Abstract painting is tricky…
It’s fun and interesting, but at the same time understanding abstract art can be confusing.
And it’s surprisingly difficult to paint something that doesn’t look like a dog’s breakfast.
Don’t worry. This guide is going to break it down for you.
You’ll learn everything you need to know about contemporary abstract painting, and how to create your own abstract masterpiece.
This guide covers a lot. To make things easier it’s separated into two chapters. Read through it from start to finish or use this index to jump to the section you need.
Understand Abstract Art
What is Abstract Art?
Abstract art does not attempt to represent something as it is in real life. Instead, it’s about exploring shape, line, color, and form.
Abstract artists often strive to be non-representational (also known as non-objective or non-figurative) and avoid representing anything in the natural world, this allows the viewer to interpret a painting in their own way.
“Abstraction allows man to see with his mind what he cannot see physically with his eyes.”Arshile Gorky
Some people think abstract painting doesn’t require any special skill or talent like those needed for representational paintings, while others beg to differ.
It’s a major ongoing debate in the art world.
What do you think?
To help you figure it out I’ll give you more background, and even show you a scientific study that tried to settle the debate.
Brief History of Abstract Art
Abstract art isn’t 100% clear cut. It exists on a spectrum and is better understood when you look at its history and evolution.
Don’t worry this isn’t going to be a boring history lesson. I’ll keep things brief and interesting…
Abstract art is not new.
The oldest piece of abstract art ever found is the geometric patterns engraved into the rock of the Blombos Cave in South Africa dated 70,000 BC.
The Realism movement was about representing the world around them as truthfully as they could. Their paintings were accurate depictions of life forms and perspective.
Note: Each new art movement comes from people challenging the status-quo to create something different. This art movement is included because it’s what came before abstract painting, so you can see how things have changed.
This was the first major modern art movement to break away from realism.
Starting in France (of course) they were considered radicals of their time. They faced harsh opposition from art critics and the art establishment.
Their work concentrated on capturing the essence of the moment instead of reproducing an accurate depiction of the natural world. Even so, these paintings were still clearly grounded in reality.
Expressionists painted from their own personal and subjective perspective, they used strong colors and radically distorted the world to convey powerful emotions.
It’s a step up from Impressionism, but again it’s still clearly grounded in reality.
Cubism, reacting against the “prettiness” of Impressionism, strove for a more intellectual form of art.
Rejecting the perspective and depth of three-dimensional space, they took different “views” of a subject and combined them all onto a flat two-dimensional plane.
This idea is similar to taking photos of something from different angles and then cutting out all those “views” and pasting them back together to make a flat 2D picture of the same thing.
Using a 2D surface to depict a 3D reality rocked the art world to its core.
But their work was still derived from objects in the real world, so it wasn’t completely abstract. Rejecting traditional three-dimensional space completely undermined natural-realism in art and opened the door to pure abstraction.
Suprematism and De Stijl
Traditional fine art relies on shapes taken from the real world, so there are endless examples to choose from.
On the other hand, abstract paintings rely on artificial non-natural shapes.
These two different art movements occured at similar times, and both were responsible for bringing these artificial and geometric forms to prominence.
Dadaism was a subversive cultural movement that can be seen as a collective protest against the horrors of WWI and those responsible for it.
They challenged and questioned traditional aesthetic values by creating illogical and nonsensical works of art.
Many of these artists later joined the surrealism movement.
Interesting fact: It’s suggested that the word Dada was chosen by artist Richard Huelsenbeck who randomly stabbed a knife into a dictionary landing on “dada”, a French word for hobby horse. Whether true or not, this story reinforces the type of absurdity that appealed to this group.
Surrealism merged dreams with reality.
They painted strange illogical scenes with photo realistic precision. It was like looking into a warped fantasy-like world.
Surrealism was supposed to be a direct form of communication with the artists subconscious, but they were interpreting and representing it using forms found in the natural world (i.e. representational art).
This was the first American art movement to gain international recognition, and it shifted the modern art world from Paris to New York.
Similar to Surrealism, this was about direct visual communication with the subconscious, but this time they didn’t use forms found in the natural world (i.e. non-representational art).
The goal was to explore human emotions and draw them into another world.
It was more about “What does it make you feel?” not “What is it saying?”.
Abstract Expressionists were heavily preoccupied with color, but not the geometric shapes of previous abstract art like in Suprematism and De Stijl.
Abstract art has broken off into many new directions; digital art and minimalism are just a few you’ve probably heard about.
I’m not going to list everything because we will be here forever. Just know that things are always changing.
If you want to be involved with what could come next, then read on to the next section…
A Child Could Paint That
We’ve all heard it.
Someone looking at abstract paintings in a museum or gallery says “a child could paint that”…
But could they really?
Scientists at Boston College created a study to test exactly that, they wanted to know if there was a difference between an abstract painting made by professionals artists and abstract paintings made by children, chimps, monkeys, and elephants.
They showed 32 art students and 40 psychology students pairs of images. One of them was a painting made by a professional artist and one of them was a similar image made by a child or animal.
The participants had to choose which they preferred and thought was better – and it turns out both groups favored the professional art pieces.
The psychology students who were not trained in analyzing art chose the professional pieces 65.5% of the time, and the art students chose the professional pieces 67.5% of the time.
They even tried to trick the participants by giving them misleading labels (for example, labeling a professional painting with “monkey”, and vice versa) but even so, the students still preferred the professional paintings.
These statistically significant results showed that, on average, a child could not paint that.
This quote from the author of the study sums it up nicely:
“People untrained in visual art see more than they realize when looking at abstract expressionist paintings. People may say that a child could have made a work by a recognized abstract expressionist, but when forced to choose between a work by a child and one by a master such as Rothko, they are drawn to the Rothko even when the work is falsely attributed to a child or nonhuman. People see the mind behind the art.”Hawley-Dolan and Winner
How to Tell Good Abstract Paintings from Bad
Ok so now we know people can tell the difference professional abstract paintings from non-professional paintings, but what makes them different?
When you’re analyzing abstract paintings keep an eye out for these things…
Does the artist have a consistent body of work? If the quality of their work varies then it shows they’re still developing as an artist.
The same goes for consistency in their individual pieces. The paintings should flow from one side to the other, and that comes form purpose and planning not arbitrary randomness.
When colors clash it’s a dead give away it was done by an amateur. Unless it was done on purpose, and in that case, it needs to be obvious.
Professional painters know which colors look great together on the canvas. If you want to learn for yourself, then download our free color wheel template to learn more about color theory and color selection.
Does the piece say something? Or evoke an emotion?
Great art has substance and meaning, it’s the intention behind the piece that shines through. On the other hand, when something is done at random you can tell because it lacks personality.
The more work an artist does the more they grow and develop, which can be seen in their work. In contrast to what may think, it’s actually quite hard to replicate these complex techniques that are acquired throughout their career.
Flicks of paint on a Jackson Pollock painting may seem haphazard at first, but if you take a second look you’ll find each flick of the wrist was done with precision and skill. They were laid down with confidence because he knew what he was doing.
Professional artists spend years perfecting their techniques and are clearly confident with applying their skill, amateurs on the hand lack this confidence and it comes through in the painting.
Make Abstract Art
Before we dive in: I’m going to teach you how to make abstract paintings that look great, but the best advice I can give is to just buy some paints and get started! You can read articles all day long but you won’t really learn anything until you get your hands dirty.
How to Create Good Abstract Art
It would take years to teach you every abstract painting technique.
Instead, to speed things up, I’m going to show you the major principles of art and how they relate to abstract painting.
There are no rules in art, only guiding principles. Pay attention to these principles and your work will look a lot better.
After that, I’ll show you lots of abstract art ideas you can try at home, with a summary of how you can re-create each one.
Principles of Art
Balance gives a sense of equilibrium or stability through the implied weight of an object. Symmetrical, asymmetrical, and radial are the three major types of balance.
Repetition is when you have exact copies of the same element again and again.
Pattern is when you repeat a combination of elements together
Rhythm is when you repeat different elements but with variation. It’s a combination of repeated but varied elements that create a visual tempo or beat.
Emphasis (also known as contrast) is combining elements in a way that gives dominance or importance to something. Make it stand out from the rest. The example below creates emphasis using elements of size, shape, color, and quantity.
Harmony (also known as unity) is combining similar things so they relate and complement each other. Place them in a way that visually pulls your artwork together and creates a sense of completeness.
Add diversity and visual interest by to your painting by using a variety of different colors, shapes, and textures.
The visual flow of your artwork. What is the path your eye takes when looking at your painting? Purposely place elements to give the look and feeling of action.
Abstract Painting Ideas
Each abstract painting has a short summary of how to paint your own version.
Some are easy abstract painting ideas and some are harder. Choose something at your own skill level.
The summaries have enough detail to complete each painting, but they’re kept brief on purpose. Art is about exploring your creative side, not robotically following a recipe.
Use these easy abstract art ideas as a starting point. Recreate them in your own style, or grab ideas from one painting and combine it into another. As cliched as it sounds, the limit really is your imagination.
And who knows, maybe you’ll create the next abstract art movement!
Note: We try and give attribution to artists where possible, but many times we cannot find the owner. If you’re the owner of these and want attribution please contact us.
Paint paper with an assortment of bright colors, then cut them up into triangles and arrange the pieces onto a white canvas. Source: Kate Bullen
Paint dark red around the edges. Then fill in the center with various shapes one color at a time. When the bottom layer is done paint finer details on top. Then keep adding more details until it's finished. Source: Thaneeya McArdle.
Divide your canvas into equal squares (drawn with pencil) and then paint each one using a different color. Once dry go over the top with circular shapes. Source: Stay at home artist.
Lay down a very neutral base coat wash. Then draw or trace a simple form on top, like the outline of a woman. Then use colors to bring her to life. Pay attention to shading, note how this artist has used light colors where the light would hit and darker colors for the shadows. This gives it shape and depth.
Starting from the middle top, create your radiant light source using yellows and whites. Places small dobs of paint on each part and scrape using card to get the same texture. Work in a semi-circular pattern moving further out to the edges. Source: Luiza Vizoli.
Base coat your painting with a dominate color, dark red in this case, and add a lighter wash with another color over the top allowing some of the color underneath to bleed through. Then draw a simple picture on top in a third color, you can get many ideas for the simple picture online, practice them on paper first.