Abstract Painting: Using Nature as a Source for Inspiration

Spotting the Potential for an Abstract Painting

Abstract art from nature
Photo by Marion Boddy-Evans

When you’re looking for inspiration for an abstract painting, you need to change the way you look at the world around you. You need to stop seeing the big picture and look for details. To look at the shapes and patterns which occur, rather than focusing on the actual objects.

In this example, my starting point was the trunk of a gum tree, with stones of various colours and sizes packed around it. It had recently rained, so the soil was wet, making it quite dark in colour. The photos will take you step-by-step through my thought processes as I narrow down the potential for an abstract painting.

This first photo shows the overall scene. Look at the photo and think about what you’re seeing. What elements are there, what textures, what colours, and what shapes?

Have you noticed the lovely curves on the two big stones? What about the contrast between the smooth white stone and the coarse texture of the tree bark? And the contrast between the clean white stone and the mud stuck to its underside?

Seeing this kind of detail is the first step in spotting the potential for abstract art in nature. You need to train your eye to see the world anew.

Narrowing Down the Options for an Abstract Painting

Abstract art from nature
Photo by Marion Boddy-Evans

Once you’ve seen something that strikes you as interesting, you need to focus in on that, and explore the possibilities. Don’t be satisfied with your first thought. Look at what caught your attention from different angles -- from the sides, from higher up, and lie on the ground for a frog’s eye-view.

I decided to focus in on the white stone, because its smooth texture and brightness contrasted to the elements around it. So what options did it present? By focusing just on the stone and what was immediately around it, I narrowed it down to two options to explore. These were either the stone with the soil below it, or the stone and the tree trunk above it.

Shifting my attention to the stone and the soil (as shown in this photo), I decided I probably preferred the tree bark option. The bark had a more defined texture and pattern, as well as more colour variation, which would probably make for a more interesting abstract.

Between the chaos of the ground and the simplicity of the stone, there’s an interface that’s been stained. What I like is that the fact that it’s not an immediate jump between the two, there’s this bit where two aspects of nature have intertwined. (Yup, all this from a stone and some soil!)

Deciding on the Abstract Painting's Composition

Abstract paintings from nature
Photo by Marion Boddy-Evans

So now that I’d made a decision on what elements I would use as the source of my inspiration for the abstract, I needed to decide how I was going to arrange these on my canvas, to set out the composition.

What were the options, given I'd only two objects -- the tree trunk and the white stone. Would I use the two elements equally, creating an abstract painting that was half smooth and half textured? Would I include some of the 'dirty' underside of the white stone, which could be painted in an impasto style to give it texture and in the same tones as the tree trunk, creating an echo or balance in the composition?

Still Considering the Abstract Painting’s Composition

Abstract art from nature
Photo by Marion Boddy-Evans

Or what about letting the strong curve on the top of the white stone dominate the composition? And using a little more of the underside of the stone, so there would be almost equal areas of dark texture at the top and bottom of the composition? Or how about not showing any of the underside of the stone?

Look at direction of the texture at the bottom of the stone: it’s going horizontally, which is in opposition to the direction of the bark. This would add a dynamic element to the painting.

And what happens to the composition if I turn the photo on its side? Turn your head to the left and to the right to consider for a moment how the composition would alter by this seemingly simple change.

I continue considering the options and potential in this way until I decide which appeals to me the most.

Finalising the Inspiration for an Abstract Painting

Abstract art from nature
Photo by Marion Boddy-Evans

In the end I decided to use just the tree bark and the smooth white stone, without any of its underside, as the basis for an abstract painting. And to 'zoom out' a bit so that the curve on the top of the stone came down on both sides -- but not to the same point.

I like the contract between the strong verticals in the tree trunk to the curve of the stone. And the contract between the rough bark and the smooth stone. I visualize it as an abstract painting done with a palette knife, applied roughly for the bark (and mostly likely with some texture paste added to the paint), and in broad, sweeping strokes for the stone, following the top curve.

How Does the Final Abstract Painting Look?

Abstract art from Nature
Photo by Marion Boddy-Evans

I haven’t yet found the time to paint this idea, it’s still in my mental ‘in-box’, waiting patiently. I’m sure that one day I will translate the idea onto canvas. In the meantime, the photo here is a digitally manipulated one, using a palette knife filter and increasing the amount of red in the photo, to give you an idea of how it might turn out.

New Potential for an Abstract Painting Emerges

Abstract art from nature
Photo by Marion Boddy-Evans

Then again, what happens if I turn it 180 degrees? Suddenly it reminds me of looking up at a waterfall, with the water reflecting the red of a strong sunset. Or is that a big full moon in a dark sky with the fiery traces of a comet’s tail?

What was wood and stone has been changed through adapting the colours into something which could easily represent fire and ice. Is that red lava flowing there? This would create a striking incongruity -- that you could have something so hot next to something that was frozen.

As I said, abstract painting isn’t only about looking, it’s about changing what you see.