ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Abstract Antics - Have Fun With Painting Abstracts

Updated on May 11, 2014

A Simple Game To Help With Painting An Abstract

This is the third in a series of articles aimed at helping painters to tackle abstract paintings. As I explained in the previous articles, I facilitated a workshop on painting abstracts for my art group. All of them are very competent artists but uncertain how to proceed when tasked with painting an abstract. They were so used to painting from real life or a reference photograph, etc. The idea of splashing a few colours onto a sheet of paper actually foxed them completely.

At the time I had begun to get interested in modern painting, especially abstract work by the early pioneers right up to the american expressionists.

Whilst I was at work on our painting evenings, I was asked many times, "Why did you do that? Why that particular colour? Yes but what does it mean? What is it supposed to be?

The workshop was arranged to put across the idea that the compositional rules of painting applied to abstracts just as much as any other work of art. I needed to show them that the abstracts I was painting did not purport to represent anything at all. And finally that it all came out of my head, depending upon my feelings at the time.

In this article I try to follow on from the first two, and suggest a way of deciding what to do, what colours to use and to follow your "LUCK" with the cards. The process I have explained already can be represented by a pack of cards, or maybe 3 or 4 packs, which if dealt out to the artist suggests a random design for the new painting.

I hope that you have fun with this and maybe even turn out a great piece of art, although it is really about practising and can not guarantee a masterpiece every time.

Please note: all images are abstracts by the author except for those depicting products.

note: published in error, more examples to be included

You Can Paint Abstracts Using Any Media - But Let Me Suggest Three Examples

I selected these media because I think it would be easier to use something that is opaque and can be applied over previous layers.

I have left water colour off the list not because it cannot be used but simply because it is likely to take a lot more thought to use this transparent medium. If you are used to watercolours then I would suggest that for starters you may like to tackle this exercise with gouache. This will allow the layers of the painting to be built up without too much regard for the effect of layering on the colours to be used. But it is your choice and watercolours could be used.

The products I have selected are inexpensive since if they are only for using in this methodology, I don't want to put you off. If you are used to using any one of these media, then your usual product will be more than adequate.

48 Soft Drawing Chalk Pastels in Brilliant Assorted Colors
48 Soft Drawing Chalk Pastels in Brilliant Assorted Colors

This is my own favourite choice. I work dark to light and lightly fix each layer as I progress through the painting. Such vibrant colours and such a tactile material.

Reeves Fine Oil Colours Sets Set Of 24
Reeves Fine Oil Colours Sets Set Of 24

Probably the classicists choice, but they do take time to dry and you may want to use anther media if you are not used to painting with oils.

blue rectangles abstract art
blue rectangles abstract art

The Basics Of learning Abstract Art By This Methodology

My Abstract Art Methodology Explained

The idea behind this method came from the fact that all my artist colleagues, in my group, know that their paintings have a background, and usually a mid and foreground. For the workshop mentioned in the introduction, I worked on a method to get them to paint an abstract and I used the simple fact of the three main levels which they used regularly.

I read widely, I had plenty of time to prepare as the workshop was toward the end of a yearly calendar. I analysed many different styles of abstract art and founs that I could simulate most styles by using these three levels. This will become clear in the following modules, as I explain further.

But for now, consider the background is the starting point. It could be many things; a flat colour (including white of course), it could be textured, it could be graduated in any direction or it could be a random pattern. It is up to the artist to be creative but remember that simplicity is a very real option. See my article on understanding simplicity in art.

The mid ground in my method creates the actual structure of the painting. This will again be up to the artist but could be; geometric shapes both regular and irregular, non-geometric shapes, lines of differing thickness and direction and compound shapes. A sub-category of the latter is the so-called bio-morphic shapes; think of Joan Miro, famous for his floating shapes reminiscent of living forms.

the foreground in my method is where the detail, if present, is found. This is where the composition comes alive. The detail shapes and lines can help provide a unified composition by joining the larger shapes of the mid-ground and bringing the whole painting together.

In fact, composition is as important to abstract art as any other form, this should be born in mind when working at each level of the painting.

I suggest that the artist lays down a background, adds the mid-ground and then, only then, adds the detail. It is not rocket science but still many of my colleagues found difficulty in working without representing something. For this reason I took the extra step of devising this game. Which tells the struggling artist what to do. A random set of instructions which he could follow without needing to think why or what it was supposed to be.

abstracct art biomorphic shapes
abstracct art biomorphic shapes

The Background

Consider The First Level In More Detail

It is difficult to write about this, or any of the levels, as each is very basic. Its very simplicity can leave the artist wanting more instruction.

At its simplest it is just a solid colour. Nothing more. However when you think what you can do with the space before you you will realise it could be anything you can imagine.

You could include a texture, or bands of colour, the colour or tone could be graduated, wipe the surface of your ground with a cloth (or plastic spatula or old credit card) to create a random set of marks, one direction or more or circular. Use a checker-board pattern or similar. Paint the background and then scrape marks into it. The options are endless. I am sure that as a creative artist you could write a long list yourself.

Remember the effect you want to achieve and select the base colour and tone to suit.

abstract in watercolour
abstract in watercolour

The Creativity Cards - Background

Instructions And Options For The Background Cards

These are a subset of instructions for the background creativity cards:-

  1. Flat mono-coloured ground
  2. Flat multi-coloured ground
  3. Textured ground
  4. Random swathes of colour
  5. Graduated coloured ground
  6. Random Effects
  7. patterned effects
  8. Geometrically partitioned ground - horizontal
  9. Geometrically partitioned ground - vertical
  10. Geometrically partitioned ground - diagonal

As hinted at above, the list could be extended, and more options added. Or each line could be made more detailed as with the last three items above. If you have any ideas, don't keep them to yourself; use the guestbook below to let me know and I will consider adding them to the list for everyone to use.

The image used here is an abstract created using this methodology. See Details in the step by step tutorial

Examples Of Abstract Backgrounds - Drawn With Soft Pastel

Click thumbnail to view full-size
random colour patcheshorizontal swathes of colourvertical divisions, thirdshorizontally graduated red over blue groundvertical divisions, halveshorizontal red swathe over blue groundrandom horizontal swathes over bluetextured ground, red over greentextured ground red over bluepattern in black over white ground
random colour patches
random colour patches
horizontal swathes of colour
horizontal swathes of colour
vertical divisions, thirds
vertical divisions, thirds
horizontally graduated red over blue ground
horizontally graduated red over blue ground
vertical divisions, halves
vertical divisions, halves
horizontal red swathe over blue ground
horizontal red swathe over blue ground
random horizontal swathes over blue
random horizontal swathes over blue
textured ground, red over green
textured ground, red over green
textured ground red over blue
textured ground red over blue
pattern in black over white ground
pattern in black over white ground
abstract art squares
abstract art squares

The Next Levels

Mid-ground And Foreground

I am bundling these together because they can be considered very similar, although they have potentially very different roles in the method. It is also possible to either consider them as one level so that the painting may have only two levels. In this case it may simply be the definition which is in need of a little attention.

These levels can also consist of many things; shapes, lines, etc. remember we are not representing anything by our painting.

The shapes can be considered to fall into groups; regular geometric shapes, irregular geometric shapes, non-geometric shapes (possibly bio-morphic) and compound shapes (think of many alphabetic shapes for example).

The lines could be linear, non-linear, random, etc. Also the lines could be quite wide, and in this case might be considered to be a shape. For example a wide brush draws a line which is a drawn-out or stretched shape. It is all a matter of semantics. Not really important to the painting.

Select colours to contrast or harmonise with the background colours, also consider tonal contrasts.

The difference between the levels in my method, is one of size. Level two (mid-ground) may be relatively large shapes, etc, compared to the level three (foreground) details. Again it is mainly semantics and should not concern us in this context.

acrylic abstract painting
acrylic abstract painting

The Creativity Cards - Mid-ground

Instructions And Options For The Mid-ground Cards

Here, in this simplified context, we are looking at:-

  1. regular geometric shapes
  2. other geometric shapes
  3. biomorphic shapes
  4. compound shapes
  5. other free-form shapes
  6. lines

It is easy to see how each category could be further defined. the easiest is probably the first in the list, the geometric shapes. here we could envisage; squares and rectangles, triangles and higher polygons, all with regular or irregular length sides. Shapes with "holes" in them so that a circle concentric with a second circle would give a torus, etc.

It would be impossible to list each particular shape, but we only need a few to give us a start in the game. I kept the options in my first pack very simple and limited to some easy to visualise shapes. If you find it helpful then your pack could be made with more of a selection. But bear in mind that I am only suggesting this as a way of getting into a habit of painting non-representational subjects, not for providing inspiration for a masterpiece... although who knows?

The image used here is an abstract created using this methodology. See Details in the step by step tutorial

acrylic abstract sketch
acrylic abstract sketch

The Creativity Cards - Foreground

Instructions And Options For The Foreground Cards

This is possibly the easiest pack to think about. In the early stages of developing this method, I simply used the same shapes as the mid-ground. As I mentioned above, I see this layer as bringing together what is happening in the painting and I used this to create that important sense of unity. This is one of the guiding principles of good composition and should be considered carefully.

For example if you have a few large shapes in the mid-ground layer, then perhaps use overlapping similar shapes to create the foreground. Let us consider the examples given in the step-by-step instruction lens.

Examples Of Mid and Foreground Shapes - Drawn in soft Pastel

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Compound Geometrical ShapesVarious LinesMore non-geometrical shapessimple non-geometrical shapessimple geometrical shapes
Compound Geometrical Shapes
Compound Geometrical Shapes
Various Lines
Various Lines
More non-geometrical shapes
More non-geometrical shapes
simple non-geometrical shapes
simple non-geometrical shapes
simple geometrical shapes
simple geometrical shapes
the artists colour wheel
the artists colour wheel

Maybe One More Set Of Cards Is Required

Additional Instructions

The additional instructions I have in mind are very simple. In the early development, I simply used the three layers and the artist had to select a colour / colour scheme to use in their painting. But still my colleagues sat and wondered, "What colour shall I use, why red, blue, yellow, etc?" They needed some help to actually select a colour let alone a colour scheme even though they were all fine artists and knew of the colour wheel. So I provided additional information and called this the "Style Deck".

So I eventually gave them a colour and a colour scheme to use along with the basics for each layer :-

  1. warm red
  2. cool blue
  3. hot yellow
  4. a complementary colour scheme
  5. a harmonious colour scheme
  6. an analogous colour scheme
  7. a single colour, different tones and shades
  8. black and white plus one colour

Again the artist will recognise the terms used here and will be able to add more based on their own experience. If you need a little revision, try this lens on the colour wheel.

So Lets Get On With The Game

Enough of my explanations, lets get on with how we build and play the game

Here Are My Prototype Decks - Four different images / Four Different Face Colours

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Four Creative Card DecksThe Background DeckThe Foreground DeckThe Mid-ground DeckThe Style Deck
Four Creative Card Decks
Four Creative Card Decks
The Background Deck
The Background Deck
The Foreground Deck
The Foreground Deck
The Mid-ground Deck
The Mid-ground Deck
The Style Deck
The Style Deck

The Basic Idea Behind The Game

What Do We Need To Do?

It is all really rather easy. We need to create a deck of "creativity cards" with all the options which we can conceive of for painting our abstract. Or perhaps three decks, one for each level and one for colour options. So that we do not even have to think about what colour will be our main concern.

I took an ordinary deck of cards and decided to colour code the different packs, then it is easy to deal out to yourself enough cards from each deck to create as complex a painting as you want. You can paint the backs of the cards (acrylic paints are probably best on the shiny surfaces of most playing cards) or use a craft/ coloured paper bonded to the back of each card. this will probably take a littlte longer but was the way I decided to go for my creativity cards, I used some of my own images as both back and front. You can of course buy inexpensive card in different colours and cut this to shape. The way you make your creativity cards is really up to you. If you find you like this idea, then you may even want to make a better and longer lasting set.

On the front of each card, you will write, stick or otherwise place (again up to you) the instructions and alternatives which will guide you in creating your painting. The next few modules will start to define what the cards in each deck could be. You can show some artistic creativity by adding to the lists any elements or direction which you feel could help with your painting practice.

And how do we use the creativity cards, lets look briefly at what may happen, for example:-

  • Deal out from the background deck a card or cards to determine which sort of background you will start with
  • Secondly deal out a colour option for the background, and follow the instructions to create your background
  • Then deal out three or four from the mid-ground deck, however many you need to give yourself enough shapes/elements to work with
  • Now it is up to you to decide whether to start your painting or wait for the next set of elements
  • Whichever you decide, when you are ready deal a few more cards from the foreground deck
  • Use these elements to work up to a finished painting
  • Just remember this is a game and do not expect a masterpiece, do not even think about what you are doing as a "showable" piece of art. You are PRACTICING the skills of painting without representation

How A Simple Set Of Instructions Can Result In Different Paintings - Abstracts Created From This Game

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Blue Abstract; this and the following paintings were all created by following the same set of simple instructions and applying a little creativity.Although this looks very different to the first painting, The same instructions were followed. I.e the same set of cards were explored creatively.A third example of an abstract created by following similar instructions.And a final example, different colour scheme and a simpler design but still following similar instructions.
Blue Abstract; this and the following paintings were all created by following the same set of simple instructions and applying a little creativity.
Blue Abstract; this and the following paintings were all created by following the same set of simple instructions and applying a little creativity.
Although this looks very different to the first painting, The same instructions were followed. I.e the same set of cards were explored creatively.
Although this looks very different to the first painting, The same instructions were followed. I.e the same set of cards were explored creatively.
A third example of an abstract created by following similar instructions.
A third example of an abstract created by following similar instructions.
And a final example, different colour scheme and a simpler design but still following similar instructions.
And a final example, different colour scheme and a simpler design but still following similar instructions.

The four examples given above prove that although the instruction set might be simple. The completed painting is entirely dependent upon the creativity of the artist.

As indicated the instructions (or the game) do not guarantee a masterpiece, but each painting gives the artist a fresh opportunity to learn how to create an abstract. Although some artists may liken the method to painting by numbers it is actually far more. The artist still needs to consider many aspects of the composition so the painting will inevitably depend on the artist's own creativity.

Consider the following instructions dealt from the four decks (multiple cards are OK at the disgression of the artist)

1.Background: graduated colour

2.Style: Cool colours / plus a complementary colour

3.Midground: simple rectangles / compound circles

4.Foreground: curved lines / simple rectangle

Example 1.

1. The first piece, in blue and yellow was sketched in pencil. Use as many sketches as needed to provide a template.

2. A background in blue was painted in pastel, creating a textured effect.

A second layer in dark green was over painted with the blue allowed to show through.

3. A large rectangle was drawn in light blue

4. A series of filled circles was drawn in shades of blue.

5. The large rectangle was edged with the same shade of blue.

6. A smaller rectangle was drawn below the first.

7. The curved lines in yellow (complementary colour to blue were the last elements drawn in.

To be completed soon.

I would be happy to hear what you have to say about this methodology. I think it is simple, but then I would, I expect. I think it is obvious, but then I love painting abstracts. Am I explaining it properly or making too much of it and thereby creating difficulties which I don't see?

Otherwise, if you have any different options for the cards, why not share them?

Feel Free To Comment On This Method

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • profile image


      3 years ago

      Thoroughly enjoyed reading your instructions. I am in the process of doing a Distant Learning Fine Art Course on line and finding moving from representational art to abstract very difficult. I am sure your methods will be of great help. Thank you for sharing your ideas.

    • delia-delia profile image


      4 years ago

      Very interesting! I've only become interested in abstract art in the last couple of years. Most I like, in particular ones with texture...I've painted realistic and tight for years and want to break the habit...great instructional game...thanks for sharing!

    • John Dyhouse profile imageAUTHOR

      John Dyhouse 

      5 years ago from UK

      @Mellithorpe: Thanks Monna, I have been hoping to bring this series of lenses together and create a book. At least one more to come in the series, looking at some of the most loved and famous early abstracts and how they can be viewed in the light of this method.

    • Mellithorpe profile image


      5 years ago

      John, I think you have a great idea here and an awesome way of teaching. Thanks for sharing. When you get inspired, you really create all kinds of things. :)


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)