Abstract Painting Ideas

Abstract painting ideas are often formed during long and steadily developing art careers. But where pioneers take a lifetime for creating the basics, we can build on them and go a lot faster. Learning about other people's styles can be a great help in developing one's own style. Here are some key-ideas about abstract art, along with some ideas to get you going in abstract painting.

abstract painting

Abstract painting ideas for a quick start

Reality is complicated, abstraction is mostly about simplifying things. You could start by taking an existing image as a reference, pick out only some forms and colors and leave out the rest.

  • Color picking: take you time to mix colors. Carefully mix untill you have exactly the colors you see on the photo or before you. Paint them differently, and the colors will still emit the mood of the scenery.
  • Take an existing scene or photo, and pick forms or lines of it. Not all, just a few. Then put these forms in a new color setting.
  • When you focus on form, keep the colors simple at first. A painting will sooner will become too full or complicated, than too simple.

Somewhere down the line, your abstract work has to gain its own meaning. This meaning is a feeling rather than words, and it will present itself when you look over your painting. Scroll down for more abstract painting ideas.

Three main tendencies in abstract painting

Even though every artist artists is different, the basic ideas in abstract art boil down to a few approaches. I'm not saying abstract painting is simple or easier than achieving realistic results - most of the first and best abstract painters had a formal training in realistic painting. For an abstract painting to become art, it has to relate somehow to human experience. Here are some main tendencies:

  • One can go abstract by using and changing realistic motives: faces, figures, landscape. Birds and fish are often chosen for this. This might be called an impressionistic approach. Examples: Jawlensky, Matisse.
  • The "expressionistic" approach is: to express in color or gesture how a specific object "feels". When you relate that to your own body, some degree of objectivity can be reached in this as well. The ideas you work with define the outcome.
  • The formal way is a mathematical one: take mathematical visual components (color, form and proportions) and 'construct' a reality with it.

The last method is the boldest and the most diffcult - the experience will be mathematical rather than emotional. For some the intellectual satisfaction will be an emotional one as well, but unprejudiced onlookers are unlikely to be touched by this kind of art. Somehow squares and rectangles were very popular in formal abstract art. The "expressionistic" method is a lot less widespread, I guess for historical reasons (scroll doen). Here's a nice example of it on kickstarter.

How to practice your abstract painting

Abstract painting is not really easier than realistic painting, but there are ways to improve and learn. Start by taking simple things seriously, such as color, dimensions and proportions. Think up little excercises for yourself like:

  • If you want to focus on gestures, form, strokes and composition: first paint it in black and white (or, dark brown and white), and eventually apply colors after that.
  • Choose two or three colors, place the lightest one on top, and find a painterly way to make them "fall" or go down. (let it ray, dwindle, grow, sink, or crash. Make a painting for each way, and invent as many ways of going down as you can think of) The colors can be mixed, though the lightest one remains dominant on top. If color is too complicated, do it in black-and-white.
  • abstract painting

    Black-and-white underpainting can be a good way to create a painting in steps. Before applying color, black and white enables you work only with light, space and gesture

Abstract painting ideas on color

  • This color excercise was invented by Paul KLee: take one color as a base, and try to imagine what it tastes like. One color can have different tastes: yellow can be butter or lemon, brown can be dirt or chocolate, red can be sweet or hot like chili. Try to experience how these two "tastes" make you paint the color differently.
  • Allow yourself time and materials to learn, and take pleasure in the experience before the results (not all results will be masterpieces). Sheets of paper can be great for acrylic studies.
  • When introducing color, ponder on the kind of strokes that help the color articulate
  • Important inspiration can be found in Goethean color theory - it helps you understand the way color is connected to human mood and meaning.
  • For practical painting, it can be very helpful to study some basic color theory.
  • Check this page for more abstract painting ideas.

The best ideas are in the work itself...

Abstract painting is not really easier than realistic painting, it's just different. The funny thing is: ideas have a big influence on the outcome - the look and feel of your work - but these ideas are of the kind that dwell in your body and subconscious. The best way to learn about them is to see and read about the work of other artists. Here's an ebook I can recommend for this, it shows the work and comments of over 50 artists. It can help a lot in picking up new ideas, and developing your own abstract painting style.

Summertime I

Ideas for semi-advanced painters

If you were lucky enough to have had lessons in realistic painting, the following tips will set you off quickly.

  • If your colors are earthy and realistic, your painting will have a natural look, even though it's painted abstract
  • If you know about painting light and darkness, you painting will have an inner space and connection. Instead of painting objects, paint the relation between the objects
  • Within your painting, discern between "background" material and "objects" or the subject of your painting. The dialoge between background and object defines much of the subject already.

abstract painting ideas in history

At the beginning of the 20th century, society was about to change hugely, and the artists were the first to sense it. Painters all had been trained in realistic painting, but longed very much to free themselves of this convention, in favor of real expression of feeling and a search for the unseen. At first, abstract art was called "gegenstandslos", which means "immaterial". There were lots of different means and goals in this - after 1905, there was an explosion of "isms". I'll

Talisman, c.1888

Bigger pics at Art.com

This painting (Talisman (1888) by Paul Serusier) had a major influence on several famous painters. It showed them it was possible to paint "flat" (2-dimensional) without having to sacrifice the reality of the 3-dimensional world. Another big source for this knowledge was Japanese print art. A painter like Hokusai actually had a big influence on the birth of modern and abstract art. It influenced both painters (like Van Gogh), and design (Jugendstil, Art Nouveau).





Realism and abstraction

The abstract artworks made before the 1950's were mostly done by painters who were trained in realistic painting skills. Their abstract painting ideas were formed while painting realistically, out of a strong desire to see beyond the outer appearance of things.

This painting by Paul Serusier has been important for many early abstract painters, because it was explicitly 2-dimensional, but at the same time it had a sense of space. This reflected a major ideas for a lot of early abstract painters. It actually was the center of attention in a big artist's meeting, in the early 20th century.

I think the quality of the art of the old masters (paul Klee, Kandinsky, Mondriaan) is due to their realistic painting skills.... There they learned how to ow to use color and create depth, atmosphere and form.

Abstract to go square - Mondrian and Malevich

There's a general development, as represented by Mondrian, Malevich and other artists, to go square when abstracting nature. These painters started as realistic painters, and abstracted more and more untill (in the case of Malevich and Mondrian) they painted only square, geometrical forms. This in a spiritual quest for purity, truth and objectivity. There might be a connection to the Christian cross here as well. Mondrian took it far and actually lived, moved, ate and danced in square forms and movements. In fact, square and formal is by them experienced as spiritual and holy. Here's Malevich's development:

The Floor Polishers, 1911 Three Girls Suprematist Composition No.56, 1916Black Square

Click on the pics to find enlargements (at Art.com)

Here's an abstract painting idea to try this out: take one simple subject (your own face, or a plant in your house or garden), and paint it again and again, in different ways, trying to extract something new out of it. One doesn't have to end with a square, but if you do: it will be a living and beautiful square. Of course it's a completely different thing to start with squares, like many contemporary architects seem to do. And sometimes, it's still difficult to tell the difference. It's in little things, like dimentions, materials and proportions.

Actually, these painters were led by a hidden idea about beauty or esthetics: the regular idea is, that beauty is the appearing of an idea, in the form of a sensory perception. So, the point of origin is abstract idea, which is thought disattached from nature. It's bound to lead to formal abstraction. Goethe formed another notion: he said, beauty is when nature appears in such a form, that it takes on the appearance of an Idea (this is seen in the old work of Mondrian). In Goethean esthetics, nature will never be lost out of sight.

Lyrical abstraction

Phenomena Waves Without Wind, 1977

Paul Jenkins, 1977

The ideas to be found in lyrical abstraction are much more delicate and less outspoken, but abstract painters of this kind did manage to keep away from going 'square'. Painters like Georgia O'Keeffe seemed to keep their intentions and ideas more private, maybe even because they showed so much of it on their canvases.

There's one middle way in here, which is defined by the human body and constitution. This is a rather unexplored field yet, although some abstract painters did manage to really go deep into human emotions (like Mark Rothko). For more on this body-notion: click here.

Ideas in Colorfield painting

The goal in colorfield painting is to give the spectator an immediate experience, rather than to have him/her think about the presented scenery. Mark Rothko was most explicit in this: he really aimed to communicate basic human emotions. Indeed I've heard people be touched deeply by his work. Another colorfield painting (from Barnett Newman, 'who's afraid of red, yellow and blue') was attacked by a visitor, with a knife - so it must have touched the offender somehow. The secret of the color effect in colorfield painting is in layering. 'Who's afraid etc'. was painted with cadmium red, and layered over with a transparent (and slightly cooler) permanent red. You can try it out yourself, you'll see it will produce a very deep, floating red.


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