Abstract Oil Painting: A How-to Guide for Beginners and More

abstract oil painting

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Abstract oil painting is a paradox. When you look at it, it seems so simple. But, when you try it, you feel lost and frustrated.

Artists new to trying out abstract oil painting often ask themselves “Where do I begin?”, “What materials do I use?”, or “How do I know if it is good or bad?”

This guide will give you the foundational principles, and the confidence, to experiment with abstract oil painting and make abstract art you can be proud of.

What is Abstract Art: Abstract vs. Non-Objective 

To begin with, it’s good to understand some basic terminology. Abstract art “abstracts” or removes parts of an object, being, or setting to use in the abstract art without trying to represent it realistically.

what is abstract art
Weeping Woman by Pablo Picasso

Think of Cubism and Picasso’s works. You can tell he’s portraying a lady, but it doesn’t look like a photograph.

Non-objective art doesn’t resemble anything from reality; however, it may be inspired by an object, being, or setting.

non-objective art
Sketch for Several Circles by Wassily Kandinsky

What Is the Key to Abstract Oil Painting? A Step-by-Step Guide

There are 2 keys to making abstract art. 1 is to loosen up and let your intuition take the driver’s seat. 2 is to make a lot of abstract paintings until you feel comfortable; don’t try to make a masterpiece with your first abstract oil painting.

Step #1 What is your Intent?

You must first decide if you are trying to paint a person, object, or setting through your perspective of how it makes you feel.

Or

You are trying to make an abstract painting that shows an emotion or feeling. This would be pure expressive mark-making.

Step #2 What Are the Best Materials for Abstract Oil Painting?

Paints

Any paint will work, but most abstract art painters use oil paint, acrylic paint, or a combination of the two.

paints
Abstract Painting by Bart Dluhy that uses both Oil and Acrylic Paint

Oil has the advantage of drying slowly, so you can continue to work with it or blend it for a few hours or longer.

Acrylic paint has the advantage of drying quickly, so you can paint over parts quickly without disturbing what is already there.

Some painters use acrylic paint in the beginning layers because it dries quickly and tends to be less expensive, so you can cover more of the canvas before adding more expensive oil paint.

Surface

Wood, canvas, or even cardboard can work, but if you will be making forceful brush strokes or adding thick or heavy materials, you may want to go with the sturdiness of a wood panel.

Tools

Many abstract artists use brushes, palette knives, squeegees, sticks, yarn, and even their hands. Experiment to see which works best for you.

Step #3 How Do I Begin an Abstract Painting?

There are many ways to begin an abstract painting, but typically artists will either Tone the Surface (laying down a base color), Start with a Textured Ground (adding a layer of sand, textiles, or other materials to give variety to the abstract art), or simply Make Some Marks to get started.

Again, experiment with different materials and methods, but don’t expect perfection right away; let yourself feel what works for you and feels right for your intentions.

how do I begin an abstract painting?
Abstract Painting with a Wood Glue Textured Ground Next to the Finished Painting by Bart Dluhy

Step #4  Make New Marks Based on What Is Already There

Earlier I said there are 2 keys to making an abstract oil painting. I lied. There are really 3. The 3rd key is to make decisions about what to do next, by “responding” to what is already there.

Maybe the splash of purple you just put down is too big, or too dark. You can break that up by going over it with yellow lines in places, dripping diluted white paint over the top, or even scratching away some of the purple.

Let your subconscious and your intuition drive your decisions. This may sound counterintuitive- I’m telling you to let your subconscious take over, but at the same time I’m telling you to make decisions.

However, making decisions doesn’t mean laboriously planning or calculating. Making decisions when creating abstract art means asking yourself, “What if I tried…”

Not every decision or mark you make will contribute positively to or be harmonious with the abstract painting, but the good news is, if it doesn’t, you can do something else to change the way it looks so that eventually those less-than-stellar marks do become harmonious.

As you experiment with materials and techniques, your intuition about which to use and when to use them will get better and better. Eventually, it will start to feel like the abstract painting is painting itself. This is when “good” abstract art happens and why I say it is important, if not critical, to make a LOT of abstract art and experiment with a LOT of materials and techniques.

make new marks based on what is already there
Abstract Painting by Mark Bradford

The point is, Make Decisions! Don’t just randomly do things to the abstract painting like pulling a name out of a hat. Try to “feel” what should come next instead of “thinking” what should come next.

If you make marks without having a reason, it usually won’t feel or look as authentic as if you are making new marks as a response to, or to be in harmony with, the marks you made previously.

If there is one thing you take away from this guide, this would be the most important. Use your INTUITION and MAKE DECISIONS!

Step #5 Different Effects

Once you have made some marks and then responded to those marks by making new marks that complement or are in harmony with the original marks, it is time to experiment with new and different ways of making marks.

Remember, a quality abstract painting evolves from the artist’s personal expression of feelings and emotions. To be able to access and represent those feelings and emotions, you need to avoid being constrained by “traditional” techniques and tools of realism painting.

To loosen up and take a dive into the deep end, try making an abstract painting without using a single brush.

“How do you do that,” you may ask. Below are just some of the techniques I use when creating abstract art.

Dripping/Splashing

Many people refer to this kind of abstract painting as “splatter painting” because somewhere along the line they saw someone flicking a brush full of paint at a canvas, and they thought it looked like something Jackson Pollock might have done.

As seen in this video, Jackson Pollock was deliberate and used house paint, brushes, and sticks to drizzle, splash, and drip paint on huge canvases spread out on his studio floor. This technique requires thinner paint or paint thinned with water, or in the case of oil paint, thinned with mineral spirits or linseed oil.

Pouring

Pouring is similar to the dripping/splashing technique but uses different materials and techniques.

With the pouring technique, you dilute the paint to a consistency that will run or flow easily, pour it on the surface, and then tilt the surface to let the paint spread and mix to achieve semi-controlled, semi-random results.

You can even scratch through the poured paint with sticks, textured tools, or even string to create a variety of marks and patterns.

Reductive Techniques

Reductive in this case just means “taking away.” Once you have applied some marks, you can scratch them, sand them, cut them, and even drill into the marks and/or surface. Different results can be achieved depending on whether the paint is still wet or not.

reductive techniques
Abstract Painting on Square Wood Panel by Bart Dluhy

The circles in the painting above were made using a specialty drill bit and the vertical and horizontal lines were made using a circular saw to cut into the wood.

Using reductive techniques can be hard to get used to because you might feel reluctant to remove or “damage” marks you spent time and effort applying.

But that’s the beauty of this technique. It frees you up to change or remove marks that didn’t harmonize with the rest of the abstract painting.

Layering

With most abstract art, regardless of the techniques you use, layering is a big part of what makes it interesting and visually appealing.

Being able to see little bits and pieces of paint and marks from early, lower layers show through later, upper layers creates the opportunity for viewers to look closely and try to figure out how the techniques were achieved, or which mark came first, and which marks came later.

layering
Painting by Bart Dluhy

A layered abstract painting is like a road map of the path the artist took on the journey of creating the abstract art!

Dry vs. Wet on Wet

To add even more variety to your abstract art, you can try any of these or other techniques while the paint is wet, and then try them when the paint is dry. Often, a technique used on dry paint will give significantly different results from the technique used on wet paint.

As with other techniques and strategies of abstract art, this takes practice and a willingness to make some art that you don’t plan on showing or selling. Think of these practice paintings as early drafts of later, more informed abstract art, similar to drafts of an essay.

What Makes Good or Bad Abstract Art?

Now we get to the difficult question; “What makes abstract art good or bad?”

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this as people have different tastes in art, just like with music. You might love classical music but dislike pop music. That doesn’t mean pop music is bad and classical music is good. It just means that is your taste.

Some people don’t even like abstract art at all; they prefer realism art, which is OK.

what makes good or bad abstract art?

However, there are some things that experienced artists and art lovers can identify as making a successful abstract art piece and other things that identify a work as being less successful.

But this often depends on the artist’s intentions. Did the artist want the viewer to feel happy, or were they trying to create a sense of chaos? Those 2 paintings will look very different.

Sometimes those intentions will be obvious, like in the title of a painting, or the artist will publish their intentions. Other times, those intentions won’t matter and your reactions to the abstract painting will depend solely on your tastes and past experiences.

Composition

Composition is one of the most important factors of abstract art, especially non-objective abstract art.

Is there enough variety without being too chaotic, or is it too bland and boring (which can also be an intention of the artist)?

Color

color
Woman with a Hat by Henri Matisse

Are the colors harmonious or do they clash in a way that doesn’t feel purposeful? The above abstract painting by Matisse is typical of Fauvism. The colors aren’t what you would find in realism, but they do work together and create interest for the viewer.

Technique

Technique and application methods play into the perceived success of an abstract work. Do the marks look confident and deliberate, or does it look like the artist was unsure of what they were doing? Or, do the marks look random like the artist was just flinging paint at the canvas without any intentions or making any decisions?

What it all boils down to is, do you like it? If you do, then chances are, there are other people out there that will like it too. Regardless of what style of painting you are making, realism or abstract art, there will always be people who aren’t going to like it, so stop trying to make something that appeals to everyone.

Inspirational Abstract Art

Below are just a few of the many amazing, inspiring abstract Painters. Enjoy!!

inspirational abstract art
Gerhard Richter
abstract oil paintings
Wassily Kandinsky
painting abstract
Julie Mehretu
oil painting abstract
Tomma Abts
abstract art oil painting
Tauba Auerbach
oil painting abstract art
Anselm Kiefer

To Sum it Up

So, as you can now hopefully see, there aren’t necessarily right and wrong ways to make abstract art, but there are things you can do and practice to make an abstract painting that appeals more to your taste and senses.

To get more help with developing your abstract and other art-style skills, I recommend checking out the offerings from Evolve, an online art academy.

Keep in mind, the keys to getting better at making abstract art are to make a lot of art, use your intuition, and make purposeful decisions. Happy Abstract Painting!!

Featured Image by Jackson Pollock

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