How To Paint Abstract Watercolors: 5 Inspiring Strategies

What Is Abstract Art Anyway?

If you’re interested in how to paint abstract watercolors, or if you’ve previously found abstract art to be a complete enigma. Then I have some strategies and techniques to share with you, that I think will help give your work some clarity and shed some light on the thought processes behind it.

After you’ve read this post why not take a look at these related posts for more easy abstract watercolor painting ideas.
How To Paint Abstract Watercolor Flowers
Easy Abstract Watercolor Painting Ideas

Many people dismiss abstract art because of the popular misconception that it’s all just a big con. This is understandable. because if abstract art is all just random then it can literally be anything at all. If art can be anything at all, then everything is art. If everything is already art, then it follows that nothing can ever elevate itself beyond the mundane and become art. Fire a paintball at a canvas, that’s abstract art. Tip the contents of your bin onto a gallery floor that’s abstract art.

I don’t know what kind of art those examples are, or if they are even art at all but I’m certain that they’re not abstract art. At least, not in the sense I’m talking about.

There are several definitions of the word abstract but the one I feel is the most useful in relation to art, is the definition below, quoted from

Abstract [ noun ab-strakt]
Something that concentrates in itself the essential qualities of anything more extensive or more general, or of several things; Essence.

So if we think of abstract art, as art that attempts to capture the essence of a subject. Then that immediately gives us an anchor. We’re not just talking about randomness for the sake of it.

O.k. I hear you say. So Abstract art is about capturing the essence of a thing but how do you do that exactly?

The basic premise of my approach is take a starting point and then apply one or more of five potential abstraction strategies. I call these these strategies S.E.E.D.S. for short and they are as follows.

  • Simplify
    This is arguably the most important of the five. By definition, some degree of simplification is going to be needed if you are going to capture the essence of your subject. Simplification can be applied to composition, line, form, color, tonal range or all of these.
  • Exaggerate
    Every subject you paint is a kind of story. When you tell a story you amplify the important details and eliminate the irrelevant. Decide what are the most important points of the story you are painting and focus in on those. Make them larger, bolder and brighter. Alter perspective and size relationships in ways that you find interesting.
  • Experiment
    Creating abstract art is an opportunity to break away from the tried and tested. Experiment with new techniques. Paint with the “wrong” kind of brush. Embrace your mistakes, because when you experiment there are no mistakes only happy accidents.
  • Distort
    Like mirrors in a funhouse there are many ways to distort a subject. Squash and stretch forms, shift and substitute colors.
  • Symbolize
    Symbols are like the richer, more sophisticated cousin of simplification. In symbology, simplicity replaces complexity. Geometry and repetition of form replace randomness. Symmetry replaces irregularity. The unique becomes the universal.

There are other strategies you could use of course but these work well and besides, why ruin a good acronym! In the image below I take the image of a water lily as the starting point and show how this image could be given an abstract reinterpretion through the filter of the SEEDS strategies.

How to paint abstract watercolours. 5 Abstract art painting techniques

As a watercolor painter, I’m inspired by the natural world. Particularly landscapes and seascapes so I’m going to focus on aspects of nature as the starting points for all the abstract creations below.

I used the following materials.

Arches 300gsm Cold Pressed paper
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Bockingford 300gsm Cold Pressed paper Buy From Amazon
Winsor & Newton Artists Quality watercolor tubes Buy From Amazon

Daniel Smith Artist quality tubes Buy from Amazon

The brushes I used were:

Pro Arte Prolene 1/4″ Flat Brush,
Da Vinci Casaneo Pinstriper Sword ,
Chinese calligraphy brush, Buy from Amazon
1/4″ Pebeo synthetic Flat Brush.
DAS Taklon 9001 Script Brush

Artists Desktop Easel Buy From Amazon
Swann-Morton surgical scalpel and blade. Buy scalpel From Amazon
Buy Blades From Amazon

For a full list of recommended art products please see this post

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Abstract Watercolor Winter & Summer Woods

How to paint abstract watercolours. Winter woods abstract watercolor

The experimentation-led painting above, ended up somewhere in the middle ground between purely abstract and purely representational. It doesn’t have to be an either/or choice. It’s an example of how exploration of the medium can often lead to some unexpected results.

The painting stated out as an exploration of wet into wet painting techniques. I started out simply brushing an area of clean water onto the centre of the paper. I then began to drop in color. Alizarin Crimson, Prussian Blue mixed with Paynes Grey and Dioxazine Purple.

My initial washes dried a bit too pale so I re-wetted the area with water sprayed from my misting bottle and dropped in some more color. I decided to speed up the drying process by fanning the paper in front of my fireplace. Notice in the third panel below that cauliflowers have formed as a result of the paper drying so quickly. (If you ‘re not familiar with the term “Cauliflower” in relation to watercolor painting. Please check out this earlier blog post.

Rather than see the cauliflowers as a problem I decided that they looked like distant trees or possibly clouds so, I went with that and flicked in some branch-like lines in the foreground with my swordliner brush.

In order to make the lines stand out more I took a surgical scalpel and scratched out some highlights on the branches. It was only when I’d finished that I realised I’d painted a hazy wintery vignette.

How to paint abstract watercolours. abstract watercolour painting of trees in winter step by step

The “Winter” painting in turn led to a “Summer” version which you can see in the images below.

How to paint abstract watercolours. abstract watercolour painting of trees in summer step by step

In this example I began, as before, with clear water but used a Chinese calligraphy brush to start dropping in colors which eventually became a background of trees, although, as before the intention wasn’t necessarily to paint trees. It was just an exploration of what naturally happened on the paper.

Abstract Watercolor Seascape

How to paint abstract watercolours. Abstract watercolour seascape made with fast broad strokes from 1/4" flat brush

The photo below is one of those photos that definitely failed to capture what I was seeing in real life at the time. This happens a lot, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts. One thing that did strike me about it was the distinctly horizontal stripes of the sky and land and sea.

How to paint abstract watercolours. seascape reference photo used as a starting point for abstract painting inspiration.

The photo wasn’t particularly interesting from a purely representational perspective. Through focusing in and exaggerating a small section of it. The resulting painting became all about patterns of horizontal lines. I found a subject that was more interesting to me to explore in the abstract.

I used a single semi-dry flat brush, sweeping it across the paper in broad strokes. Finally I added a bit of texture by turning it on its edge to get the thin strokes.

How to paint abstract watercolours . step by step abstract painting of seascape in watercolor

Abstract Watercolor Mosaic Patterns With Found Objects

In these paintings I was exploring color placement, texture and shape by exploring making marks with strips of offcut watercolor paper instead of brushes. The end result resembled a traditional mosaic. Using different paper and different consistencies of paint gives different textural effect. The leaves themselves were an experiment. My initial thought was to hand paint or print leaves, giving them a symbolic function, suggesting a link between the colors and nature.

How to paint abstract watercolours. nature inspired experimental abstract watercolor pattern painting idea with found objects
How to paint abstract watercolours. nature inspired experimental paint abstract watercolours pattern painting idea with found objects

While this is not specifically a book about watercolor painting Jane Davies does a great job of analysing and presenting the elements and principles of abstract art in an inspiring way. Buy Abstract Painting: The Elements of Visual Language from Amazon

Thanks for visiting my blog I hope you found this post useful.You can support me and this website by using my affiliate links when you buy your art supplies. (It costs you nothing and really helps me out!)

3 thoughts on “How To Paint Abstract Watercolors: 5 Inspiring Strategies”

  1. A really useful blog. Many thanks for sharing so much information. I shall definitely stop being thrifty and get Archers 100% cotton 140 paper.

    1. Thanks Clare. Thrift is great but with watercolour paper you definitely get what you pay for

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