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3 Ways to Add Abstract Elements to a Realistic Painting

To abstract something means to “take from” or to “separate out from something else.” It can also mean to “summarize” or “minimalize.” In truth, we abstract each time we capture an image, whether or not we intend to leave something out or change it or exaggerate its characteristics.

But the word “abstraction” has a lot of controversial baggage attached to it, and here’s why: there was a time in the 20th century when the artists who dared to use realistic images in their paintings were alienated by mainstream art circles.

During that period, abstraction was the guiding force in most art schools—instructors did not teach students drawing skills or observational techniques; instead, they taught them to extract designs and patterns from within images, and to invent artwork independently of any objective subject.

Over the past couple of decades, though, a revived interest in realism has caused many artists to return to the practice of painting what their eyes actually see.

Even more exciting, many artists find ways to utilize abstract principles in their realistic work. Here are three of the most classic abstracting methods used by today’s realistic artists:

1. Exaggerate value contrasts

Robert Motherwell, a 20th century abstract expressionist painter and printmaker, often used large black and white shapes to form his compositions.

Without varying degrees of grays to act as value transitions, these stark shapes assert a strong tension against one another. Here’s one of his lithographs, Automatism B.

motherwell automatism

During the same era, the maverick realist painter Andrew Wyeth used a similar abstraction method to achieve many of his stark interpretations in his realistic images. One typical example is this watercolor painting, Army Blanket


2. Alter colors within a subject

We’re all familiar with 20th century pop art artist Andy Warhol’s pieces in which he took photographic images, separated out and flattened lights and shadows, then experimented with assigning value areas a new color.

warhol marilyn

In this famous poster Marilyn Monroe notice in the repeated image how all the shapes are kept the same, but the values and colors take on a variety of roles.

Not unlike the ideas of Warhol, today’s realistic artists use a wide range of options for changing the natural colors of images. Some choose a limited palette such the four-colors, red/yellow ochre/ivory black/white, used by Anders Zorn in this self-portrait.

zorn self-portrait

Others enhance or revise nature’s colors by superimposing a color scheme to the already existing light/shadow pattern. A complementary scheme of blue/orange is used by Calvin Liang in this oil painting.

liang complementary

3. Move from total abstraction into realism

Starting off totally abstract and ending up in realism is a method that many painters use. In the beginning there are only shapes and colors, but as the painting progresses the artist gradually builds toward realistic imagery.

(And depending on when the artist stops, the final painting can either be more abstract, or more realistic.)

Mike Beeman uses this method beautifully in his pastel painting entitled The Last Peony. I’ve selected five stages of Mike’s work-in-progress photos to give you an idea of how this painting evolved from total abstraction to a realistic finish:

beeman wip1

beeman wip2

beeman wip3

beeman wip4

beeman wip final

If you’ve never tried it, you might enjoy finding ways to use abstract ideas in your own artwork. Give one of these methods a shot in your next painting, or come up with another method all your own!

*Note: this post may contain affiliate links*

The following list of resources is for anyone interested in learning to paint at a college level without paying an expensive tuition. It’s also the third post in my series on getting an art education for free. (Here are the first and . . . read more

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