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Learn To Paint Abstract Art Easily

Updated on January 15, 2015

Why Is Painting Abstract Art different?

Have you tried to paint or learn to paint abstract art. Although considered by many to be easy, the reality is different. Abstract art is defined as having no subject or not being based on a realistic object. This gives many amateur artists the collywobbles.

When I have done an abstract painting at my group, I have been asked by colleagues, " why did you choose that colour?" What does it mean? Where did you get the idea from?"

Even though they are very competent artists, having nothing in front of them to "copy" leaves them feeling uncomfortable and "lost". I often think of them as technicians, although very able, They know what to do to create a similar image to something they can see but NOT to create an image from their feelings. They will use techniques that they have been taught or learned to convey that "copied" image or scene on a blank paper sheet. I often ask, " what do you feel about this painting?" and the replies cover what they can see in the original. Objects rather than shapes, colours and textures which convey a sense of reality. The answer very seldom conveys feelings unless they are badgered and led to give such an answer.

This lens is about putting feelings into art, or rather making marks which convey the feelings that the subject brings about in an artist.

And more than this, I will introduce a techniques which an artist can use to approach learning to paint abstract paintings. In other words how to free oneself from copying ( or trying to represent ) a subject. How to use colours and composition to inject one's inner feelings into the work. Thereby creating those same feelings for the viewer. The image in this introduction module has been created using this technique.

Please note: All paintings and sketches are the copyright of myself, John Dyhouse, and should not be used or copied by any means without my express permission in writing.

A Quote From Wassily Kandinsky:

"Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for colours, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential."

Read more about abstract painting and how to understand it, enjoy it and create it.

Creating Abstract Art From Realistic Subject Matter

The Usual Suspects

Many books and other sources list various ways of creating abstract art from more traditional subjects. These include:-

*simplifying the original

*extending lines from the drawn subject and using blocks of colour to create new shapes

*working on small details such as could be seen by a magnifying glass or in a restricted area,

*using uncharacteristic colours for emotional appeal

*making spontaneous marks

*colourful layering techniques

*and so on.

But never forget that composition is as important in abstract art as in realistic or figurative styles.

In fact these do work, I could probably find examples of each of these by well known artists. (Maybe something to add in the future)One example is a well known series of drawings of a bull by Picasso. In eleven drawings each one being created as a simplification of its predecessor, He goes from a realistic image to a quite abstract looking figure. Which could be straight from the mind of a child. The very thing that he was looking for, I guess. To quote, "In the final print of the series, Picasso reduces the bull to a simple outline that is so carefully considered through the progressive development of each image, that it captures the absolute essence of the creature in as concise an image as possible." In fact this is modern art but not technically an abstract since it does rely on an original subject. This is debateable point but not something that should worry us here.

I will be adding to this list with more examples as and when the lens is updated.

Some ideas And Techniques To Get You Painting

Ok, I can give you a way of starting to paint abstract art, some idea of how to leave the representational world behind, but very soon you will want to learn more. Seeing some real art created in this genre and how it can expand the simple non-representational method which I am suggesting is what you need.

The best way would be to visit your local museum and art gallery. See how real artists approach abstraction. there are as many ways as there are artists. But a good alternative is simply to find a good book and try to take your new found skills that little bit further. Here are a couple of books from Amazon, which I found useful in a discovery of abstract art.

Abstracts (How to Paint)
Abstracts (How to Paint)

A great way of looking at the creation of abstract art. I particularly like the idea of starting with a source of light in your painting. I have used the technique to create a whole series of works entitled "windows".


Three Quick Questions For You

I would like to know who is reading this lens, am I aiming it at the right audience? I have lots of ideas, but which direction to take as I develop the lens. Please help me by answering the following three questions.

Poll, Are You An Artist?

abstract sketch 001
abstract sketch 001

Are You An Artist?

See results
abstract sketc 002
abstract sketc 002

Do You Like Abstract Art?

See results
abstract sketch 003
abstract sketch 003

Do You Create Abstract Art?

See results
abstract 001
abstract 001

A Methodology To Help You With Developing An Abstract Painting.

Part One

My methodology is based on research which I did to lead a workshop with my art group, the objective of which was to complete the evening with at least one abstract sketch from each member. Now I could simply have found a suitable painting and taken them through this step by step so that they could follow how to do it for themselves. However I wanted them to finish the evening with a unique , personally designed and painted piece of abstract art.

I had read many books on the subject of abstract art and I felt that the artworks could be placed into structured groupings which could be used easily by someone used to create an abstract painting. I deconstructed many simple ( and some not so simple examples) in an effort to try to understand what it took to create each . I was able to define a much simplified structure for these examples. I used work by artists such as Malevich, Delauney, Rothko, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Miro, amongst others. I am not trying to say that all abstract works would fit into the structure but that the structure contained enough examples to make it easy for students to design/construct abstracts of several different types.

Now why would they want to use this mechanistic process, when painting abstracts is supposed to be such a free process, and a way of expressing the artists' inner thoughts on canvas. Let me refer you back to the introduction in which I explained that I had found that many of my group, who I assumed were like the majority of amateur painters, could not bring themselves to paint an abstract without something to copy. This process was to give them confidence to create abstract paintings, and to practice so that they could then go away and create an abstract for themselves having taken "the plunge" once or twice. It is a temporary crutch only and not meant to be anything else.


The Methodology

The first steps

As my colleagues were familiar with the three main planes of a classical painting,

  • the background

  • the foreground

  • and an intermediate area

I decided to use that familiarity. They would at least be starting with some knowledge and experience. I do not explain that most abstracts have only one plane, the picture plane. This comes later but for now it helps to explain the methodology using a concept of these three planes which they can identify with.

I believe that an artist who is used to painting realistic themes, has this difficulty with abstracts because they label whatever they are painting whilst doing it. I.e. they paint a face by painting two eyes, a nose and a mouth within an outline they recognise as a head. Rather, to paint an abstract they should be painting shapes. The picture then takes care of itself. In fact this is a very good way of painting any subject but is often not learnt by amateurs. I use this idea for this methodology.

Let us start with the background. This will set an overall feel to the painting, by defining the tonal key and wether it is a warm or a cool colour scheme, etc.

  • Maybe it is black or white

  • a plain solid colour

  • with a gradient

  • or texture

  • multi-coloured, think colour schemes/colour wheel

  • does it have distinct edges to the colour areas, perhaps with thick lines

  • or are the edges soft or "lost".

Now here, we could already be talking about some art by very famous artists. Think in terms of rectangular blocks of plain primary colours on a white ground, with thick black lines defining a grid which separates the coloured shapes. No prizes for recognising Piet Mondrian's, signature works.

As another example, think of a coloured rectangle with poorly defined (lost) edges on a coloured ground. Think of Mark Rothko! Can you think of any other famous artists whose work you could describe in terms similar to these, it is not a trick question as there are many to choose from.


The Intermediate And Foreground Concepts.

Taking The Methodology A Little Further

I will tackle these together, because although I have given them different names, they are essentially the same and consist of added shapes on the background.

The difference is perhaps nothing more than size or the time of inclusion in the painting.

In this methodology, I decided that the intermediate shapes were relatively larger than the foreground. The sole reason being that if the intermediate plane was added after the background and before the foreground; a "scafolding" set up for the painting.

This may be sufficient to make a complete picture, obviously the artist decides when to call a halt. However if necessary more, possibly smaller shapes (the foreground), should be added to complement the initial shapes and colours already set down, or possibly simply to fill gaps or join the existing shapes to provide unity in the painting. Again the artist should use theier own feelings about the painting and what it is "saying" to them.

Actually we should always consider the principles of composition throughout this methodology, in fact you could say that they are needed more in an abstract painting than for a realistic image. The principles, if you need reminding are:-

  • Balance

  • Contrast

  • Gradation

  • Harmony

  • Aliteration

  • Variation

  • Dominance

  • and Unity

Basically the shapes in the intermediate and forground layers are of three distinct types:- simple geometric shapes, compound shapes and non-geometric ( or biological as they have been called). We may also add Lines to the list of possibilities, linear and non-linear (curved). These five simple options offer a multitude of possibilities.

Each of the shapes and the way they are filled-in should be chosen on the basis of the elements of composition, which are listed here:-

  • Shape

  • Size

  • Direction

  • Texture

  • Colour

  • and Value

If you need a primer on composition then a good place is this lens by Katherine Tyrrell on composition - resources for artists

Again you may be able to think of artists and their work which could be defined in the terms set above, one which quickly springs to my mind is Kasimir Malevich with his suprematist paintings, who along with Kandinsky is argued to be the first artist to paint a fully abstract work. Malevich's suprematist works are often simply a few simple shapes on a solid white or coloured ground.

If you consider a solid colour background with amorphous biological shapes, in primary colours, sometimes linked by lines, you are not too far from a work by Joan Miro?

I realise that the scope of work using this methodology is limited, but there are many famous works which would fit within its limitations, as I have indicated above. This is simply a tool to give an artist the confidence to tackle abstract works without trying to produce the very complex and subjective works which obviously do exist within this gendre. It does not guarantee, nor should you expect, to produce a masterpiece by following this methodology.

One Last Piece Of Advice

From The Masters

When painting an abstract paint to express your feelings, do not try to think about what it is supposed to represent. It does not have to represent anything. For example, Do not paint a bunch of flowers, paint the joy you feel when seeing a bunch of flowers. Or consider hope in the morning sky, or fear of a lonely journey.

This is where it becomes impossible to give instructions as each artist must work out what this means for themselves. However colour is obvious and is important, but develop the composition by showing an interplay between directions, shapes, tones, texture, etc, the elements and principles of composition given above.

Some words from the early abstract pioneers quoted by Herbert Read in his book, "A Concise History Of Modern Painting", may help to clarify this point.

From Kandinsky; In order to be expressive of our inner feelings it is not necessary to be representational. A circle or an acute angle of a triangle can produce a powerful effect. But abstract forms are endlessly free and inexhaustibly evocative. The greatest mistake an artist can make is to believe that art is the precise reproduction of nature.

From Klee; consider this analogy, the roots of a tree can be thought of as the life experiences of an artist, the artist takes and draws up the sap (his feelings) through the trunk and produces a body of work represented by the crown (the branches) of that tree. No one would expect the roots and the crown to be exactly the same.

However the artist is accused of incompetence and deliberate distortions when they do not match on his canvas.

Klee also considers that the essential formative process takes place below the level of consciousness, therefore do not force the painting to happen. Let it grow from your inner self. Art does not reproduce the visible, it renders visible the artists feelings towards a subject.

From Malevich; reality in art is the sensational effect of colour itself, i.e. how the senses perceive colour. Feeling is the decisive factor, thus art arrives at a non-objective representation.

From Matisse; composition is the art of arranging, in a decorative manner, the various elements at the painters disposal for the expression of his feelings. A work of art equals a work of my mind.

Now We Have A Method To Create Our Abstract Painting.

An Example Of Using The Methodology?

Why Not Create Your Own Abstract Painting?

Remember that this methodology is simply to get the student / artist thinking in terms of abstracts and to eliminate a perceived lack of ability to paint in a non-representational manner. The rest will come from practice and a growing understanding of the abstraction process.

1. Take the media upon which you are going to paint. Is the size right? If rectangular, is the orientation right for your imagined composition? Now decide what colour(s) and texture you are going to use for your background. I will use a solid colour for my background and create this in a golden ochre (a yellowish colour which is not too bright)

2. Select a small but definite number of elements to be your intermediate plane. Again decide what colours and textures you will use and where you will place the shapes. I select five shapes for my intermediate plane. Two large rectangles of different sizes in a dark purple hue with possibly some texturing, I am still a little unsure about this and may delay the choice until I see them on the canvas. I will also use one large (red) and two small equilateral triangles (also red) .

3. Do you need anything else to complete this painting. Perhaps to join the intermediate shapes or to balance them on the background, or simply to fill in open spaces. Select the additional elements and decide on colour and texture. I have already made small sketches of the painting to assess where I am going and decide to use three sweeping, curved lines and two deformed rectangles which will have a grid-like texture of blue and white.

4. Now decide if the painting is complete. It may be that you will only know when you can see it in front of you. In fact, I think I have made a mistake in describing it so closely before actually doing the painting. I did say however, that you should not expect a masterpiece every time with this methodology; and this is the proof.

I will be including two or three examples by this methodology in a "step-by-step" tutorial which will be published quite soon.

Sounds easy, well of course it is and you can find out for yourself by trying it, remember do not expect a masterpiece. However, I do hope that this methodology helps you are on your way.

Need More explanation?

Take a look at this article, number two in a series of three; it takes a step-by-step look at what I am suggesting and describes a number of examples of the methodology in use to produce some easy abstract paintings.

A Step-by-step Method For Learning Abstract Painting. A link may be found in the following paragraphs.

abstract created by my methodology
abstract created by my methodology

A Step-By-Step Tutorial

Using This Methodology

I have developed a step-by-step tutorial based on this methodology. I intend to take the reader through each step for one painting with three more examples, so that I can cover a number of variations.

Remember however that the methodology is aimed at getting painters who find it difficult to throw caution to the winds, to get into the position of expressing their art through non-representational forms. It is not designed to guarantee a great painting. It should be used to liberate yourself from the straight jacket imposed by society and should be seen as a way of expressing a love of art.

abstract from random marks
abstract from random marks

Have Fun With Your Abstracts

If you still have difficulty making a start and find yourself with "white paper syndrome" why not get a little help from friends and colleagues. I have been experimenting with asking artist colleagues, at my regular art group meeetings, to make randon marks on my unused sheet of paper. This immediately removes the need for you to make those first few marks which many people seem to have difficulty with.

I can go around a group of around a dozen artists, and they will be bemused when I ask for a few random shapes or lines, what ever they want to create. They are all good artists but need to have something to draw/copy. The image here is my latest work usinf this method.

From the set of random lines, I first carried the lines on to the edge of the paper, trying to retain the nature of those lines. It was very noticeable that after the first tentative marks, my colleagues tended to work with what was already there. This is not a problem and it actually makes for a better painting with more overall unity. So I simply want to retain that in the finished piece.

In this case I then started to colour in the shapes produced by the overlapping lines. The diagonal from top left to bottom right stood out from the randomness and I worked with this, using primary colours and shades of these to create a diagonal composition.

I have written about this painting and more in this article, Having Fun With Abstract Paintings.

There Are Three Articles In This Series on This Methodology - Read Them All

I have now added a third lens to this series and have another in mind but that is for the future.

Right now, the series comprises of this article, A Step-By-Step Tutorial, and now a game using Creativity Cards taking even more decisions out of the hands of the would-be abstractionist.

Again I stress that the methodology is aImed at artists who find it difficult to create nnon-representational art and need a little push to create an abstract painting. In my experience, this is a large number of amateur artists who are simply used to painting from a subject in front of them. This method is intended to give them the freedom (or even the permission) to create something different.

I would love to know about your own experiences with abstract art.

Do you find it easy or hard, are you a figurative or realistic artist and would like to "loosen-up" your style, Have you treid or considered abstract art?

You do have to be a member of Squidoo to comment but it is completely free, unfortunately this has been imposed because of problems with spam.

Do You Paint Abstract Art? - Let me Know If I Have Got It Right

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    • Amanda6868 profile image

      Amanda M 2 years ago from Unknown

      Great hub!

    • MariaMontgomery profile image

      MariaMontgomery 3 years ago from Central Florida, USA

      I'm back to let you know I pinned this to my board, Art and Art Tips. Thanks again.

    • MariaMontgomery profile image

      MariaMontgomery 3 years ago from Central Florida, USA

      Thank you for a very helpful article. I especially liked the part about painting the joy I feel when seeing a bunch of flowers rather than painting a bunch of flowers. That one really spoke to me.

    • profile image

      MrSquidoodle 3 years ago

      Very good lens !

    • ItayaLightbourne profile image

      Itaya Lightbourne 3 years ago from Topeka, KS

      Sounds like a great methodology. I find that as long as I keep an overall balance in the abstract painting, it all eventually comes together. Whether one is working with splotches of color or shapes, keeping bits and pieces of the chosen color or shape all about the canvas tends to work well. :)

    • John Dyhouse profile image

      John Dyhouse 3 years ago from UK

      @takkhisa: Thank you for the compliment. You don't say what your interest is but anyone can enjoy creating abstracts this way. A very relaxing way of passing a little time. Use what ever pens/pencils/etc you have on hand.

    • takkhisa profile image

      Takkhis 3 years ago

      Awesome lens! I am not an artist but I have interest in it :)

    • John Dyhouse profile image

      John Dyhouse 3 years ago from UK

      @RoadMonkey: It can be so easy just to fill a sheet of paper with colour and texture without getting worried about the drawing. Great for relaxing IF you can overcome the need to draw something recognisable. Thank for the comment

    • RoadMonkey profile image

      RoadMonkey 3 years ago

      Interesting lens. I have never studied art (apart from having it thrust on me in school for a few years!) but your lens has got me thinking about abstract art and that maybe i could try it!

    • PeterStip profile image

      PeterStip 3 years ago

      I do paint abstract art and figurative. To me there is not really a difference between figurative art and abstract art. All good figurative paintings have a high level of abstraction. From Vermeer up to Francis Bacon.

    • Mellithorpe profile image

      Mellithorpe 3 years ago

      I'm going to have to try this sometime. Great lens with great information.

    • John Dyhouse profile image

      John Dyhouse 3 years ago from UK

      @Zeross4: Thanks Daisy, Go for it - it can be so relaxing and freeing

    • Joy Neasley profile image

      Joy Neasley 3 years ago from Nashville, TN

      Since having two strokes and Stage 3 Parkinson's I have had to change my style a bit. Rather than realism in my drawings, I am now drawing with pen and ink, and also painting impressionistic/abstract paintings. They seem to flow easier for me now.

      In the field of art, an obstacle is an opportunity to create.

    • Zeross4 profile image

      Renee Dixon 3 years ago from Kentucky

      I haven't, but it is definitely something I want to try in the near future. Great lens!

    • John Dyhouse profile image

      John Dyhouse 3 years ago from UK

      @Carol Houle: I keep meaning to do some step by step examples to make it clearer, I am not sure that this doesn't need a complete rewrite. It seems so easy to me and yet I am not sure how well I have put it over. THanks for the comment, I willl look at it again from a new standpoint.

    • Carol Houle profile image

      Carol Houle 3 years ago from Montreal

      I am abstract illiterate, so I wouldn't know if you have it right. I like some abstract art, but it behooves me to understand it. I like this lens, but the more I read the more confusing it became :~)

    • Richiewest profile image

      Richiewest 4 years ago from Devon, United Kingdom.

      Great tips for would-be abstract artists! I buy and sell art, I also paint, but have never really painted abstracts. (well not on purpose - lol) I have however published a lens about selling your abstracts, plus market potential. I tend to admire semi-abstracts in particular, whereby a certain amount of reality is evident, and plan to get painting again soon in hope of mastering that technique.

    • sukkran trichy profile image

      sukkran trichy 4 years ago from Trichy/Tamil Nadu

      what a creativity? i love this art work.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      I enjoy abstract art, viewing others' and creating my own but I find it difficult. I come from the "color within the lines school." Thanks for your ideas and helping fledgling artists like me.

    • John Dyhouse profile image

      John Dyhouse 4 years ago from UK

      @anonymous: That's great but I know many in my group and beyond who still fail to understand the basics of painting abstracts. Only just this week, I had someone who is a competent artist look over my shoulder and say they couldn't understand where I got my ideas from. Of course when they paint a realistic picture, they copy an image but are not able to see where the abstract ideas come from.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      it comes easy to me painting abstracts im self taught and ive only been painting for 6 months

    • profile image

      Embeegee 4 years ago

      Thanks for this lens, I am a beginning abstract artist and enjoy reading about the technical side of it to help me paint better in the future.

    • Fox Music profile image

      Fox Music 4 years ago

      I Dabble - Thanks for this insightful lens "Learn To Paint Abstract Art"

    • profile image

      laurenrich 4 years ago

      I would love to paint abstract art. This lens is very informative. Thanks for sharing.

    • profile image

      cmadden 4 years ago

      A very nice tutorial. I appreciate abstract art, but tend to representational.

    • profile image

      SevenSentences 5 years ago

      Good info for the creative here friends!

    • profile image

      MintySea 6 years ago

      thanks for this lens. I fell into doing more abstract art and I fond I enjoy doing it,

    • ajgodinho profile image

      Anthony Godinho 6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Another interesting art lens that I enjoyed. I've tried abstract art in the past, but this is a nice tutorial on how to do it right. Well done and great work!

    • libysquid lm profile image

      libysquid lm 6 years ago

      i love abstract's nice to learn this much about it..:) great work!

    • cdevries profile image

      cdevries 6 years ago

      I found this very interesting... especially because I don't quite "get" the appeal of abstraction. But then, I work mainly in theater where there is always a text.