How to Paint Abstracts From a Photo

People often mistakenly assume that abstracts are the easiest paintings to create. The truth is that without a solid subject to paint, artists who create abstracts have to be incredibly imaginative.

Using a photo can help with inspiration and be a useful starting point for an abstract painting.

First things first, you need to find a photo. It should be something that can give you direction and inspiration.

Start by paying attention to the negative space (this is the space between objects – essentially anything that isn’t the object itself). Instead of seeing the shapes of the objects, see the shapes of the negative spaces.

If it helps you, put a piece of tracing paper over the photograph and outline the objects (don’t trace the details of the objects, only focus on the outline). Without the distraction of the details, you should be able to see the shapes of the negative spaces more clearly.

Draw the negative spaces onto your canvas (and if you want an even freer feel from the start, squint at the photo and draw and paint what you think you see). You can use pencil, charcoal or paint, it’s all up to you. Now that you have the negative spaces to work with, you need to decide what to do with them.

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You could color them in with one color, or more; you could follow the contour of the shapes, echoing them; or you could paint the lines that you see in the objects with thick, bold, carefree lines (and then repeat painting the lines with other colors, seeing where the patterns that you create take you).

Choosing a palette before you start painting can be a good idea, even if only to help you stick with a specific color theme. However, don’t be afraid to reach for different colors as you go along. You can always change your palette, adding and removing colors, and it’s probably best to listen to your instinct about these things.

If you decide to follow the contours of the negative spaces, start by choosing one color and painting the lines of the negative spaces. Next, select another color and paint alongside your previous lines. Repeat this with other colors as much as you see fit.

When it comes to choosing colors, ask yourself these questions: Do you want to use complementary or adjacent colors? Do you want to use opaque pigments or transparent ones? Do you want to paint wet-on-wet or do you want to layer glazes? Do you want your painting to be textured or smooth? What brushes do you think would help you with this?

Use a variety of brush strokes to create different textures, tones and levels of opacity. Blend colors together; add dots, curves and lines to imply movement and create illusions by placing contrasting colors right next to each other.

The most important thing to remember is that you are not trying to paint the picture in the photograph. Just as you painted the negative shapes in response to the photo, just so you need to respond to the shapes with colors and lines, and then respond to the colors and lines with something different. Abstract painting is a progressive journey involving emotions, ideas and visual stimuli… Don’t halter that journey by thinking too much – just go with the flow.

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