Abstract Art: What Am I Supposed To Be Seeing?

I've been told before, "I don't know how to engage with abstracts. What am I supposed to be seeing?"

My response is, it's not directly about what you see in my paintings, it is more about participating in the creative activity of seeing.

You don't need a scientist to tell you that laying on your back in the grass on a summer afternoon and cloudgazing is therapeutic.  My paintings facilitate the same kind of therapy, regardless of the season; especially helpful in the dead of winter when our mental health is at its poorest.


The perception of a recognizable image or meaningful pattern where none exists or is intended, as the perception of a face in the surface features of the moon, or perceived images of animals, faces, and objects in cloud formations.  Cloud gazing.

I read somewhere that “people who observe art get less therapeutic benefits than those who make art.” - so I took it as a challenge, to make art that REALLY benefitted people - just by looking at it.


Often I don’t actively make recognizable forms in my paintings.

Sometimes general landscapes or skies form the leaping-off point. But I like giving room for people to find their own forms in them. Sometimes my own experience of pareidolia leads me to create something recognizable in an abstract image. Sometimes by creating a realistic image as a base, I'm able to draw attention to the materials themselves. Sometimes I use realism to draw attention to the way the surface has been altered over the image. Whether they’re abstracts or landscapes, I think much of the engagement is the same. I want to make paintings that are therapeutic to look at. Not necessarily soothing to look at. Not like a beach scene that's calm, but makes you think, "Man I wish I was there instead of sitting here with these problems." I've heard research suggesting that people who encounter art receive less therapeutic benefits than a group of people making art. I took it as a challenge, to make art that did benefit people a lot just by looking at it.  I also heard an interview about the positive effect of staring at trees on the brain, and I know that when I’m confused and stressed, being in nature helps me wait and listen and sort out inner struggles. And so I want to make work that affects viewers like staring at trees, or clouds, that engages them, that gets them in involved in "making the artwork" and that has layers and layers that all involve chance creating many possibilities for image seeing and finding details over the surface of them, that feel like something in nature. I want to create enough open space/possibility in them that it's possible for people's eyes to be engaged but they can also stop thinking about what they're seeing, and let their mind wander to things they might be worried about or need to think though. I am thinking about the effect they’ll have on people who experience them over extended period of time, when they’ve moved beyond the gallery and into people’s lives.

People have asked me, "How do you know when the pieces are finished?"

I feel confident in displaying my work when there are enough possibilities that it feels like you can easily enter into that activity (pareidolia; cloud gazing), and yet find there's more than one way of looking at it, that some shapes are distinct and yet could mean more than one thing, and that there's something familiar in them, some way to enter into the experience and explore from there.

My frescoes are more about the person in front of the painting, than a specific image itself. Filled with possibilities for the viewer, they create an open space of discovery. They aren't withholding secrets. They are waiting for the viewer's thoughts...

I'd love to share that in-person experience with you; feel free to reach out to me, and let me know what you're interested in talking about. You can also send me your contact information in order to receive an invitation to my next studio event. I'd love to hear from you!

- Shelley

This is my life's work; to heal and to inspire.

Danny VanderbylArt