• malcolm jarvis

6 more ways to make a painting more abstract

In my February 8th blog I said, for those of you who have been brought up on realistic art, it can be difficult to paint something abstract and expressive. I said that making an abstract painting is essentially a process of simplification. It involves a combination of intuitive and deliberate decisions to bring a painting to life. To help you on your way I gave you six ways to make a painting more abstract and said that six more would follow in due course.

So, as promised, here are they are. Six more practical ways you can begin to simplify your realistic work to help move it towards abstraction.

And, I repeat, if you decide to try any of them, don’t expect miracles. Think of it as an experiment, see how it affects your work and whether it is something that you find exhilarating. If you don’t like it, try another one. I’m sure you’ll find something that works for you.

1. Try closing your eyes and paint

Now, this might sound crazy but believe it or not, I know of many painters who work this way. It’s an approach I have used myself – with mixed results I have to say – and it is great fun to do and remember, above all, painting should be fun.

It’s pretty obvious what you do. Sit or stand in front of your canvas or paper so that you know roughly where it is when you close your eyes. Place two or three pools of colour on your palette and, again, place the palette where you think you will find it with your eyes closed. Grab a large brush, close your eyes and go for it!

2. Let music be your muse

Have you heard about people creating paintings based on the music they’re listening to? It is an approach I use myself and many other abstract painters use it too. In fact, the man credited with painting the first ever abstract works, Wassilly Kandinsky, wrote that "music is the ultimate teacher," The idea of music appears everywhere in Kandinsky's paintings. He believed shades resonated with each other to produce visual 'chords' and had an influence on the soul. It doesn’t matter what sort of music you listen to; my own taste is pretty eclectic – from Ska to Shostakovich, from Bob Marley to Brahms.

Why not try it yourself? Get your gear set up and ready to paint, your canvas prepared, your palette laid out and so on. Turn on and tune in to your favourite music and select a favourite track. Let your music, the sounds you hear, dictate your colour choice, your brush strokes, your painting speed. Clear your mind and paint the sounds. Alternatively, you could take a chance and do what I often do. Just tune in to Classic FM and try to paint whatever happens to be playing at the time.

3. Use paper cuttings to add texture

This is one of those abstract painting techniques beginners usually love. All you need are some paper cuttings to use in your paintings. These paper cuttings will add texture to your painting, making it look different and interesting.

This is worth trying: Buy a small bottle of PVA glue and start sticking random paper cuttings from newspapers, magazines – even books – onto the surface of whatever it is you are painting. As you progress, you might partially cover some pieces, completely cover others, leave others untouched. It’s worth remembering that acrylic paint will act as glue as well.

4. Try to incorporate as many mediums in your painting as possible

I was reminded of this approach only a couple of weeks ago. I was watching a demonstration painting by a local artist whose work I admire. She used water colour, gouache, oil pastel and, finally, a pencil scored into wet paint to create textural marks. With multiple mediums on the same canvas, you can create paintings that will catch the attention of the viewer immediately.

Try this. Don’t add too many mediums to start with. Simply add one extra medium to your next painting and explore what you can do with it, how it changes the look, the texture of the work. On the next painting, add another, and so on. Mix water colour with gouache or acrylic; acrylic with oil or soft pastel; work charcoal into wet paint; mix watercolour and water-soluble pencils; add acrylic inks into the mix. Just remember – its all an experiment and should be fun!

5. Work wet into wet

I often paint a canvas or piece of paper with water before going in with the paint. It immediately removes your controlling input, and creates beautiful soft layers.

This is an approach I recommend (I use it myself). Use a spray bottle or wet brush to add water in random places on your paper or canvas. Then start adding colour washes (save the thicker paint for later) and see what happens. If you let each layer dry or use a hair dryer, you can see how it helps build translucent layers.

6. Blind Contour Drawing - a simple starting point

Don’t have in mind that art is about eventually putting something in a frame. What you’re doing is an experience of the process, an enjoyment of the process. And blind contour drawing is a wonderful way to start an abstract piece while enjoying that process. What you get from doing this is a potential beginning to a composition. Any of the things you do can be a way of starting something. This is basically a starting place. It can be an idea for a more elaborate composition or something you wind up keeping.

It’s so easy. One piece of paper, one mark making tool, one interesting object. Set up your object in front of you, place your mark making tool {we’ll say pencil here} on the paper, and start to draw the object. Once you’ve put the pencil on the paper, don’t lift it off until you’ve drawn the whole object. And don’t look at the paper or the pencil, only at the object.

The more you do, the more you’ll ‘get’ how it works. Once is often unproductive because it can take some time to get past aiming for mastery right off the bat. Mind you, it’s debatable whether there can be mastery with such an inherently inaccurate drawing technique, but that unfortunately isn’t always enough to switch that part of our brains off at first.


A vase of flowers is a good subject because there are lots of lines, so it tends to be more interesting than something with a simple outline, like a banana. However, if you’re new to it and flowers feel a bit daunting, start with the banana!

Have fun with all or any of these approaches and enjoy the journey.

Be back soon.





I'm Malcolm, a painter, tutor, lecturer and workshop instructor living in South Norfolk.

My years of painting experience have taught me to loosen-up, let go of fear and paint spontaneously.

My philosophy is ‘less is more’.

  • Fewer brushes for livelier, quicker painting.

  • Fewer paints for easy, straightforward colour mixing.

  • Fewer techniques for optimal results.​

But that doesn’t mean I ignore the basic fundamentals and principles upon which I believe all good painting should be based: shape, value, colour, edges and centre of interest.

​These foundations underpin all my work. If you want to paint portraits, abstracts, still life or landscapes, the same foundations apply; they will give you a solid basis for anything you choose to paint, regardless of subject or medium.

It is my intention to talk about these fundamentals in a straight-forward, no-nonsense, jargon-free way in this blog and to encourage you incorporate them into your work.

Thank you for visiting!

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