3 Types of Visual Art

Are you wondering what are the three types of visual art?

Even if you know NOTHING about art, after reading this post you’ll know the difference between representational, abstract, and non-objective art.

It’s easy! REALLY!

And I promise I’ll explain these terms in plain English (no jargon).


Three Categories of Art

The visual arts include any artwork that you can see. They include:

  • Drawing
  • Painting
  • Sculpture
  • Photography
  • Filmmaking
  • Architecture
  • And much more.

The above can be divided into three main branches of art:

  • Representational
  • Abstract
  • Non-Objective

Below you’ll find simple definitions and examples of all three types of visual art.

Representational Art

Image #1
“The Problem We All Live With” (Ruby Bridges) by Norman Rockwell
(Affordable Prints for Sale at iCanvas)

The majority of the artwork that has ever been created is representational.

Representational art is possibly the oldest of the three types of art styles. It’s also the easiest to understand because there’s not a lot of room for interpretation.

The goal of the representational artist is to realistically paint, sculpt, draw, film, or photograph actual people, things, or places as they see them in everyday life. The objects in the artwork are easily identifiable.

An example of Representational art is the painting The Problem We All Live With (Ruby Bridges) by Norman Rockwell (Image #1).

This piece is of Ruby Bridges, a brave six-year-old African American girl, on her way to William Frantz Elementary School on November 14, 1960. At the time, this school was an all-white public school. The painting represents the New Orleans school desegregation crisis.

This painting almost looks like a photograph. That’s why this piece is the perfect example of representational art.

This painting realistically portrays a historical event and you can identify all the subjects in the image (the little girl, the men escorting her, her school supplies in her hand, and the splattered tomato on the sidewalk).

Note: It should be noted that representational artwork may have an abstract touch to it at times. It’s impossible to put artwork in a single category 100% of the time.

Abstract Art

Image #2
“The Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh
(Affordable Prints for Sale at iCanvas)

Another type of art is called abstract.

The abstract artists’ goal is to take people, places, or things from our world but present them in a different and interesting way. For example, they might emphasize lines, shapes, or colors.

An example of Abstract Art is the painting The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (Image #2).

Van Gogh had one of the most famous mental breakdowns in history, in which he severed a part of his ear with a razor. Less than a year later, as he was staying in an asylum (Saint Paul de Mausole), he painted Starry Night. This piece is an unrealistic, romanticized view outside his bedroom at the asylum.

What makes this piece abstract?

Even though it isn’t remotely true to life, you can easily identify the subjects in this landscape painting. You can see a night sky, with a crescent moon and stars, one (or two?) cypress trees, and a village with a church in the distant.

Note: Abstract art exists on a spectrum. It can be slightly representational or it can be so abstract that it’s almost impossible to easily recognize the objects or people in the artwork. Everything in between those two extremes belongs in the abstract category.

Non-Objective Art

Image #3
“Hush” by Vin Wong
(Affordable Prints Available at iCanvas)

The last type of art is called non-objective.

Also known as non-representational art, non-objective art does not include people, places, or things at all. It may only display shapes, textures, colors, or lines.

The goal of the non-objective artist is to create something that is visually stimulating. Although, it may also represent things that are not visible, like emotions.

An example of non-objective art is the painting Hush by Vin Wong (Image #3). This piece is not based on anything you can see in the real world, but it’s beautiful nevertheless.

Note: Non-objective art is regularly mistaken for abstract art.

Abstract vs. Non-Objective Art

Many people have difficulty understanding the differences between abstract and non-objective art.

A simple difference is that if the viewer can actually identify the main subjects in the artwork, then it’s considered to be abstract. If the viewer cannot identify subjects in the artwork at all, then the work is considered to be non-objective.

Beware of Pit Bulls by Dean Russo (left) and Serenity I by Julian Spencer (right)
Prints available at iCanvas.

Note: On most popular art sites (including this one), you’ll see that the term “abstract” is used to refer to non-objective art. Although this use is technically incorrect, “abstract” is currently the popular term used for both abstract and non-objective art.