Abstract art is 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 . If you want to more learn about contemporary abstract art check this amazing website. One of the most popular questions I hear from artists is some variation on how can I make a painting more abstract?’

So many of us come from a background that told us ‘good art = realistic art”, and it can be hard to break away from that into something more abstract and expressive.

And it doesn’t take much exploring to discover that making effective abstract art is a lot harder than it might first appear!

Making a painting more abstract, or, as I would call it, abstractifying, is essentially a process of simplification, which is not to say the result won’t be rich and complex.

It involves a combo of intuitive and deliberate decisions, between which you dance as you bring a painting to life.

Below are six practical ways you can begin make your paintings more abstract.

You certainly don’t have to use them all, and I suggest not trying to right away – way too overwhelming!

Focusing on one thing at a time allows you to fully explore its potential and integrate it into your natural way of painting. Or not.

I’m focusing on acrylics but most, if not all, of these suggestions can be used with oils too, and some with watercolours or other mediums.

If you decide to try any of them, call it an experiment to take the pressure off. Just notice in what ways trying something new or different affects the kind of art you create. If you don’t like it, try something else!

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1. Doing and undoing

Many artists work this way – adding and removing repeatedly throughout a painting. It’s not just about removing ‘mistakes’; taking off paint tends to leave an interesting residue, and layers can be built up quite subtly this way, with hints of what went before being revealed here and there. I usually use my catalyst wedge or a baby wipe or rag to remove paint.

Try this: For every two or three marks you make, ‘undo’ one. It’s challenging, but will really help you understand so many things about painting – non attachment, what layers can do, the impact a tiny splash of incidental colour can have, how ideas about time and history and human nature can be expressed, and on and on.

2. Edit edit edit

A successful painting has often been ruthlessly edited, whether on the canvas itself or from thousands of hours of making art and learning what doesn’t need to be included. Realistic art tends to include everything you can see; to move away from that you need to start leaving things out.

How can you reduce something down to its essence?

For example, in many of my paintings I like to include the idea of steps or ladders; I started out drawing the steps in in a 3D way, and kept editing until it just became a series of wonky lines, as in the bottom left corner of this one:

Tara Leaver

Take out the non essentials as much as you can; it won’t always be clear what these are until you take action but you can lay a piece of coloured or white paper over an area you’re thinking of editing to get a feel for how it might look. Or practice reducing an image you love to its simplest form in your sketchbook.

3. Unify with glazes

A glaze will bring a painting or section of a painting together when things are looking a bit scattered. Layers of glazes can create a translucent glow. You can buy all sorts of mediums to create glazes, like this one by Golden or this one by Liquitex.

You can use water to create glazes but bear in mind it breaks down the binders in acrylics and can make them lose their archival abilities and/or lightfastness in the long term.

Try this: Buy a small bottle of glazing liquid and start playing with adding varying amounts of it to your acrylics to see what kinds of effects you can make. When you feel like you have a good idea of how it works, try using a glaze to bring a painting together as its final stage.

4. Use larger tools to help relinquish control

Often when you’re used to making more realistic art, the habit of perfecting can create difficulties when transitioning to more expressive abstract work. Decorator’s brushes, a catalyst wedge, credit cards, randomly chosen collage, squeegee, roller, hands, or any number of other things that aren’t tiny paintbrushes will help you move away from fiddliness and soften everything up.

Consider going in only towards the end with a small brush or pen for details.

Try this: Try making a short series of paintings using only large and unwieldy tools. This will force you to find inventive ways to make expressive marks that aren’t all the same or tiny and fiddly. I find a quick and fun way to do this is to lay out a few pieces of paper and work on them all together, doing one mark on each before changing colour or tool, like this.

5. Allow paint to follow its nature

Paint has its own personality and quirks the same as we do. If you let it do its thing, it can bring spontaneity and the unexpected to your painting, which rigid adherence to realism does not.

Try this: Water down your paints, use a spray bottle on them, or use acrylic inks and let them drip and spread. Use heavy body acrylics to create impasto – thick smears of buttery colour that stand out from the canvas. Let the paint show you what it wants to do and see what happens if you go with it.

6. Less description, more suggestion

One thing about realistic painting is that it trains us to be very literal. We try to draw and paint exactly what we’re seeing, only a lot of the time it can mean drawing and painting what we think we’re seeing, which is not always the same thing! And is why we often feel dissatisfied with what we’ve done.

This painting below uses lost and found lines {ie. lines that fade in and out and are of different thicknesses}, smudged ambiguous areas, and ‘unrealistic’ shapes to move the figure into something a little more abstractified.

Start realistic and keep pushing it, softening or partially overlaying edges, adding glazes and textures and loose marks to rough it up. Lost and found lines, smudged areas, collage cut into shapes, and any ways you can think of to soften edges and loosen everything up can be really helpful in moving away from that kind of literal interpretation and towards a more expressive, free form style.