Ideas and techniques for abstract painters

Art Inspiration

Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do. Edgar Degas

If you are just beginning abstract painting try the ideas on the guided paintings page as they provide more detail which will be helpful for you starting out. These ideas are for painters who already know the basics of abstract acrylic painting.

There are unlimited ideas for how to begin paintings, the best way is to just start. Put a mark on the canvas, anything, anywhere and then add to it. Add colour, add line, add texture and you have the beginnings of a painting. If you are terrified of the blank white canvas, then use left over paint from your previous work and put it on a new blank canvas in a random, free, haphazard way and it is the beginning of a new work, ready for you to start on when you are painting again. There will be no more blank white canvases stumping you again!

Ideas for paintings are limitless, unlock your imagination. Look around you, there are objects, people, animals, the environment, wether it be inside or out, use the things you see and your own experiences as starting points. The joy of painting with acrylics or oils is that if you don’t like something on your canvas you can let it dry and paint over it. This gives you an incredible freedom to make ‘mistakes’, to take risks and experiment. The best things that happen in my paintings are the ‘accidents’. Try and encourage them in your work.

Here are a list of tried and tested ideas to begin abstract paintings. Each could be used as the basis of one work or for a whole series of works. Enjoy!

Art Inspiration 1 – Experience Mapping

Choose aspects of an experience to represent in a painting. You can include a relevant object, the emotion associated with the experience and other elements in your memory of that time. Some elements that point to the physical location can be included.

Decide how to visually represent all or some of these elements, they do not have to be realistic. You could use colours to represent an emotion, or lines to represent an object. Creating a mind map may be useful for generating ideas.

The mind map provides a starting point of possible areas of investigation.

Art Inspiration 2 – Line Drawing

Draw squares or rectangles that match the dimensions of the canvas you want to paint on. An artist journal is a good place to record your drawings.

Using a pencil fill the squares with line, use different widths and thicknesses. Try lines that meander and wander, organic lines like those of a tree. Look over your sketches and see if any could be used as a basis for an abstract painting.

The line drawings can be very simple structures such as these below. You can then build on the starting point to develop your composition.

Art Inspiration 3 – Negative Space

This is another exercise that might be easier to start with as a drawing. Choose an object, anything is fine and imagine the edges of it touch the edges of the paper. Draw the space around the object, this is called the negative space.

Here the black pieces, the negative spaces have ben cut out, shaded and re-arranged. Try a range of objects, great results can be achieved using a scrunched up piece of bubble wrap or paper or even crumpled clothing.

Art Inspiration 4 – Colour

Choose a colour and paint a large, random shape on the canvas in that colour, add other colours to the edge of the shape and mix them wet on wet to create blends and visual mixes. Blend the colours to create a new colour where they join or leave the colours partially mixed and streaky so areas of each colour show.

The colours chosen for this painting need to be similar, (such as greens, blues, white and yellow or reds, oranges and browns), from the same area of the colour wheel. Using opposite or complimentary colours means when blended you will end up with a lot of dirty brown or grey colours.

Art Inspiration 5 – Large Brush

Changing the size of your brush can open up new techniques and ideas for your painting. If you usually paint using a small brush then try using a large brush something like 10cm wide. This idea for a painting works well with just black and white paint and is a quick gestural work. The style is to be impasto, using thick paint. Place large dollops of paint on the canvas and paint the black and white in large strips, blending the edges together using the wet on wet technique. Use only the wide 10cm brush. There is a chinese paint brush used for gluing drawings to a backing sheet that is inexpensive and good for this purpose.

Don’t over mix the black and white. You may need to work on this in layers, let the first layer dry and then paint more black and white to complete the work. Look at works by Franz Kline for more ideas.

Art Inspiration 6 – Mixed Media

On a canvas glue torn, coloured paper and wrapping paper using gel medium. Use a drawing or photocopy of one, tear it into strips, glue onto the coloured background. Use thread to create line and paint into the wet surface.

Draw onto surface once dry with oil sticks, crayon, pencil or other drawing materials.
Note: chalk, pastel and charcoal cannot be permanently fixed.
You can also add textural materials such as metal, wood, spakfilla (plaster), gel medium, canvas, old paintings, ribbon and thread.

Art Inspiration 7 – Lines of poetry

Find a sentence or a few lines of poetry or make up your own text and try to visualize the ideas in a painting. I had an exhibition with Vivienne Glance, a local Perth poet where I painted the works and she created short bursts of text to go with each painting. It was a wonderful collaboration. The paintings were displayed with the text beside them and it enhanced the viewing experience for all who saw the exhibition.

Your artist journal would be a good place to record your snippets of poetry for later use. If you are going to use the words as a title then you need to credit the author.

Wild horses galloped across the grassy meadow, moonlight dancing in their snowy manes.

Because this is an abstract painting there is no need to paint the horses, use the impression of speed by painting quickly and the feeling of night by the colours you choose. Incorporate the colours of grass, moonlight and white manes to create your work.

Use some of Shakespeare’s own words, I am afeard, Being in night, All this is but a dream, Too flattering sweet to be substantial.

Try inspiration from some of the works of these classical poets:
Emily Dickinson
William Butler Yeats
William Shakespeare
Walt Whitman
Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Thomas Hardy
Sara Teasdale
William Wordsworth
A B Banjo Paterson
Dorothy Parker
William Blake

Art Inspiration 8 – Be Inspired by Music

Much of Wassily Kandinsky’s painting is inspired by music. Have a look at some of his works, they are lyrical and colourful and you can imagine the music being played when looking at them. Find a piece of music and listen to the notes, the harmony, the rhythm and melody. It may be easier if there are no words to distract your brain with interpreting the meaning. I find classical music works well for this.

Choose your colours to match the feel of the music, light, bright and colourful for playful melodies and darker, sombre colours for more dramatic scores. Let your brush strokes indicate the length of the notes played. Have a look at the meanings of colour on the colour page to get some more ideas.

Art Inspiration 9 – Colours from the Landscape

Nature doesn’t get it wrong so taking your colour palette from the landscape will give you a good basis for starting a painting. If you get the colours working together a large proportion of the problems are solved in your painting. A common mistake painters make is to use paints straight out of the tube, in all their glorious brightness. I love bright colours but they don’t all work well together. The colours need to be considered and a colour palette for the work thought through.

Use aerial photographs or images from aerial photographs on-line and choose four colours from the image. Mix the colours carefully. Try to get them as close as possible to the original. Paint is lighter when it is wet and dries darker. It can take over an hour to do this but it is a very useful exercise and you will learn a lot about colour.

The paints that are commercially available often come in very bright colours, with lots of pigment, these don’t necessarily work well together on a canvas. To make a colour less bright try mixing some brown/black or paynes grey into it. Use brown/black for the red, yellow, orange and brown colours and paynes grey for the purple, blue and green range of the colour palette.

I recommend mixing your colours in small jars with lids so that you have a quantity you can use for other paintings and also you have enough to paint the work you are doing without having to mix the colour again if you run out.

With regard to composition, you can use elements of the original photograph or develop some ideas of your own.

Art Inspiration 10 – Paint Swatch Colours

Paint swatches from the local hardware store can be a good source of inspiration when creating a colour palette for a painting. Not only will they go with the colour of the lounge room wall but they will also give you the opportunity to try out different swatches next to each other and in a variety of combinations without having to undo a single paint tube.

To start choose four colours, one light one dark and two in between. Experiment with different colour combinations so there is some contrast, make sure the two middle colours are different enough. You can use more colours than this in your painting, it is just a starting point.

The next step is to mix the colours as accurately as possible. This may take some time, usually over an hour. It is not possible to mix some colours with a basic colour range, colours such as turquoise, jade greens, magenta etc. will need to be bought in artist’s colours so you have a closer starting point. For more information on this see the colour page.

The paint will dry darker so this adds a degree of difficulty. This exercise will teach you to mix colours, a repeat of the idea behind art inspiration no. 9 and really worth learning. Below is a range of sample swatches to give you an idea.

Art Inspiration 11 – Mask making and Abstract Painting

Mask making, (no not the wearable kind), can be done by tearing up pieces of paper and laying them onto your canvas. Tear three sheets of paper from your artist’s journal. Tear each sheet by hand into interesting shapes. These shapes can then be randomly laid over the canvas and the edges of each roughly painted over and around. Move the shapes and re-paint over them to create a repeated pattern that can be overlaid and repeated many times.

Think about the colour scheme. Monochromatic, one colour and white with varying light and dark colours will create an interesting effect, or you may like to choose all pastel colours.

The coloured shapes you have torn out could also be added to the painting. Apply gel medium to the back of each piece of paper all over and attach to the canvas. Cover the top of the paper to seal it and paint carefully around the edges with gel medium ensuring all the air is pressed out from underneath and the paper is flat on the canvas.

A coloured background can be applied to the canvas first. Priming with house paint is a cheap way to do this, especially if you have left over matt, acrylic paint. Do not use gloss or semi-gloss paint as acrylic paint will peel away from it when dry.

Have a look at paintings by Australian Artist Ian Fairweather for interesting, all over pattern used to great effect.

Art Inspiration 12 – Make Your Own Rules

Painting by a formula or a rule you have created can produce some wonderful results in your work and it gives you a framework or guide to work within. Make a rule to limit the colours you use or one that determines how the composition is constructed.

The following example uses both ideas, limiting the colour and determining the composition. The sketch below shows how the composition is constructed. Make a wash using a little paint and lots of water. Paint the three horizontal lines onto your canvas as illustrated. Then divide the area with vertical lines, make them uneven in width so there is asymmetry in your composition.

Choose one blue from your paints and paint in the area marked blue 1. Add white to the blue and paint in the area labelled blue 2. Continue mixing blue colours, following the paint guide illustrated above to complete the blue section.

The next image shows how to paint under the blue sections. Mix blue 1 with yellow and paint in the section as marked. Then continue on mixing blue 1 with white and yellow and paint in the next section and so on till the blue + yellow section is completed. You will end up with a range of greens under a range of blues.

The other part of the canvas is marked up in a similar manner. You can use the same idea with a different range of colours. You may wish to start with greens and add yellow to them, or start with a different blue and repeat the same process.

This is just a starting point so it is up to you to determine how to complete the painting. You could try extending some of the painted sections to the top and bottom of the canvas or paint the two plain sections out in a single colour. Try creating some of your own rules to utilise in a painting and develop a series of works based on them. Happy Painting!

Art Inspiration 13 – How to Skin Paint

Paint skins can be created by pouring a flowing paint onto an area of thick plastic to dry. You can semi-mix a few colours together in a clean tin and then pour them onto an area of flat shiny plastic. Make sure your work surface is level so that the paint doesn’t continue to run after pouring. A paint consistency of thick cream works well. If you only have structure, textural or impasto (thick) paints then add medium and some water to thin them before mixing the colours together.

Another technique to create skins is to apply paint to the plastic with a palette knife or paint brush. You need to make sure the paint is thick enough so that it will not tear apart when pulled off the plastic sheet. Thick paint can be used for this technique.

The skins will take several days to dry thoroughly and can then be carefully peeled off the plastic and arranged on your canvas. The poured shapes can be cut into any desired shape or applied as they are. Experiment with different placements of the skins. They can be applied to a painted background or incorporated into partially completed paintings.

The paint skins can be attached to your canvas with gel medium. Apply the gel to the back of the paint skin, making sure you cover the skin completely. Glue the paint skin onto the canvas, press the skin firmly, ensuring you press out any air bubbles. Paint the skin over with gel medium to seal it onto the canvas. Ensure all the edges are carefully stuck down. You can add paint to the skin when dry or paint over it if you decide to edit it out.

4 responses

  1. melancholiastudioinc

    This was interesting. I paint, but not abstract. I think the mind exercise and color exercise would be helpful to anyone (maybe even me) to attempt abstract art.

    March 3, 2011 at 10:38 am

  2. Les Walenta

    Keep up the excellent work , I read a few blog posts on this website and I believe that your website is really interesting and has excellent info .

    July 23, 2011 at 5:18 am

  3. Fascinating. Some of the exercises pertain to writing as well as painting. Love the Degas quote.

    December 31, 2011 at 11:08 pm

  4. I enjoyed the whole explanation it was very helpful thank you .

    April 22, 2015 at 7:29 pm

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