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6 things you should know as a novice abstract painter

By in How To


While we have certainly written in the past about some notable abstract artists, we haven’t focused much on the basic point and essence of abstract painting, and what it should mean to you as a practitioner of this sometimes-misunderstood art.

gold, purple and white abstract painting
Abstract Riverbank | Photo by Rosie Cunningham (via ArtWeb)

If, like me, you believe in painting as a brilliant mode of expressing your personal being, emotions and character, you might be interested in abstract painting as a practice that is seemingly freer than figurative painting, and therefore — at least in theory — a truer and purer form of creativity.

But is abstract painting really that deep, or is it seemingly a meaningless ‘anything goes’ universe populated by artists who ‘can’t paint’? We’ll leave you to arrive at a conclusion on that one — but here are six of my own thoughts on the subject.

1. We don’t need the outside world to express ourselves

Many artists, both beginner and experienced, lament that visual art seemingly depends on the representation of something tangible, out there in the real world. We can sing about our pure feelings, but we can’t paint them; we have to paint at least something that exists beyond mere emotions.

green and black abstract painting
Abstract in Jet Emerald | Photo by Arty Aitch (via ArtWeb)

But in truth, abstract painting does bring us close to this unfettered form of creativity and emotional expression that we may widely consider music to be.

The wonder of abstract painting is the realisation that we don’t necessarily need to be bound by the traditional ‘rules’ and ‘techniques’ of painting, or the apparent need for what we paint to ‘represent’ a tangible real-world object at all. In short, in theory at least, it is about revelling in paint itself.

2. It’s not just canvas on which you can paint

You don’t necessarily need to stretch or buy a canvas to get started with abstract painting. Indeed, medium-density fibreboard (MDF) panels and acrylic paint go very well together. All that you have to do to provide the right ground for your painting is sand the panel and treat it with gesso.

3. Black lines aren’t only good for outlines

Let’s imagine that you’re making liberal use of vibrant shades of blue, red and yellow in your abstract painting, perhaps with dashes of white to provide some well-placed highlights. What role could black have in your painting? Surely, if you mix it with the other colours, you’ll end up with something horribly muddy-looking?

colorful abstract painter Simon Kenny
Barrage | Photo by Simon Kenny (via ArtWeb)

That may be so, but another strategy could be to incorporate black lines in your painting. No, we aren’t necessarily referring to using them as outlines for colour planes, but instead to add a further sense of dynamism, spontaneity and unpredictability to your painting.

4. Abstract painting isn’t a ‘get out of jail’ card for unskilled painters

The reputation of abstract painting in some quarters as an ‘anything goes’ world really does it a grave disservice. Abstract painting is still, after all, a mode of expression like any other, and the most successful abstract artists are those who know how to most effectively exercise that expression.

gold and grey abstract painting
Radiant Bloom | Photo by Toni Kingstone (via ArtWeb)

Don’t use the supposed ‘freewheeling’ practice of abstract painting to serve as your excuse to neglect such vital areas as perspective, plasticity, colour theory, composition, shade and three-dimensionality. In fact, abstract painting is at its best when it brilliantly combines artistic and expressive skills with more technical ones.

5. If you’re intimidated by painting, start with scribble drawings

Those who are more accustomed to painting more obviously figurative or ‘representational’ scenes of reality — or who rarely apply paint to a surface at all — can understandably feel overwhelmed by embarking on an abstract painting.

If that describes you, a good way to free yourself from those old constraints of ‘reality’ is to start with some simple scribbles on paper. Notice just how complicated and fascinating your artistic creations can be when you are simply spontaneous, unselfconscious, and refuse to stop moving the pen or pencil, including the shapes, divisions and other marks that you make.

It’s all about creating your way to a new way of thinking, rather than trying to think your way to a new way of creating.

6. There’s nothing ‘easy’ about abstract painting

You might think that abstract painting is a ‘soft’ and not exactly demanding form of painting, but that is a perception that really should be dispelled.

purple, gold and grey abstract
Hidden Forces – Abstract Seascape | Photo by Wendy Hyde (via ArtWeb)

The creation of an abstract painting actually requires a lot from you. After all, you don’t have the support of details from reality to help you through every single brush stroke or compositional decision. It really does demand the utmost expressiveness and personal initiative.

You have to hunt out all of the elements that will make up your abstract painting for yourself,including from your imagination, knowledge and experience. Abstract painting doesn’t merely allow you to decide everything for yourself — it requires you to do so.

As an abstract painter myself, I appreciate everything that this very distinctive form of creativity represents, no matter what the detractors may say. What are your own thoughts on the discipline of abstract painting, and what have been your own discoveries from trying it for yourself?

This post was originally published in January 2018. Last updated on October 2, 2020. 

Further reading

10 comments for “6 things you should know as a novice abstract painter

Olga Van Dijke

January 17, 2018 at 10:50 pm

Great to read about abstract painting. I feel great freedom to paint organic abstraction, guided by my thoughts and intuition of colours.

Komal Wadhwa

April 1, 2018 at 8:12 pm

Interesting read. Enjoyed reading it. I agree that painting good abstraction isn’t easy.

Debbie Davidge

April 10, 2018 at 10:41 am

I’m 4 months into self taught as a painter. We have a local Exhibition coming next month and putting forward 13 paintings of various genres, mainly in acrylics. My question is I have a painting which if I sign on the front will distract from the subject. Is it possible to sign on the back of the canvas board? Thank you in advance for comnents/replies.


April 14, 2018 at 2:08 pm

Excellent article and good advice for new artists.

As an artist creating abstract paintings I often hear comments about abstract artworks, as “my kid could paint this” “everyone can make abstract paintings”.

To be a successful abstract artist you have to know about composition, how to mix colors, how to use contrasts, how to use color tones to name a few.

I’ts not easy.

BR Michael


August 22, 2018 at 3:39 pm

Insightful article. Even though I love abstract art I often wondered whether the artist knew what he was going to do before starting. For some of us it is hard to let loose so your idea about letting loose and just drawing makes sense. I will give it a go.Thank you


November 25, 2018 at 12:06 am

I’m not a fan of the abstract painting movement. I’m a representational/figurative painter in a building with about 40 other painters. The vast majority of my fellows make abstract art. A few of them have some vision or design sensibility, but most have very little. However, some of them do pretty well selling to the interior design trade. The galling thing is they fetch prices as much or greater than my work for a fraction of the effort. I resent that artwork spending is sapped by the conflation of this interior design wall covering craft with actual painting.


April 3, 2020 at 7:20 am

Please tell me no one actually believes that to be true. #1 There is no argument that Georgia O’Keefe did not intentionally paint vaginas. There is a common phenomenon in art where the artist unintentionally, subconsciously depicts genitalia in their works.


January 2, 2021 at 5:00 am

The Painting under number 4. is my favorite . I also create Abstract paintings click the link to see


August 5, 2021 at 5:08 pm

Thank you for a great article. I’m always interested to read and learn about others’ views about abstract painting. “There’s nothing ‘easy’ about abstract painting” and you are absolutely right. Creating abstract painting can be very challenging but also beautifully amazing and exciting. To create a meaningful something from nothing. That is never an easy job.

Mike Francis

December 29, 2021 at 1:33 pm

If it was easy why would you bother? The biggest challenge is to loose your self. Forget the intellect, open the heart. As one of the great painters Mark Rothko said rid yourself of memory, history, geometry. You will find your soul, and respond with an unfettered mind. Not easy but all can achieve. And have a big comfortable chair to sit in and contemplate your work sometimes for hours. All will be revealed. Above all have a wonderful time.

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