Ideas and techniques for abstract painters


Painting is one of those things that is a lot easier than it looks and you really don’t find this out until you start painting yourself. Beginners often ask for quick tips or tricks to quickly and successfully finish paintings. There are no shortcuts to learning, the best advice I can give you is to practice and to paint. Joining a local art group or class will provide valuable feedback on your work and interaction with others facing the same challenges. Visiting galleries and looking through art books to see how professional artists paint is also very beneficial. Most of all be patient and keep on practising.

Here is a background of the three components of painting. The three main elements of a painting are composition, colour and texture. Below is a brief introduction of each:


Composition is the placement of objects on the painting surface or canvas. It refers to the shape of the objects used and their relative size and placement to each other.


Colour is the red, green, blue of the paint you use. The biggest mistake beginning painters make is to use too many colours and to use them straight out of the tube without mixing them. There is more information and background to colour theory on the colour page to help you. These ideas for abstract paintings for beginners will make it easier for you by limiting the three main aspects of a painting. Limiting colour is one of the best ways to simplify the painting process and allow you to be more successful. Colours work well together when the colour palette is thought through and the colours are mixed. See the colour page for more information.


Texture is the way the paint is applied to the painting surface. For example paint can be applied thickly (impasto) and have a lot of texture or it could be used in washes which are thin and transparent giving a matt (flat) texture. It is best to have a consistency of texture throughout your painting, trying to include too many painting techniques in one work can mean your painting lacks coherence and ends up a hodge podge of techniques that don’t work well together. For beginners it is a good idea to limit the number of techniques in one work. If you want to try out lots of techniques then do a sample board, (a canvas board you can use to practice techniques on) to experiment on rather than trying them all out in one of your paintings.

Formula Paintings

These formula paintings listed below are based on ideas that have been tried and tested by beginning painters. The guidelines limit the colours and composition so that you are likely to have a greater chance in succeeding in developing a work you are happy with. It is difficult to know where to start when beginning out as a new painter so I developed these ideas as starting points.

You can use the ideas more than once, trying out the suggested variations. You will also learn painting skills and techniques as you work through the suggested paintings. I do not provide images of completed works here as the idea is to use these as starting points, there is not a correct finished painting. The joy of painting is to develop your own individual creativity so have fun and experiment to develop your own works.

Painting One – Seascape Strip Painting

Materials: blue, yellow, green and white paint, masking tape 1cm wide, brushes, water. Use a landscape format canvas, a rectangle 65x100cm or 60x80cm would be a good size to use.

Techniques: wet on wet, mixing paint on the canvas, colour mixing, using masking tape

1. Place your canvas so it is wider than it is tall. Divide your canvas into four vertical sections by taping vertical strips. The sections do not need to be the same width. It is important that you get the tape perfectly straight so try lining it up with the edge of the canvas and check it is perfectly straight by measuring the distance to the edge in several places.

2. Colours, as this painting is essentially a seascape you will have blue as the major colour. Experiment with mixing the blues with different amounts of white paint to create three or four different blues.

3. Paint each strip in horizontal lines of blue and mix colours to fill each section. Try mixing the paint directly on the canvas, add white onto areas of wet paint and pull paint across the layer underneath to create layering and texture. Try not to over mix the paint, you can tell if this has happened as the colours will become flat and dull with little variation. Areas where there is variety in the paint colour and texture will add interest to the work.

4. Have each section based on blue with one other colour added, so section one maybe blue and white and green, the next section maybe blue and white and yellow and so on.

5. When all areas of the canvas are filled in look at the balance of colours. You may wish to add a little of each of the colours in one strip to the other strips so that they reference each other.

6. Pull the tape off and neaten up the edges of the white areas with white paint.

This is one section of a painting done with this technique. You can see the thick, impasto paint and how the range of yellow, blue and white has been used. Each section should be painted in a similar way and with similar colours.

Painting Two – The Edge

Materials: colours and white paint, paper, brushes, square canvas or board, water

Techniques: cutting shapes, background colour and colour mixing

One of the things a lot of beginner painters do is to not continue lines and colour to the edge of the canvas, they leave an edge all the way around. I decided to use this and create a painting that kept an edge!

1. Choose one colour and white and mix these together using approximately 2/3 white and 1/3 colour. Mix paints together with a palette knife. Use this colour to paint the canvas all over. Allow to dry completely. You could also use a flat, coloured acrylic house paint to paint the canvas. Do not use gloss or semi gloss paints as the acrylic will peel off these.

2. Get some paper, any type that is a similar size to your canvas. You can tape sheets together if you want larger shapes. Cut some abstract shapes out of the paper. Try arranging them on the dry canvas remembering to leave an edge all the way round. You can also tear the edges to get a rougher edge on the shapes.

3. When you have an arrangement you are happy with, trace around the shapes with a wash. (Do not use pencil as it will show through light colours and can resist some paints). A wash is a very thin mixture of paint with water. It should have a lot of water and very little paint, just enough paint so it has some colour that shows on the canvas. Paint the wash with a very fine brush around the edges of the shapes and then remove them.

3a. If you want the shapes to overlap then paint the shape underneath and allow to dry and then place the next shape on top and paint around it with the wash.

4. Now you have a canvas painted in a background colour and several shapes marked out on the canvas with a wash. Make sure all are dry.

Here is an example of how a sketch of your painting may look.

5. Choose colours to paint in the remaining shapes. I would recommend each colour you choose now has some of the first colour from step one, the background colour mixed in with it. Even if it is only a little it will mean the colours have a similar base and are more likely to work together.

6. Choosing colours. Here are a couple of colour schemes you may want to use:

Pastel colours: use the first colour and white as a base and then add a different colour to it. Make up each new colour in the same way using at least half white.

Monochromatic: use the same two colours you started with and mix the colours together using different amounts of white and colour to get varying intensities of the same colour. Paint each shape with a different one. You may like to use ones that are lighter and darker than the background colour.

Painting Three – Aerial Photograph

Materials: paint, brushes, canvas or board, water, aerial photograph, paper or artist journal, 4 clean jars with lids, drawing materials such as crayons, oil pastels or charcoal.

Techniques: using a photograph as a starting point, drawing, blocking-in, wash, using an artist’s journal to record ideas

1. Find an interesting aerial photograph. I have several of these books which have fantastic images. ‘The Earth’, Cube Book, published by White Star Publishers, ‘The Earth from the Air’, by Yann Arthus-Bertrand published by Thames Hudson have images of locations across the world or ‘Down to Earth’ by Richard Woldendorp and Tim Winton, a book of Western Australia images published by Fremantle Press. You could also use google image search to find a photograph you could use as inspiration.

2. Here is an image I took from the window of a light plane in a remote area of northern Western Australia.

3. Take a look at your photograph and draw a box on your paper or in your journal the same dimensions. Choose some of the lines and shapes from the photograph that look interesting. Ones that are organic and random usually work well. Transfer them to your paper.

In this image below I have traced over the photograph so you can see where the lines and shapes have come from.

And here is the outline from the photograph that I am then going to use as a basis for the painting.

4. Mark the areas and lines from your drawing onto the canvas with a wash.

5. The next step is to consider the colour palette you are going to use. Choose four colours from the photograph and try mixing them as closely as possible to those in the photograph. Mix each in a clean glass jar with a lid and mix up a reasonable quantity, it will save you re-mixing colours again later. The colours taken from a photograph of the natural environment will always work together, nature doesn’t get it wrong!

5. Paint in the background areas and larger shapes using a large flat brush, this is called blocking in. Make sure the edges of all the shapes are painted in the same way throughout, either all messy or all exact and precise, whichever way you prefer. Leave to dry completely.

6. Using some drawing materials, charcoal, crayon, oil pastel draw the lines from your sketch over the top.

7. You can continue this work by adding smaller areas of colour or washes over the top as you wish.

Painting Four – Paint Swatches

Materials: paint, brushes, canvas or board, water, paint swatches from hardware shop, paper or artist journal, 4 clean jars with lids

Techniques: colour mixing, blocking-in, using an artist’s journal to record ideas

1. Visit your local hardware shop and collect some colour charts and paint swatches. Sometimes there are sets of colour swatches already selected and it may be worth trying one of these out for your painting.

2. Choose four colours to use in your painting. I find one dark colour, one light and two in between work well for this exercise. Mix the colours in jars as close to the paint swatches as you can. Paint will appear darker when it is dry and lighter when it is wet. It can take some time, over an hour to mix them all and to get them exact but it is worth persevering and you will learn a lot about colour and mixing paint in the process. Avoid flourescent, pearlised and metallic colours.

3. Use thick cartridge paper to test the colours you mix. A page in your journal can be used for this. Stick the paint swatches and your test patches into your artist journal when you have them right. Put a little paint directly onto the paint swatch to see how close you are to the colour.

Here are the colours mixed to match the paint swatches.

4. Draw geometric shapes on your canvas such as squares or rectangles and paint each shape in one colour.

5. When the blocking in is dry you can layer more squares and rectangles using the same colours over the top of the first layer. Develop the composition till it is complete.

Further development. This idea can be used with any shapes or even free form abstract painting. Small amounts of other colours can be added for accents or highlights later if you want. Mix a little of one of the base colours with any new colour you add so it works with the original palette.

Painting Five – Detail Enlargement

Materials: paint, brushes, canvas or board, water, white card or thin board, scissors, artist journal, picture of a painting or image

Techniques: enlarging detail, using an image finder

1. Cut out an image or view finder from card. Make the cut out shape the same dimensions as your canvas. If you have a square canvas, cut out a square, if you have a rectangular canvas, cut out a rectangle the same orientation.

Square cut out of card to create a square view finder.

Square cut out of card to create a rectangular view finder.

2. Find an image or painting you like. Something with detail is good for this exercise. Place the view finder over the image and move it around till you find an interesting area that would be good to enlarge into a painting. Images of buildings work well for this idea, as do landscape photos, paintings and photos from magazines.

This photo is of large trees in Brunei. The view finder selects the area I plan to enlarge for the painting. Areas that are asymmetrical provide a good basis for creating a painting.

3. It may be useful at this point to use a piece of paper to draw up the image to scale. You can include all or as many parts within the view finder as you like. If you have an artist journal this would be another idea to add to your collection.

Notice that the lines in this preliminary drawing continue to the edge of the canvas. This expands the painting beyond the canvas rather than confining it within a frame.

4. Paint an outline of the composition on your canvas using a light wash and you have the beginnings of a painting.

5. Decide on your colour palette and begin blocking in the areas. You may wish to paint a background colour in first.

Painting Six – Detail Enlargement

Materials: paint, brushes, canvas or board, water, white card or thin board, scissors, artist journal, picture of a painting or drawing

Techniques: enlarging detail, using an image finder

This painting inspiration uses the view finder in the same way as the previous idea but with a slight change. Choose a small detail from a painting or drawing you like. Enlarge the detail at least 100 times so it becomes an abstract shape and fills the whole of your canvas. You can use the same colour scheme as the original or change it to a completely different scheme. The view finder can be used to highlight a detail. Place it on top of the image and move it around to frame the detail you want to use. You may find several interesting details from one image in this way.

When you have selected the detail enlarge it in your artist’s journal, also record any other details that may be useful for other future works. The detail you choose should not be recognisable from the original.

8 responses

  1. john

    This looks like a great way for someone to start painting abstracts or as a way of getting over a “block”. I will be looking through very carefully, I love abstract work but often find myself stuck for an idea – thanks

    August 6, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    • Me too – I want my paintings to reflect emotions or invoke something more than happy accidents

      January 25, 2015 at 11:03 am

  2. Cori

    Thanks so much, i find these ideas very inspiring and helpful to my beginning explorations of abstraction.

    April 7, 2013 at 1:49 am

  3. Carrot

    Thank you for these ideas, I’m a beginner and was quite frustrated and this is helping me a lot!

    August 30, 2013 at 10:33 pm

  4. Maree Gately

    This part of your website is great – it uses techniques I learnt in a design course un Sydney. We used view finders to come up with designs…it gives me confidence that I may actually be able to paint. Thank you so so much Jane

    January 25, 2015 at 11:00 am

  5. Virginia

    This is exactly what I have been looking for on-line. THANK YOU THANK YOU! How to practice abstract techniques and what to practice on. Also, how to take a photo, or scene and learn how to get an abstract version, inspirations. I love the night sky, but I can’t think of a way to take that and find a way to turn it into an abstract work.
    Practicing abstracts on paper, even gessoed paper does not work, so I purchased a 1/8″ sheet of Masonite and cut if into pieces, gesso and that has been great practice canvas.
    I NEED TO KNOW HOW TO GET LOOSE. My paintings look like I tried to hard to “be loose”. I don’t know if that is the right description. My pieces look to clean. How do you make them look grungy without looking forced? Can you even tell someone how to do that?
    I’m rattling on, sorry but I am excited to find this. Thanks Jane McKay.

    February 4, 2015 at 1:14 am

    • Hi Virginia,
      You can practice on paper which is primed. I use to use a thick brown parcel wrapping type paper when I first started. I use a flat matt acrylic to prime, much cheaper than gesso and almost the same in my view but masonite is good too and sturdier.

      Have a look at the post ‘Try Painting with a long stick’ to loosen up. By attaching your brush to a stick or 1 metre section of dowel you have less control and will make looser brush strokes.

      How to make a work look grungy: Layering is the key here. Apply several layers of paint, let it dry completely and then try scraping paint back. A wire brush is good or rough sandpaper depending on how much paint you want to take off. This technique will give you a rough, aged look. Also using a watery sepia coloured wash over the work will create an antique look as well.

      February 4, 2015 at 8:51 am

  6. All of this is so helpful. Thank you!

    July 26, 2015 at 3:25 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s