How to Paint Abstract Art

Copyright 2006 Lynne Taetzsch

Do you want to create abstract art, but feel that you don’t know where to begin? Here are some ideas to get you started:

Begin traditionally by copying from life and gradually move into abstraction. When I was young, I drew and painted portraits, still lifes, and landscapes. Sometimes I copied from a photograph or a reproduction of someone else’s art. The goal at that time was to represent what I saw as closely as possible. It wasn’t until my late teens that I began to “abstract” or move away from reality. I still began with a subject, but I did not feel bound to represent it, only to use it as a starting-off point for my own purposes.

All art is abstract in the sense that it is not the object itself. Many who call themselves “abstract artists” are indeed painting a subject, but freely stylizing that subject. If you want to paint “abstract” but have trouble figuring out how to approach the canvas, try taking a subject you have painted before and abstracting it.

If you are painting from life, for example, try squinting your eyes until all you can see are the blurry outlines of your subject. Forget the details. Take your brush or pencil and sketch in the broad shapes and contours. Or take a very small section of your subject and blow it up to cover the whole canvas.

Now stand back and see how your composition unfolds, how the shapes take form and become interesting in and of themselves, without reference to your subject. Keep playing with your composition, adding and subtracting shapes, modifying color, strengthening lines. Follow what draws you in, scrap what doesn’t. Work fast, and then stop and study what you have.

Another way to begin to paint abstract art is to use your emotions to get you started. Listening to music is one way I enhance my emotions when I paint. Sometimes I choose music to reflect my current mood: new age, jazz or classical for reflective moods, rock for strong, driving emotions, and so forth. Sometimes a particular mood develops as I listen to and empathize with the lyrics of a song.

Music’s rhythm and tempo can also have an influence on the quality and speed with which you apply a paintbrush or palette knife to the canvas. How you apply the paint will be reflected in the result, leaving a trace of the musical rhythm you were listening to as you made it.

Try this experiment: think of yourself as an instrument or tool of the music in your head. Relax and let the music select colors, control the movement of your hands, and create the content.

Aside from music, emotion itself can drive the painting process. Non-representational art is the best way to directly express emotion because it isn’t constrained by attempting to be “true” to a particular subject matter. If you wake up mad at the world, you can paint a jagged swath of red across the canvas, directly expressing your anger. Color, line, form–everything in your painter’s arsenal is available to say exactly how you are feeling.

One day when I was in a particularly dark mood, I kept feeling “bloody secret” as I painted. Yet I wanted this feeling to be both exposed and hidden at the same time. The result was a painting I titled, “Tied in a Bow.” I painted the bloody secret in thick red paint in the center of the canvas, but I tied it in a bow and framed it prettily in pink. Thus, the blood was there, but it was my secret.

If you are feeling a strong emotion of any kind, try expressing it directly through color, line and form on the canvas. But remember that whatever method you use to begin an abstract painting, you’ll need to pay attention to composition, interest, energy, and focus in order to complete it successfully.