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How to make an abstract painting

Updated: Aug 22

This article is divided into six main areas that attempt to provide an overview of some of the subjects you will need to learn about abstract painting.


What is abstraction

Abstract painting tools and techniques

Understanding colour theory

Colour psychology

Develop your own style, your own signature

The fun part - painting


What is abstraction


Before we start, we must understand the meaning of abstraction and this is where the journey begins.


As an adjective, we can define abstract as:

1. existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence. "abstract concepts such as love or beauty”


2 relating to or denoting art that does not attempt to represent external reality, but rather seeks to achieve its effect using shapes, colours and textures.

“abstract art”


As a verb:

1. consider something theoretically or separately from (something else).

"to abstract science and religion from their historical context can lead to anachronism"


2. extract or remove (something).

"applications to abstract more water from streams"


As a noun:

1. a summary of the contents of a book, article, or speech.

"an abstract of her speech"


2. an abstract work of art.

"a big unframed abstract"


The Cambridge English Dictionary, uses the following definition as an adjective:

existing as an idea, feeling or quality, not as a material object.


In the abstract art community, abstract can refer to “work that does not depict anything from the real world”, also referred to as “nonrepresentational” art.


I prefer the reference to “work that does not depict anything from the real world” with some reservation. Is there anything that humans can create that is not depicted from the real world? All colours, shapes, forms, textures, compositions, etc. are all around us.

I use a simpler meaning; the “unfamiliar”.


Abstract painting tools and techniques


Like any other skill, mastering the tools and techniques is important to help you create your artwork. There are hundreds of different types of tools - a very wide selection of brushes, paints, mediums, painting surfaces (canvas, paper, wood, boards), palette knives, etc.


Learning and understanding the different types of paints will help you to select which type of paint you feel more comfortable using for your art work. Each type of paint has its own very specific characteristics, textures and applications. Watercolour, acrylic and oil paints are amongst the most widely used mediums when it comes to abstract painting.

Each medium has different components, but water is used in the components of watercolours (obviously) and acrylics. So, both mediums dry much quicker than oil paints. This is one of the main differences but it is also very important to understand its application, particularly, when adding layers of paints in your artwork.


Understanding the opacity of colours and its applications in the different types of paints will be necessary when applying each layer. Opacity of colour is its ability to cover any background. Generally, there are four categories: transparent, semi-transparent, semi-opaque and opaque.


There are many techniques to use when painting abstraction. Many of the well-known styles are unique to their artists. For example, Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) is most known for flinging and dripping paints across canvases in random movements. Many artists today use a similar technique.


Gerhard Richter uses a large wooden plank/squeegee to pull paint in many of his artwork.


In the 1930s, David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), simply poured different colour paints onto a wooden panel allowing the different colors to spread and infiltrate one another. He discovered his “accidental painting” technique, as he called it. Here is an example of pouring technique .


I use my hands and fingers frequently when I’m painting. I use other tools, too, but I feel more connected when I’m using my hands feeling the paint and the artwork evolving slowly. I don’t use my bare hands when painting with oils. Oil paints can cause some health risks, e.g. toxic vapours and fumes, can be flammable and can cause eye and skin irritation. Many modern oil paints have reduced the risks.


There are many more painting techniques and each artist will find what suits him/her to develop their own style.


Understanding Colour Theory


Colour theory is used by both science and art to interpret how humans perceive colour and the visual effects of mixing colours, matching or contrasting with each other.

Colour theory is also involved in colour psychology and potential effects on humans mood.


Colours are traditionally organised in a colour wheel based on a colour circle of red, yellow and blue. It is said that Isaac Newton developed the first circular diagram of colours in 1666. Generally speaking, there are three categories of the colour wheel. I haven’t used a traditional colour wheel but the image below explains the categories well. Also note that colours here are referred to “colours as pigments”:

Primary colours red blue and yellow as pigments

1. Primary colours: red, blue and yellow.

2. Secondary colours: green, orange and violet.

3. Tertiary colours: yellow-orange, red-orange, red-violet, blue-violet, blue-green and yellow-green


(Hue is a two word name, e.g. blue-green, red-violet, etc. Thorough understanding of colour hue has a direct effect on selecting and using each colour paint, particularly when mixing paint).


The colour wheel can also show what we classify as warm colours (reds, yellows, oranges) and cool colours (blues, purples, greens). This is a very interesting interpretation of using the sense of touch to visual explanation!


The Additive Colour Theory: Red, Green and Blue (RGB)

This is also known as the primary “colours of light”. Red, blue and green are the primary colours of light.


The Subtractive Colour Theory

Red, blue and yellow are the primary colours of pigments in the art world.

Subtractive colour theory


Cyan, magenta and yellow are the primary colours of inks in the printing industry. It was found that mixing those three primary colours produced muddy brown colours and, therefore, a fourth colour, black, was added to the primary colours and became known as CYMK in the printing industry.

Primary colours - printing industry CYMK

Note the different applications of colour: as pigments, as lights and as inks in the printing industry.


Colours, Hues, shades, tints and tones


Hue is the basic colour and it doesn't change but we can alter its value. For example you can lighten or darken its value.


Shade involves adding black to a hue to make it darker. Tinting a hue is the exact opposite to shading a hue. To tint a hue you add white. Tinting a hue doesn't make it brighter.


Tone is defined as adding grey to a hue.


There is a huge amount of information which explains in much more depth about the various elements of paint mediums, colours and mixing colours, colour wavelengths and how we see colour. I have also touched on the subject under another article: My Favourite Painting Colours - Black & White


Colour Psychology


Colour psychology is a very interesting subject to me personally that summarises and puts all the artistic techniques, creativity, style, colour theory, etc in one dimension and explores the effects that these techniques have on human emotions.


Many studies have examined four psychological primary colours - blue, red, yellow and green as they relate to the mind, the body, the emotions and the necessary balance between them.


Blue is the colour of mind.

Red relates to power and physical strength.

Yellow is all about brightness and optimism.

Green is balance and harmony.


Dr. Taylor Hartman’s Hartman Personality Profile also known as “The People Code” divides personalities into four colours: Red (motivated by power), Blue (motivated by intimacy), White (motivated by peace) and Yellow (motivated by fun).


All artists know the power of colours as a communication tool that can be used to influence mood and also influence physiological reactions. Some colours are associated with increased blood pressure, increased metabolism and eyestrain.


Colour psychology is commonly used in marketing, design, art and art therapy. But colour psychology remains subjective and depends on several factors including personal experience and cultural influences.


Colour psychology therapy was practiced in ancient cultures like the Egyptian and Chinese, who practiced chromotherapy or the use of colours to heal. Chromotherapy is sometimes referred to as light therapy or coluorology. It is still used as a holistic or alternative treatment.


Red is used to stimulate the body and mind and to increase circulation.

Yellow is thought to stimulate the nerves and purify the body.

Orange is used to heal the lungs and to increase energy levels.

Blue is believed to soothe illnesses and treat pain.

Indigo shades are thought to alleviate skin problems.


There is a tonne of information about colour psychology that would not be possible to explain everything in this session.


Develop your own style, your own signature


As you can see there is a great deal of knowledge to learn about, not only theoretically, but I can't emphasise enough the practical application process. Theoretical learning is vital but must be complemented by practical practice, practice and more practice.


How important is it to develop your own art style? There are so many different views about this subject and whether it is necessary before you begin selling your art. Many artists who make a living selling their art don't necessarily have an instantly recognisable painting style.


Developing art style takes time and a lot of practice to develop as your art develops. It's a combination of colour choices, subject matter, techniques, media and the overall blending of all elements in the painting.


Art style may be necessary, but if you don't have your own unique style it doesn't stop you from developing your art.


The fun part - painting


It's a long journey to the most exciting part - painting. Learning can take a long time, but remember that you would be regularly practicing and applying every step of what you learn. So, in fact, you would be painting all the way through.


You will even enjoy the process of learning abstract painting when you begin to engage your feelings to lead the painting process.


To me personally, "painting with feelings" is my approach to abstract painting.

How do you paint with feelings?


This is another interesting subject, which needs a thorough understanding of colour psychology effects on you and your own interpretations of those effects. The next step is all about "letting go". Let your feelings, not your brain, take over the actual process of the painting journey.


Have fun painting abstract.



Some of my oil paintings:


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The artworks shown on this website are copyright and remain the property of Suhail Mitoubsi. No element of the artworks may be copied or re-used without his express written consent. In accordance with UK copyright law.