Have you ever gone on a binge, watching people create abstract art? The acrylic pouring videos, where the paint seems to glide perfectly into place every time? The calculated brushstrokes of an experienced artist just chilling in a high-end studio. They make it look so easy, almost effortless! So you sit down to making a stunning piece of your own, and it resembles… mud. Today we will fix that, and you don’t even have to have any art experience.
What is abstract art?
Once you understand what abstract art is, then it’s easier to know how to create it.
Tate defines abstract art as follows: “Abstract art is the art that does not attempt to represent an accurate depiction of a visual reality but instead use shapes, colours, forms, and gestural marks to achieve its effect.”
That is a pretty broad set of guidelines, but most people think of art by Jackson Pollock.
BUT… this kind of abstract art doesn’t suit everyone. I am certainly not a fan of it, but I have boiled down most appealing abstract pieces to three elements: color, contrast, and composition. You can certainly make it more complicated, as there are several elements and principles to art, but we are looking to simplify. We can take advantage of the fact that abstract isn’t meant to depict anything specifically. That means that we can focus all of our energy on what feels appealing to us.
What kind of materials do you need?
This is really a personal choice, but I have found that paint is a preferred medium for abstract. With paint, you can create vibrant colors and fun textures with minimal effort. Acrylic paint is the most readily available and affordable, but watercolor can be a good alternative.
Don’t know where to start? Check out my free PDF of recommended art supplies. One whole section is dedicated to what I use for acrylic painting and watercolor painting.
Get started with a PDF of my favorite supplies for traditional art, digital art, and sculpture.
Step 1: Pick Your Color Palette
Color is the number one thing that most people notice first. Therefore, I wouldn’t just throw paint on a canvas without thinking a little bit. Some people prefer to be “led” in some sort of unconscious feeling, but this is not that kind of blog post. I want to give people a practical approach to art.
So how do you choose a good combination of colors? Color theory is an extensive study on how colors work together, but we are keeping it simple. There are thousands of people who have already created thousands upon thousands of color palettes. All we have to do is pick the one that appeals to us. Check out my favorite color palette generator here.
You can also use a photo for color inspiration and use this website to extract a color palette.
That's great... but I don't have paint in the colors that I want.
Mixing colors can be a frustrating process, but here are some simple tips that can get you where you need to be. Keep in mind, go through all three steps and PLAN before you even begin mixing colors.
- If a color is too vibrant: Add white, black, or a small amount of its complementary color (red/green, blue/orange, yellow/purple)
- You can mix a variety of browns by combining red, yellow, and blue in different proportions.
- Try not to mix more than 2 or 3 colors in one.
- Always use less blue than you think you need as it is overpowering.
- Think of mixing paints in “parts” and creating recipes. (ex: 3 parts blue, one part yellow)
- Check out this really cool color mixing simulator!
Step 2: Create Some Contrast
Color may take the spotlight most of the time, but contrast is what draws the eye into your artwork. There are two different ways that I find easiest to add contrast, first in values and second in textures.
Values, in their simplest form, are how light and dark your colors are. If your chosen color palette already has some light and dark colors, then you are good to go. You also may be able to skip this step if your colors are complementary. However, if your colors blend together and look like they would make a stunning backdrop, it would be ineffective for grabbing attention. In this case, you can tweak your color palette a little bit and mix some darker or lighter versions of your existing colors. Or simply add some straight black or white as additional colors on my palette.
Contrast can also be created with textures. This is much more self-explanatory. This approach also requires more planning beforehand, but a soft textured background with a spackling in the corner can be a real head-turner. Or a single scribbly line in the middle of a blended shape. If you are working with acrylic, I highly recommend using a modeling paste additive to create stiff peaks without wasting paint.
Step 3: Combine and Create Composition
If I am honest with you, you could spend years studying composition and still not understand it all. When it comes to rules in art, the rules are meant to be broken. However, most of the abstract art I see can be broken down into a few categories.
- Rhythm: Repetitions of shape and color are distributed throughout the composition. No one area is drastically more prominent than the rest.
- Balance: Elements are arranged to create a sense of balance throughout the piece. Asymmetrical balance is also included in this category.
- Emphasis: Generally, your eye is drawn to one region of the piece, and other elements lead your eye to that region. This can be to one focal point or a line spanning across the canvas.
- Gradient: The colors and textures transition from one side of the piece to the other.
Here are some visual examples for you because it makes so much more sense when you can see them!
As you create, here are some tips to keep in mind too.
- Rule of Thirds: If you are creating an emphasis in your piece, it’s best to keep it a third of the way from the edge. Avoid edges and dead center regions.
- Simplicity: Less is more! This has been my motto in life, and it applies even more in abstract art. Sometimes it’s better to have fewer colors and fewer elements.
- Rule of Odds: Generally speaking, an odd number of elements is more appealing than an even number.
If only I could show you a real-life example of these steps in action... oh wait!
Yes, it makes so much more sense if you can see it from start to finish. This video takes you through the planning stages and execution of one of my abstract watercolor paintings.
That about sums it up! There are definitely many more ways to execute abstract art, but if you struggle with creating something you like, then give this a try!
Sara Ferrari is the artist and creator behind Art Squirrels and Sparrow Springs. Her YouTube channel reached 1000 subscribers in the first 14 months, where she posts tutorials and vlogs about traditional and digital art. Most of her freelance work is in graphic design, but a small collection of art has been for book covers. She also works for Renae Christine at Cupcake Trainings making videos for her website building course, Ultimate Architect. Outside of work, Sara spends a lot of time with her family and critters. Check out her art at Sparrow Springs or her Youtube.