How to make an abstract painting

How to make an abstract painting
Art Secret, Painting

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How to make an abstract painting + checklist – includes ideas and tips, visual examples, a video, and a free checklist!

Over on Instagram, where I share a lot of behind scenes and process, someone recently asked me for my ‘secrets’ when it comes to how to make an abstract painting.

Firstly, I found that kind of hilarious because up until quite recently I didn’t really ‘get’ or enjoy making abstract art. I always had one foot firmly planted in an image, even if I did stray wildly from it on the canvas.

I’ve taken two abstract painting courses, and while I loved both, I still didn’t think it was for me.

Secondly, I suddenly realized that my work recently has been becoming more and more abstract. It started with the beachy landscapes, and gradually they’ve been loosening up and fragmenting, to the point where I now have quite a few ‘almost abstracts’ and several fully abstract paintings.

I didn’t choose abstract – I even thought I didn’t like it and couldn’t really do it – it just started happening.

Meet me where the wild things grow

Here’s an ‘almost abstract’ I finished recently; still reminiscent of the dune paintings I was doing earlier this year, but heading into the unknown with some strange and interesting marks.

The question got me thinking; how DO you make an abstract painting that works? Naturally, that’s partly down to the beholder, but for me, there are definitely things that make an abstract painting feel more successful.

So I thought I’d share what I suggested to Michele who asked the question, and expand on it a bit since it might help you too.

Use a reference image

This might sound counterintuitive, but actually having a specific starting point helps me a lot, especially as someone coming from a representational background.

I don’t always use one, but sometimes I like to have one of my own photos to hand or something I found on Pinterest {from this board}, so I’ve got a guideline to follow in terms of a composition that already works.

Generally, it’s more of a springboard, and it doesn’t actually matter what the subject of the photo is; I usually abandon the reference very soon after starting. It just helps get things going.

Have a focal point

It doesn’t need to be anything recognizable, but having a place for the eye to begin or end as it wanders around the canvas helps a painting ‘make sense’ and feel satisfying to look at. Generally speaking, you want the focal point to be off-center, for the same reason.

In this one, the big white loop at the top serves to draw the eye from the ‘path’ in the lower half towards the horizon. It’s not an in-your-face focal point but it helps the eye to travel, which is what the eye wants to do!

Stay aware of values

While there are definitely abstracts out there with very little value range that is absolutely beautiful, that’s not something I’ve mastered yet.

It’s harder in a way, because you have so much less to work with, so you need to be that much more confident and practiced. {Don’t let that deter you from having a go though!}

A very limited range of values can make a painting feel shallow and without anything meaningful to say. It can also confuse the viewer if there’s not enough of a pathway for the eye to follow, however subtle.

I like to start with a lot of darks and gradually remove them. Adding and removing is one of the easiest and most forgiving ways to build a painting because you just keep going until things start working together.


Here is a painting with a strong diagonal composition, with lighter values in the top section, and darker, more ‘grounding’ values below

Keep turning it to check for the balance

This is valid advice for any painting; the more you do it the easier it becomes to instantly see what’s out of balance.

Balance doesn’t mean everything’s equal or looking the same – that’s not interesting for the eye and ironically tends to mean it’s out of balance – it means that all the parts of the painting work together and within the frame of the four edges.

Check your edges!

Edges are just as important to the success of a painting as what you put inside them. They can help to anchor the painting, create a pleasing imbalance, or suggest more going on ‘off-stage’. Keep your eye on them as you paint and don’t let your focal point get lost floating in the center.

See how in this one, a couple of the posts are coming in from the right, and on the left part of the grass is disappearing off the edge. If I’d not had anything touching the edges it wouldn’t look right. {Try blocking them out with your fingers – you’ll see what I mean!}

Vary your marks

Marks are fascinating things. They ‘talk’ to each other, so that everyone you make contributes to the conversation.

It’s up to you to create a harmonious conversation or even a disjointed one, but one that can be ‘read’ by the viewer, even though no two people will read it the same. {Art is full of paradox!}

I like to push myself to create as many different types of marks as I can while I’m working; it’s surprisingly hard because we fall into patterns and habits.

For example, I have a deep love and abiding habit of making vertical marks, so I have to be careful to balance that with more horizontals than I might think of making. It’s so much fun to have that challenge running as I paint – it keeps me on my toes!

Here’s an experiment in mark-making I made recently for the Touchstone course. No reference image, but that ‘path’ is showing up again! And quite a few verticals. 🙂

Use your feelings

Because abstract art doesn’t have a recognizable subject, the subject can become pure emotion. I recently made a painting while drinking wine and dancing, and I was in the most fabulous mood while doing so. {Wine! Underrated art supply!}. Here’s the painting that resulted:

It’s quite chaotic and I’ve since calmed it down a bit, but you can see and feel the exuberance I was feeling as I painted it. So channel what you’re feeling and let it inform your painting! Obviously, this can be very cathartic too.

Have a concept

Something I’ve been playing with a lot recently is the idea of painting ‘weather’. To me, that means not literally painting blue skies or rain, but the feeling that weather carries, in particular wind.

I’m not sure why – the wind is my least favorite weather condition – but often when I’m painting I’ll find I’m thinking about the wind and what it ‘looks’ like. It helps keep the paintings dynamic and alive.

You might choose a less violent concept! It doesn’t matter what it is, only that it inspires you and helps you stay focused. Switching from one concept to another can lead to a confused and confusing painting.

Keep it simple {your approach, not necessarily the painting!}

As a basic rule of thumb, variation and contrast are what will help make the painting interesting, especially if you’re a bit of a noob and not feeling too confident about you’re doing! Personally, I prefer paintings with more darks and lights and a feeling of dynamic movement.

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