Abstract oil painting is a style that can seem fun and accessible for beginners. You can create incredible pieces of abstract art without having to worry about creating a life-like drawing. Paint can be layered in a gestural and spontaneous manner instead of agonising over detail.
Even though for most artists creating abstract art is an intuitive and personal process, there are some techniques and composition practices you can learn to take your abstract art from looking good, to looking spectacular.
In this guide, learn about the supplies you can get that can enhance your abstract art making process, techniques that can take your abstract oil painting skills to the next level and how to plan an abstract art piece to get your desired effect.
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Supplies you need to create an abstract oil painting
- Large canvas
- Stiff brushes
- Palette knives
- Silicone moulding tools: use instead of brushes to apply paint to canvas in thick strokes
- Medium to thicken, speed up drying & extend paint
- Oil paint
Optional extra supplies
Choose some extra supplies to experiment with.
- Bronze powder for a metallic effect
- Oil paint sticks: this incredible medium is simply oil paint encased in wax and shaped like a large pastel stick. Oil sticks encourage the artist to be gestural and intuitive with their painting methods, which is conducive to abstract styles. You can draw onto your canvas, then mould or thin the paint afterwards with a brush or tool. Learn more about oil paint sticks.
- Dry mediums: marble, garnet, sand, glass beads and other dry mediums can be incorporated into paint to create unique texture and volume.
Think about the space you want to hang your piece in
It’s not always necessary to plan a painting for a particular space, sometimes you just want to start creating and see where your painting takes you.
You may be making an abstract painting for yourself, a friend, to sell or as a commission. If you have a space in mind that the painting will hang, think about how the colours and design you choose for your painting will tie in with the room you intend to place it in. It might be that the interior has lots of bright colours already, you could create a monochrome piece to contrast with this.
Blues and muted colours will work in just about any environment, as they create a sense of calm. When creating for a minimalistic room, you could use bright contrasting, saturated colours to create a statement piece.
Another thing to consider is the size of the room, large abstract pieces are always a winning option if you have lots of blank wall space. You could even create a pair of matching paintings to hang side by side.
Abstract effects you can achieve with oil paint
Abstract oil painting is all about creating interesting effects—whether that’s a unique texture, a metallic effect or striking colour combination.
The effects you will be able to achieve with oil will be different from other mediums like acrylic. With acrylic you can use resin to create pour paintings, you can also add acrylic mediums apply it to a surface with an airbrush or spray can. You can’t use either of these techniques with oil. However, oil is a flexible and versatile medium that you can create a variety of effects with.
Use a fast drying, thickening medium like cold wax or Liquin Impasto to create texture in your abstract piece. Oil paint dries slowly, it usually takes around three days for a paint layer to dry; Liquin and cold wax speed this process up so that your paint should dry in around a day.
You could paste the paint on with a palette knife to create smooth sharp edges and a three dimensional appearance. Opt to use a brush instead, both mediums enable you to retain brushstrokes on the canvas, adding interesting painterly elements to your piece.
Add some dry mediums to your paint to create texture, volume or a unique finish. Add sand or ground marble to create a rough surface.
One way to create a metallic effect is by incorporating bronze powder in paint for an iridescent and luxurious effect. To use this bronze powder, you will need to mix three parts of the powder to two parts bronze medium. Mix the medium and bronze powder together with a palette knife. Apply it on to dried oil paint, or onto a prepared panel or canvas.
Create white space
Reveal layers beneath by scraping paint away with a palette knife. Use the sharp edge for fine lines or the flat edge to remove large sections. Another option is to use painters tape to peel away large sections. White space doesn’t have to be white, it is defined as being the space around an object.
Create geometric shapes
Abstract pieces with geometric shapes and symmetry may require an accurate drawing to paint over. Either get yourself some tools to help with creating geometric shapes, or draw your design out on a smaller piece of paper then scale it up using the grid method.
Alternatively you can use painters tape to mark out shapes you want to create, to keep lines sharp and neat.
Get some inspiration: famous abstract styles and oil painters
Take a look at some famous abstract painters from the 19th and 20th centuries to understand how the abstract genre developed over time.
19th century abstract oil painting
William Turner and even Monet created works that were borderline ‘abstract’. They emulated the essence of their subject but omitted detail until the subject was almost indiscernible. Some of their paintings were swirls of colourful expression. Even though these paintings appeared devoid of objects and subjects, the shapes and colours have external reference. For Monet, that reference was the water-lily pond and for Turner, it was the dramatic marina.
Geometric abstract art
Geometric shapes and motifs can be found in art throughout the ages. Think of Celtic knots—some Celtic artefacts date as far back as the 5th century.
Picasso pioneered the cubist movement, where he subverted shapes and forms found in life. He wanted to create paintings that challenged the concept of realism. He simplified objects and subjects into geometric components and painted with this style for around ten years.
Kazimir Malevich was inspired by expressionism, fauvism and cubism, Malevich attempted to diverge from natural forms in his art.
This style of abstraction is characterised by personal expression and spontaneous, emotion driven paint application.
Jackson Pollock’s colourful splatters, paint pours and drips are emblematic of the abstract expressionism style—he would lay his unstretched canvas on the floor and use all manner of materials, such as knives, sticks and trowels to complete one of his ‘action paintings’.
What makes a ‘good’ abstract painting?
If you’re looking to improve your painting skills, it’s important to learn some of the common attributes that make for an aesthetically pleasing painting. Of course, art is partly about experimentation and enjoyment and such binary categories as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art are hard to define and unnecessary to label unless the artist is serious about improving.
An artist may define their own work as bad if they feel frustrated that they can’t get paint to behave the way they want it to, as this may hold them back from achieving their own artistic vision. So this is what I mean by a ‘bad’ abstract painting, one that doesn’t entirely reflect the painter’s true potential.
How do you define abstract art?
Abstract art lacks obvious subjects and reference. It rejects realism and imitative approaches to art. It can be aesthetically pleasing, without trying to emulate anything from life.
Abstract paintings share the same components as a realism painting: composition, structure, value, form, colour, edges. It’s just that these components will be used and constructed in a different way to other more realistic styles of painting.
Expertise that can make abstract artists successful
There is a reason why some abstract artists become well known in the art community and beyond, and have their own collectors. What sets many of them apart, is that they create with intent, thoughtfulness, sophistication, nuance, and skill.
In other words, having a formative understanding of the properties of oil paint (i.e. its drying time and how to apply it to the canvas to get the desired effects), the basic principles of oil painting such as techniques, brushwork, colour theory, and how to design (or compose) a painting can help to improve an artist’s abstract painting mastery.
Designing a painting is about planning. Plan the composition (form and focal point), how colours will mix, and how paint will be layered.
Once you have an eye for what looks good and the ability to lay down paint as you intend, you can skilfully flout rules of composition or colour theory as much as you like. Paint application will feel intuitive and results will, more often than not, be as you wish.
In the following sections, I’ll give some tips on how you can improve these essential elements of colour, composition and technique to, in turn, improve your abstract oil painting skills.
Have an understanding of the basics of colour theory, how to mix and combine colours before you start painting. You will see your skills improve rapidly as you will have a greater command over the tones, values and levels of saturation in the colour you produce.
In the contemporary abstract painting by Dana James (pictured above), colour has been used to create a dreamy jewel-like impression.
When combining colour, it’s beneficial to understand subtlety, nuance and contrast—by using sophisticated colour combinations you can create an elegant and aesthetically pleasing piece.
A mistake beginners often make in painting, is choosing colours that are highly saturated and not toning them down enough. Mix muted colours by combining complementary colours (colours opposite each other on the colour wheel).
Choose a colour palette of types of red, blue, yellow, white and burnt umber or black. From this you will be able to mix any other colour on the spectrum.
By planning a colour scheme for your painting, you can somewhat control the outcome and therefore the effect it will have on the viewer. With a complementary colour scheme, you can create a feel of energy and drama.
An analogous colour scheme is made from three colours that are located next to one another on the wheel. Depending on which side of the wheel the colours are picked from, you can create an intense colour scheme with magenta, orange and red, or a calm and serene one with blues and greens.
Creating a composition involves carefully and thoughtfully planning and designing an artwork before getting started. Plan how elements will fit together to create an arrangement that conveys the effect you intend to create.
Draw out thumbnail sketches in a sketchbook before you get started to plan the composition.
The composition of a piece can affect how a viewer perceives the artwork. Choose to make certain elements more dominant and others fade into the background.
First, you want to think of what your focal point will be. A focal point is the element in an artwork that demands attention from the viewer and has the most salience.
You could create a focal point by using the rule of thirds, dividing up your canvas into nine equal sections and placing your focal point at the cross section of one of these sections. Our eyes are automatically drawn to the top right hand side of a canvas, so by placing your most important element there, it will stand out more.
Another way to create a focal point could be to paint it with more texture than other elements in the painting. The texture will be brought forward from a canvas and stand out.
Use colour contrast to create a focal point. For example you could make the dominant part of the painting yellow, to contrast with the mainly purple tones of the rest of the piece.
Some other principles that work to create a strong composition is balance and movement. These principles dictate the relationship between various elements within your painting. Create balance by spreading elements across the canvas, so they are not all concentrated in one area. By using gestural brushstrokes, you can create the illusion of movement.
There are a few oil painting techniques that go well with the abstract painting style.
Painting alla prima means painting wet paint on top of wet paint. This technique is also called wet-on-wet for this reason. The idea is to finish the painting before the first application of paint dries. By applying wet paint on a wet paint layer, colours swirl together and tiny details are lost.
One tip that will help you succeed with this technique is to layer paint from thin to thick. For example, paint thinned with a solvent should be layered beneath paint straight from the tube.
Wet on dry
When painting wet paint on a dried layer of oil, slightly different effects can be achieved than if you were to paint wet-on-wet. With an alla prima paint application, sharp edges and details will be lost as wet paint blends together. By painting wet on dry, you can create sharp edges and details.
Impasto is a popular technique used by artists like Van Gogh and Monet. Thick paint is applied to the canvas with a stiff brush or palette knife, brush strokes are often visible and paintings appear full of texture and movement.
Feature image: Wassily Kandinsky: Composition VI
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