The Many Paths of Abstract Painting

Carnival II by Norman Lewis, 1962.
Carnival II by Norman Lewis, 1962.

How to Paint Abstract Art Step by Step

It feels slightly awkward to try to explain how to create an abstract painting. The little voice inside my head sneers, “Isn’t it obvious? You just go crazy all over a blank piece of paper or empty canvas.”

But that’s not the answer that satisfies the art student in me, or not the only answer. Abstract art is created so many different ways, with different levels of attention paid to color, precision application, gesture and recognizable or unrecognizable forms. Every one of these leads an artist down a different path.

Color

Abstract painting: Untitled by Mark Rothko, 1951.
Untitled by Mark Rothko, 1951.

It will always be my first love and my first way of experiencing a painting, abstract or not. If you want to explore abstract painting as a colorist, think on:

  • Color symbology. With color comes color association and history. These vary by culture and by era, but there is a story behind every color if you are willing to put in the time to explore them.
  • Think of a word, think of a color. What color is sublime? What color is fear? What color is family? Whatever your subject matter, it has a color story waiting to come out.
  • What does the color wheel tell you about analogous, complementary, and contrasting colors? Learn these and then see what you want to go along with and what rules you want to break.
  • Just feel. Color is the most beautiful characteristics of art. Don’t be afraid of it. Embrace it. It is a language you know how to speak fluently.

Mark-making and Type of Gesture

Flinging paint, pouring ink, rubbing dust–there are so many ways to put down your mark as an artist. Get lost in the different kinds of mark you can make, then marry mark with meaning. That will be when you start to understand how you can tell your own story through abstraction.

Abstract painting: Woman and Bicycle by William de Kooning, mixed media.
Woman and Bicycle by William de Kooning, mixed media.
  • Change your grip. The way you hold your brush, pencil, or stick of charcoal influences the kind of mark you make. Ask yourself, what does a controlled mark look like? A loose one? A tight one or a fluid one? A gentle or aggressive one?
  • Marks are influenced by where your surface is: on the floor, pinned to the wall, on a slanted surface, in your face, or at a distance. Play with positioning.
  • Don’t confuse the way you make a mark with the mark itself. Sometimes you can come at the surface one way but the result doesn’t show that action. Just because you violently fling paint doesn’t mean a work feels violent. Because you pour paint in a gentle way doesn’t mean the results won’t feel heavy or oppressive.

Level of representation

Abstract art can be fully abstracted, but does not have to be. Many artists find merging abstraction and representation allows full expression. Other artists like Jackson Pollock wanted to take nothing from reality–that’s where the term non-objective comes from. It is all about visual stimulation.

Abstract painting: Evening Over Manayunk by Stuart Shils.
Evening Over Manayunk by Stuart Shils.
  • Don’t force this. Usually artists find they naturally fall somewhere on the spectrum of representation. Wherever you naturally fall, go with it.
  • Use repetition, size, and color to increase or reduce your level of representation.
  • Don’t confuse representation with meaning. Let’s say you paint a vague shape of a boat in a field of color. The shape isn’t necessarily the main character. Maybe it is the field of color. Question your presumptions to figure out what you really want to say in your painting.

 

Level of geometry

Using geometric forms can often lead to reckonings surrounding control and process. There are artists who crave precision and detail and those don’t care at all and then those who reduce one but not the other. With geometric forms, be mindful that they can be exacting task-masters.

Abstract painting: Explosion Calculus in Red by Katie Shima, acrylic painting.
Explosion Calculus in Red by Katie Shima, acrylic painting.
  • Stick to your own rules. If you are going to adhere to certain levels of precision in a work, you can’t stop halfway through and expect it to make sense.
  • Lines and angles aren’t like organic brushstrokes. They need to look a certain way and look consistent if you want to work with them as visual tools.
  • Geometric forms, like representational ones, can be used with different levels of emphasis. Don’t shrink away from exploring them — just do it on the small scale or in preparatory sketches first.

Starting to explore abstract painting offers an artist many unique tools of expression. Nothing you make will be like the work of anyone else. It will be utterly your own. The more you explore abstraction, the better off you will also be in terms of being able to see what is really there: big shapes carved out with smaller shapes, light that hits forms, color that carry so many other colors within them. All these are keys to art that will keep your viewers engaged and YOU engaged in the process of making it. For more abstract explorations, get your copy of Art Journey Abstract Painting. It will open your eyes to even more possibilities inherent in this type of art.

Enjoy the journey, artists!

Courtney

 

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

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