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A Step-by-Step Method for Painting Abstract Art

As an artist, I like to know what sells. My own favourite genres are landscapes (mostly semi-abstract) and abstract paintings.

Many artists who competently cope with a realistic image simply don't know how or where to start with an abstract painting.

Many artists who competently cope with a realistic image simply don't know how or where to start with an abstract painting.

Learn to Paint Abstract Art?

Do you balk at painting abstract art? Can you happily create representational paintings but despair at the thought of attempting something that isn't supposed to BE anything? If so, then you are not alone.

Many artists who competently cope with a realistic image simply don't know how or where to start with an abstract painting.

I found this out when I lead a workshop for my art group, I was asked to concentrate on letting each artist create their own abstract painting by the end of the evening. Most had difficulty because they were so used to painting from a specific reference. I wrote about this experience on my hub, "Learn to Paint Abstract Art." This page has been produced to go through the process of painting an abstract in a step-by-step tutorial, complementing the previous page.

As I said quite positively on the previous page, this is not a recipe for a masterpiece but rather a methodology to encourage competent artists to create and complete an abstract painting. This "practice" will hopefully enable the artist to come to terms with the subject of non-representational art and find a certain amount of freedom in this genre and even in composing their usual style of art works.

All art on the page is my own. Most have been created in acrylic on paper to illustrate this methodology. Please respect the copyright of these images and do not use them without permission.

Abstract landscape painting

Abstract landscape painting

Learning to Paint In an Abstract Manner.

Surely It's About Freedom of Expression?

Do you believe that abstract art is something that needs to be learnt? Or is it just kids' stuff?

After all, many people think that their kids could do better. At this point, I make no comment about good or bad abstract art, merely talking about non-representational art. We all "unlearn" childish behaviour as we grow and mature, and learn that some things are not considered "good" behaviour. Making random marks on paper is often driven out of our system as childish. In many ways, this is what many abstract artists are trying to relearn in their different ways.

I have found that by creating abstract art, my representational paintings are so much fresher. I love the looseness in my style that painting abstracts have encouraged.

A Step-by-Step Method for Creating Abstract Art

Step One: Create a Background

I would like to reiterate that this methodology is designed to provide practice to encourage the creation of non-representational art works. I do not claim that it is a path to a masterpiece, or even that it should be followed blindly. The whole basis of this methodology is freedom within constraints. Paint what you like/feel but the structured method is there to help you to proceed to a conclusion. First, start with a background.

This is the step which covers and hides the surface of the paper, and it reduces the "where do I start?" feeling.

The background can be anything. Just get the surface covered; a simple, plain colour or whatever pattern or texture is desired.

For this example, I have chosen to use a stiff round brush to tamp the colour onto the paper to create a textured background. The quick-drying acrylic paint is ideal with this technique as there is virtually no waiting time between the different colours.

So, firstly we can see the first colour employed, a dark purple—

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Then two further colours—

Finally, the paper is covered. Five irregular shapes which are part of the next step are also seen in this image:

The First Steps . . .

The First Steps . . .

One Step At A Time . . .

One Step At A Time . . .

The background is completed and five geometrical shapes are added . . .

The background is completed and five geometrical shapes are added . . .

Step 2: Add Interest to the Painting (Address the Middle Ground)

Once the background has been completed, it is time to add a little interest to the painting. This is done in this methodology by adding several elements to the image. There are a number of possible choices which will be fully listed in the next lens in the series. the choice is simply put; any number of simple geometric shapes, irregular shapes, non-geometric (biomorphic shapes—think of Joan Miro), linear shapes. All of these could be plainly coloured or textured, etc.

For this example, I elected to include a group of irregular, geometric shapes which you will already have seen above. I drew these in with a wide line around them because I had an idea to overpaint this in a different colour. My next step was to cover the interior of these shapes in a semi-transparent manner with a white/red/yellow paint:


The next thing was to texture these shapes.

The painting has been completed by adding a dotted metallic texture to those five shapes, complementing the background.

The painting has been completed by adding a dotted metallic texture to those five shapes, complementing the background.

Painting Abstracts: Ideas, Projects, and Techniques

Of course, there are many, many techniques the artist can draw upon to express their artistic freedom. The difficulty for someone new to abstract painting is to draw upon these techniques which can feel very strange if you are used to creating realistic images.

A book I have found to be very useful in describing some of these techniques is Painting Abstracts by Rolina van Vliet.

Step 3: Complete the Painting (Address the Foreground)

In this last step, although it appears to be simply a case of filling in the shapes drawn and painted in the preceding step, I have added texture to the shapes by adding numerous small, metallic shapes. These are inserted to build up a pattern. I have also overpainted the black outlines with a thinner metallic silver line. At this point, I was fairly certain that the piece was finished. As always, if unsure, leave the painting for a week or two before adding to it. It is easy to add more but not to take unnecessary marks away. This is the completed work, not what I would call a masterpiece but that was not the intention as I have said.

More examples are shown below.


Let's Look at How to Start

Selecting the options: Even after I gave my colleagues in the group a methodology, they were still unsure of where or how to start. The options seemed to be so mind-blowing that they acted as a dam for their creative thoughts.

Just pick something for each level, I said, make a list of a few elements and stick a pin in it. I decided that extra help and encouragement were needed, so I developed a game based on four packs of cards. One each for the levels and one for an overall style.

More Examples of Abstract Art Created by This Methodology

I intend to show three more examples very quickly and simply show the background and then the completed painting. Again these are all acrylic on paper, painted specifically as examples for the methodology.

1. Simple geometric shapes

The background is a simple blue wash and very loose overpainted yellow washes.

Simple geometric shapes: the background is a simple blue wash and very loose overpainted yellow washes.

Simple geometric shapes: the background is a simple blue wash and very loose overpainted yellow washes.

Very simple triangular shapes are then painted on with black outlines and a little texturing. This is the foreground. Circular shapes joined with a black line were then added to act as contrast and add interest.


2. Linear Forms

A slightly more worked example, the horizontal lines are thickened and textured, again the background is a simple wash overpainted with washes of a different colour.


The verticle lines are woven between those in the horizontal direction, there are a few selected patches of contrasting colours.


3. More Complex Geometric Forms

As with the other two examples, the background is a simple wash, this time with swirls of a semi-transparent green paint.


The next layer is a red T-shape, transparently coloured with a white outline. This is then completed by adding various other textured elements, and silver, metallic lines on two sides.


These are varied images from a simple methodology which again I should emphasise is purely designed to encourage the artist to paint freely.

Abstract Art: Is It Relevant?

I have given above the reasons which I believe make it useful for any artist to learn to paint abstract art. This is your chance to reply and disagree.

Trees pastel painting

Trees pastel painting

Is There Any Value In the Methodology of Abstract Art?

I have found my abstract art has improved greatly since developing this methodology. I have in fact found that my work is becoming closely aligned to this genre. Much of my work is now semi-abstract landscapes, an example of which can be seen here.

I would therefore claim that the methodology has been instrumental in freeing up my art work to its advantage. I see no reason why the skills developed in practising abstract art should not be capable of being useful to any artist. Abstract work gives a feeling for colour, shape and line and composition which is instrumental in creating great art in any genre.

Feedback Welcome

I would love to hear from visitors to this page, whether about the lens itself or about the methodology. I will always try to take criticism on board to help to improve this or subsequent lenses.

Have Your Say.

Wendy Hughes from Charlotte on November 02, 2014:

WOW, I think I'll take my brush and go home, now. lol Great work!

Itaya Lightbourne from Topeka, KS on July 22, 2014:

I love painting abstract art but it is a challenge for me at times. My mind keeps wanting to turn every stroke into something recognizable. Each time I paint something abstract, I do learn more about myself and the technique of abstract painting. :)

Joy Neasley from Nashville, TN on January 30, 2014:

Great lens... abstract and impressionistic painting has proven to be a new experience for me the past year.

WriterJanis2 on September 14, 2013:

I really wish I had time to do this.

Judy Filarecki from SW Arizona and Northern New York on July 17, 2013:

I've been challenged with abstract art, but with an understanding of composition, it has became much less threatening. Thanks for sharing.

TanoCalvenoa on June 06, 2013:

As an artist, I've always had a hard time with abstract art. Some of it is interesting, most appears to be nonsense and basically a picture of nothing.

John Dyhouse (author) from UK on April 18, 2013:

@ajgodinho: I am glad to have helped, thank you

Anthony Godinho from Ontario, Canada on April 18, 2013:

I've been wanting to paint for the longest time and I enjoy doing abstract painting. Thanks for these easy to understand step-by-step guidelines. You have inspired me to paint again now...stay blessed! :)

John Dyhouse (author) from UK on April 09, 2013:

@anonymous: Thanks, the lens is obviously aimed at people who have difficulty tackling abstract subjects but I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

Knowing when to stop is a common issue, as you suggest, if it looks finished, then leave it for a while and come back with a fresh eye.

anonymous on April 09, 2013:

I appreciate your sharing. I feel right there with you. You have a relaxed style which is really encouraging. I have only just got back into painting after almost 10 years post BFA as I felt worn out /empty from having to spin out so much work each then. All my work is now abstract and my biggest issue is knowing when to stop...Im getting to grips with this by leaving the work for a few days then looking at it again. Thanks

John Dyhouse (author) from UK on April 08, 2013:

@grannysage: Thanks for the comment and kind words

grannysage on April 08, 2013:

I am not a painter but I love abstract art. I used to do copper enameling and was quite abstract in my designs most of the time. This is a great tutorial and I love your designs.

anonymous on April 07, 2013:

I love the road you take here in setting the nonrepresentational artist in all free to create in new ways that can set the soul free. I always love your teaching style, its like you're right there, nurturing....FB liked because I love this! :)

John Dyhouse (author) from UK on June 11, 2012:

@Teapixie LM: Thanks for your comments. I hope that you do try it, as practice! Remember It does not guarantee or promise a masterpiece'

Tea Pixie on June 10, 2012:

This is such a great, thought-provoking article. I will definitely try the technique you write about here. I have a huge desire to get back into abstract art. Thank you for the inspiration.

ElizabethJeanAl on June 03, 2012:

Nice lens