Ask an Artist is a monthly essay from artist members of the Newburyport Art Association, submitted by the NAA, answering questions from curious nonartists. This month, the question was posted to Kate Higley, an abstract artist.

Question: Do abstract artists have a plan or is it random?

“In a long life as an abstract artist, I have always begun with an idea. It can be something very detailed that I notice in nature, the texture and shape of a piece of rotting bark or something fleeting, the way an early November landscape looks flying by at 70 miles an hour. Much of my work involves the life and shapes of small creatures below the surface of ponds, marshes, skin or organs. So, yes, it all begins with a fairly specific idea. At that point, I usually work on some very quick drawings that set up the design. Sometimes, I transfer it directly to the canvas. Other times, I will just hang the rough drawing on the wall nearby and refer to it more casually.

“At this point, the real work begins. Each stroke must have a reason to be executed and decisions about color, shape, form and texture have to be made in light of the previous moves. Unlike the challenge of realism, ‘Does this tree look like the one in front of me?’ the challenges of an abstract work involves many more variables. I think of it as the difference between chess and three-dimensional chess. As each earlier decision creates multiple potential responses, the original plan is often lost, or more accurately, abandoned in favor of moves that create rightness in the work. The abstract process takes on a life of its own and for the artist, knowing when all the elements work together to satisfy some inner sense of completion, lets the artist know it is done.

“The initial inspiration may hold sway through the entire process or may recede, as other more pressing elements require their expression. So, the answer is ‘yes,’ there is a map, but like a good road trip, sometimes a diversion from the highway to a back road makes an unexpected great trip to a surprising destination.”

Kate Higley is a fine artist who lives and works in Eliot, Maine. Her work has been featured in many exhibitions around the U.S. Find out more about Higley on her website,

The Newburyport Art Association, 65 Water St., Newburyport, is the cornerstone of Greater Newburyport’s vibrant arts scene with 600 artist and nonartist members from around the region. Artists exhibit work in a full calendar of open, juried, invitational, featured artist and interest group shows throughout the year.

In addition, the NAA offers studio classes and workshops, and it supports two important community outreach programs – ArtLink & OpArt. For more, see or call 978-465-8769.