How to Paint Abstracts from a Photo

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Using a Reference Photo as a Starting Point for Abstracts

How to Paint Abstracts
Reference photos can provide a great starting point for abstract art. Image: © 2006 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

Some people paint abstracts entirely from their imaginations, but I find it essential to have something 'real' as the starting point. Something that gives me a direction to start working in, to kickstart my imagination.

This photo is one from my collection of abstract painting ideas (see larger photo). It's nothing fancy as far as photos go, merely two daisies, photographed from below against a blue sky. But it was the shapes that grabbed my attention.

So where would I start for a painting? With the negative space...

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Look at the Negative Space for an Abstract

How to Paint Abstracts
Learn how to see negative space. Image: © 2006 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

Negative space is the space between objects or parts of an object, or around it. Focusing on the negative space is a great starting point for abstract art as it presents you with shapes.

When you look at this photo, do you see it as two flowers that have been outlined as black? Or do you see it as the blue shapes being outlined in black?

It's hard to focus on the shapes rather than the flowers, but it's a question of habit. With a little practise you can train your eye to see the negative space, the patterns and shapes this makes.

It's also easier to see without the photo...

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Shapes and Patterns from Negative Space

How to Paint Abstracts
Forget the original photo, concentrate on the negative space shapes. Image: © 2006 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

With the photo removed, the shapes and patterns that negative space create are more obvious. Without the flowers there the brain doesn't insist on interpreting the shapes as 'flower', though it's likely you'll still find yourself trying to recognise objects. (A bit like when clouds look like things.)

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Filling Negative Space Shapes With Color

How to Paint Abstracts
Areas of bright color create a Pop Art feel. Image: © 2006 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

So what do you do once you've got the negative space? One direction to explore is filling in the spaces with a single color. Seems simple, like you'd just be coloring-in shapes? Well, here are a few things to consider:

  • How will you select the colors? Will you use complementary or adjacent?
  • Will one color dominate the painting (such as the red does in the photo)?
  • Will you outline the shapes with a color (such as the black in the photo), or not?
  • Will you use transparent or opaque pigments?
  • What about texture? Will you use thick paint with visible brushmarks?

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Another Way to Start at an Abstract: Follow the Contours of the Shapes

How to Paint Abstracts
Follow the contours of the shapes. Image: © 2006 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

Another direction to explore is following or echoing the contours of the shapes. Start with one color, and paint the lines of the negative spaces. Then select another color and paint another line alongside the red ones, then do it agian with another color.

The photo shows this, starting with red, then an orange and yellows. (The negative space lines from the previous photo have been changed from black to red.) The painting doesn't look like much at the moment, but remember, this is just a way into an abstract painting. It isn't the final painting, it's a starting point. You work with it, pursuing it, seeing where it takes you -- in this instance it was to this.

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Don't Forget Tone (Lights and Darks)

How to Paint Abstracts
Consider the tones of the colors you use. Image: © 2006 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

Don't neglect tone when painting an abstract, the lights and darks. If you squint at the photo, you'll see that the tonal range in this abstract at this stage is narrow.

Having such similar tones makes the painting very flat, despite the brightness of the colors. Making some areas darker and some lighter will give the painting more vibrancy.

And that gives the next direction to go with the painting... Continue working with the painting in this way, letting it evolve until you got to something that satisfied you. (I certainly wouldn't stop at where the painting in the photo is at the moment!)

And if it never does? Well, you've used up some paint and a canvas, that's not crucial. More important is that you've gained some experience, which will be with you when you work on your next painting.

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Another Way to Start an Abstract: Look at the Lines

How to Paint Abstracts
Use the shape of the petals as a starting point. Image: © 2006 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

Another way to approach painting abstract art from photo is to look at the dominant or strong lines in the image. In this instance, it's the lines of the flower petals, and the flower stems.

Decide on what colors you're going to use. Select one and paint in the lines. Don't use a small brush, use a wide one and be bold with the brushstrokes. The aim isn't to replicate the flower petals nor to worry about following them exactly. The aim is to create a starting point or map for an abstract.

The next step is to do the same again, with other colors.

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Repeat with Other Colors

How to Paint Abstracts
Forget the photo and play with the pattern. Image: © 2006 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

As you can see, a yellow and then its complementary, purple, have now been added. Just as the red was painted in response to the photo, so yhe yellow was painted in response to the red lines, and the purple in response to the yellow.

Sure, it looks rather like a mop at the moment, or maybe a mutant spider. Or even that a snail crawled through some paint. But, once again, remember the aim is to get you going, this is not intended to be the final painting.

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Keep Going and Build On What Went Before

How to Paint Abstracts
Let the painting go where it wants to. Image: © 2006 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

Keep going, building on what's already done. But resist the temptation to use too many colors, that easily looks garish.

Consider using different size brushes, different consistency paints, and transparent as well as opaque colors. Don't think and intellectualise the process. Go with your instinct. Let the painting evolve.

And if your instinct isn't telling you anything? Well, just start somewhere, put some paint down anywhere. Then some next to it. Then some over both of these. Try a wider brush. Try a narrower brush. Experiment. See what happens.

If you don't like it, paint over it (or scrape it off) and start again. The lower layers of paint will add texture to the new ones.

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The Final Painting, with the Power of the Dark

How to Paint Abstracts
Don't forget to consider tonal contrast. Image: © 2006 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

When you look at the painting as it was in the last photo and as it is now, can you see that the one evolved from the other? That this final painting was built on what went before?

What's happened to it? Well, for starters, it's got a far more intense dark, which makes the other colors seem more intense too. Then the paint's more watery, free-flowing, splotchy, rather than linear.

So, what do I hope this demo has shown? That you shouldn't expect to go from photo or idea to final painting in 60 seconds. You work with it, you play with it, you let it evolve, you wrestle for control. That you need to allow it be a work-in-progress for some time, rather than stressing about it being a perfect, finished painting.

Now take a look at some more abstract art ideas and get painting!