How to make good Abstract Art

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Abstract Art may seem outrageously free, but in actual fact, it always has a firm rationale.

What can hold everything together?

  • A composition, what we can call a formal foundation. Some types of composition include an overall design (be careful here as this design can get repetitious and visually boring)
  • a radial design (everything radiates from the center)
  • a grid in any axis (for example, horizontal, vertical and diagonal)
  • a triangular design (the scalene triangle is easier to work with because its sides are all different lengths)
  • the bridge design (something connects one side to the other)
  • the cruciform (cross-shape); the rectangle within a rectangular frame
  • and many designs based on the shapes of letters (L, S and Z, H and T designs are some of the more common ones).

Choosing a format, square or rectangle

A format is just another word for shape, and this comes down to personal preference. From squares, rectangle, panoramic. The easiest shape to create a balanced composition
is a rectangle, just like an A4 piece of paper.

The rectangular format: this is an absolute classic and extremely flexible format. When a rectangle is displayed with its shorter side across the top it is known as ‘portrait format’ and with its longer side across the top ‘landscape format’.

The square format: This can work extremely well or very badly. You very rarely see a square old master painting. This is because it is harder to balance a painting that has lots of elements within, for example, a collection of figures in a landscape within a square format. It can look awkward very easily. However, using a square format for a more contemporary subject, an abstract or a minimalist seascape, can be very effective.

3 is the magic number

  • Composition is about variety just “don’t make any two things the same”
  • The “Rule of Thirds” can be key to creating balance in landscape painting
  • Make sure the shapes, spaces and gaps between objects are all different.

What to look for in “good” abstract art

This refers to the consistency within a painting as well as the consistency of an artist’s portfolio. If a portfolio is all over the place with a few stunning pieces mixed with low quality work, the artist is either still developing or doesn’t quite know what they’re doing. Same goes for within a single painting. The flow must be consistent from one side of the painting to the other with planned and precise strokes.

Colors that don’t mesh well together are a dead giveaway that the artist isn’t a professional unless of course it’s done deliberately in which case it has to be obvious.

Most of the time, good abstract art is compiled of layers. There’s typically and under painting and these layers often create texture.

All great art has some sort of meaning behind it. Some type of emotion, whether positive or negative gets thrown onto the canvas. There’s thought and planning put into it. You’ll know when an abstract piece is done at random. It lacks personality.

As an artist completes more and more pieces, they grow and learn new techniques, which is evident in their work. In contrast to what you may think about abstract art, the techniques used in this style (by a professional) cannot be easily replicated.

Uncomfortable paint strokes will tell you right away that the artist is an amateur. Experienced artists are confident and produce every mark with intention. Paint splatters may look random but they’re put there for a reason.


1: The Horizontal Grid

"Obsessive and Compulsive 2" (transparent watercolor on paper, 22x30) by Mark E. Mehaffey

2: The Cruciform

"Visual Layers in Blue" (mixed watermedia on Yupo, 26x20) by Mark E. Mehaffey; good underlying structure in cruciform design

3: The L-shape

"Random in Orange" (acrylic on canvas, 36x48) by Mark E. Mehaffey; article on how to paint an abstract painting

4: The S or Z – form

"Visual Layers: Red Rectangle" (mixed watermedia on Yupo, 26x20) by Mark Mehaffey; how to create abstract art

1: The Horizontal Grid

In Obsessive and Compulsive 2 (above), each stroke was placed in an exact position inside a 1-inch square. I made an effort to have each stroke be the same size with the same configuration. Since each stroke is the same size and in the same place within the picture space, the variation comes with temperature changes from stroke to stroke and, of course, the scribble design in the lower right, which represents the compulsive (as in obsessive-compulsive) part of the painting. The horizontal 1-inch grid, an a overall pattern punctuated by the scribbly motif, holds the elements together.

2: The Cruciform

The cruciform composition is a solid foundation on which to build a painting; however, you must take care to vary the size and configuration of the negative shapes that make up the four corners. It’s also important to vary the size of the components of the cross and to vary the width of the bars that drop out of the picture plane. In other words, you have to introduce tension among the elements to counter the basic uniformity of the cross.

3: The L-shape

Random in Orange combines two structures in one work: the inverted L (the red portion) composition and the bridge (the curved white line) composition. To add visual interest, I kept the majority of the painting very warm and within the color family of orange. The complement to orange is blue, so I painted some of the small shapes intense blue to activate the surface with complementary contrast. I had a different concept for this painting, and the structure provided by the basic composition (inverted L and bridge) allowed me to get creative. The solid foundation allowed me to exercise my spirit of play.

4: The S or Z – form

The The S or Z composition in Visual Layers: Red Rectangle (above) is an effective way to lead the viewer’s eye around and through a painting. The path you create—the interesting focal areas, the contrasts, the stopping points and resting areas—will all be visited as viewers follow your Z or S. What can go wrong? Just make sure that if you lead viewers out of the painting, you give them a strong path back in again!S or Z composition in Visual Layers: Red Rectangle (above) is an effective way to lead the viewer’s eye around and through a painting. The path you create—the interesting focal areas, the contrasts, the stopping points and resting areas—will all be visited as viewers follow your Z or S. What can go wrong? Just make sure that if you lead viewers out of the painting, you give them a strong path back in again!

Basic composition rules for good Abstract Art Painting

  • The Rule of Thirds
    • The Rule of Thirds you’re probably already familiar with, I know most people are, but just to make sure for the beginner students who might be reading this. It’s the idea that all good compositions should have one area of the painting that draws more attention than any other area on the picture plane and that that one area, called the center of interest is best placed at the intersection of imaginary lines dividing the picture plane into thirds both horizontally and vertically. Let me simplify that. Imagine placing a Tic-Tac-Toe over your painting, and where the lines cross each other choosing one of those as your Center of Interest. You’d then proceed to make that area the most eye catching part of your painting, and there are several methods to achieve that. I’ll go over some of them further along in this article
  • A Diagonal Thrust
    • A Diagonal Thrust simply means that rather than having elements predominantly arranged in horizontal or vertical directions that they are tilted, slanted or arranged in at least a somewhat diagonal manner. The idea being that it’s a more interesting composition as it implies action or energy or even tension, an out of balance state.
  • Each Corner Unique
    • Each Corner Unique is fairly straight forward, just let each corner be different from the others, no two identical. I’ve never fully understood why, but from the time I started using this principle, my artwork received a better reception. It might go back to not making wallpaper, and creating some variety in the composition. Just know that many artists follow this rule and if you do I think you’ll see that improves your art.
  • A Strong Value Composition
    • Only where you want the center of interest do you place the greatest contrast of darkest dark and lightest light together.
    • Place the values of lights and darks and midtones in a rhythmic pattern. Keeping in mind not to let this pattern become too mechanical and predictable, but to use some overused terms, let it be natural and organic.