How to Be an Artist, According to Wassily Kandinsky

Wassily Kandinsky

Composition, VII, 1913

The State Tretyakov Gallery

Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky is considered to be one of the very first Western proponents of abstract painting, known for his colorful fields of spidery lines and shapes.

He first developed many of the theories that shaped his practice in his seminal text, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911), where he laid out his tenets for artistic creation as a spiritual act. Later, during his 11-year teaching stint at the Bauhaus, he expanded upon these ideas in Point and Line to Plane (1926).

But Kandinsky did not intend for his theories to be prescriptive. Artmaking, he insisted, was about freedom. Nevertheless, there are several lessons that artists should heed if they are to meet Kandinsky’s requirements. We start with five below.

Lesson #1: Express your inner world, not the latest artistic trends.

Wassily Kandinsky

Dreamy Improvisation, 1913

Pinakothek der Moderne, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich

Wassily Kandinsky

Sans titre, 1917

Galleria Tega

According to Kandinsky, an object could only legitimately be considered art if it was an unadulterated, outward manifestation of the artist’s psyche—of his or her authentic thoughts and feelings. Despite the theoretical underpinnings of his work, Kandinsky believed that theory came after, not before, true artistic creation.

He felt that the expression of one’s inner reality was crucial to achieve moral integrity. Anything less would not only undermine one’s artistic merit, but it would also be spiritually harmful to the artist. Furthermore, true artists should be prepared to be misunderstood throughout their lifetimes.

Lesson #2: Don’t paint things. Paint in abstract form.

Wassily Kandinsky

Untitled, 1921

Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel

Wassily Kandinsky

Composition , 1925

Leila Heller Gallery

Monet’s now-iconic haystacks were an early influence on Kandinsky, who was struck by his own inability to identify the real-world objects that the forms referenced. At first taken aback by this disconnect, Kandinsky soon embraced its possibilities, eventually insisting upon art that was not only abstracted but entirely non-representational.

Kandinsky experimented with compositions populated by lines, simple geometric shapes, and the energized points where they met or overlapped. Unlike artists working in a Suprematist or Constructivist style, he was not interested in exploring or achieving a purity of composition for its own sake and considered the commitment to any specific formal qualities unimportant. Rather, even in their simplest iterations, his forms embody references to the artist’s interior world.

Lesson #3: Approach color as a window into the human soul.

Wassily Kandinsky

Nine Elements of the Chromatic Circle , 1922-1933

Les Arts Décoratifs

Wassily Kandinsky

Gespannt im Winkel, 1930

Kunstmuseum Bern

While Impressionist painting introduced Kandinsky to unorthodox ways of using color, the Fauvist paintings he saw while living in Paris from 1906 to 1907—with their wild hues that were entirely divorced from the real world—proved to be even more influential. Embracing this type of freedom in color, Kandinsky pushed his thinking a step further.

Influenced by Theory of Colors (1810), which German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had published a century earlier, Kandinsky believed that each color had an inherent personality. For example, green was like a cow: peaceful yet strong. Yellow, while warm and earthy, also represented rage and could be deeply unsettling. Blue, on the other hand, was both serene and heavenly, and could be experienced as a kind of transcendent spirituality.

Kandinsky compared colors to the keys of a piano and the human soul to the piano itself. As an artist used colors, he or she was in effect playing different musical notes, causing “vibrations in the soul.”

Lesson #4: Inject rhythm into your painting, like a musical score.

Wassily Kandinsky

Counter weights (Gegengewichte), 1926

Kunstmuseum Mülheim an der Ruhr, Mülheim an der Ruhr

Wassily Kandinsky

Composition in red and black, 1920

The State Museum of Art, Tashkent

The connection between painting and music was more than just a metaphorical analogy for Kandinsky. He most likely had synesthesia, a condition in which two or more of a person’s senses are intertwined. One indication of this was the striking experience he once had during a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin, in which he had a vision of lines and colors that presented themselves in tandem with the opera’s score.

Kandinsky noted that, even without synesthesia, colors had implicit aural qualities: No one would associate yellow with low notes nor deep blue with high notes. Colors affected the viewer, therefore, with respect not only to their visual associations but also to the sounds they produced (whether or not they were consciously heard), and a painting would do well to be composed like a musical score.

In Point and Line to Plane (1926), Kandinsky expands on elements such as rhythm and amplification. An artist should experiment with repetition, ordering, and scale, not just with colors but also with points, lines, and planes. These, he believed, were the building blocks of a composition.

Lesson #5: By creating original work, you will further the cause of humanity.

Wassily Kandinsky

Komposition 4, 1911

Kunstsammlung Nordrhein Westfalen, Dusseldorf

Wassily Kandinsky

Violett, 1923

Redfern Gallery Ltd.

Kandinsky’s philosophy about spiritual life and art is founded on the idea of a three-tiered triangle containing all of humanity, with the sections descending from top down, smallest to largest. The triangle is slowly—nearly imperceptibly—moving forward and upward, towards a higher level of enlightenment. The top of the triangle represents the current day, while the next segments represent future ages.

The most spiritually elevated people exist in the top section and are, as such, the smallest group; they see today what others will not understand until tomorrow. Artists exist in every segment of the triangle, and those who can see beyond the bounds of their section are prophets, offering “spiritual food” that will only be fully grasped by the segment below in the day to come.

The artist’s thoughts, feelings, and actions, when translated into art, have the power to affect the spiritual climate of his or her society. The artist is obligated to use his or her talent to make a positive impact in this way—to create sincere, original work that helps humanity toward collective enlightenment.