it appears to be less inclined to be influenced by the more grounded, mundane experience of the artist.

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