Once you’ve learned the rules of watercolor painting, it can be fun to break them. Abstract watercolor techniques can be a fun way to improve your painting skills while exploring shape and color in creative ways.
Photos and art via CakeSpy unless otherwise noted
According to Rudolf Arnheim, abstract art is defined as “a visual language of shape, form, color and line to create a composition which may exist with a degree of independence from visual references in the world.”
What this means for your painting is that “abstract” can have many different meanings. You can begin a painting rooted in reality, or it can come from a land of pure imagination.
Here, we’ll explore some easy abstract watercolor techniques will be sure to inspire your next painting.
Tonto via Stephy Kate
Combine realist painting with abstract backgrounds
If you’re just getting started with abstract watercoloring, adding abstract elements to an otherwise realistic painting can be a great place to start. This painting, which features a painterly but realistic parrot, is paired with an abstract background: a blue watercolor wash dotted with flecks of white and yellow paint.
To attain the dots like this on a painting background, load up paint on a brush and then “flick” it an inch or so above the work surface. This can either be done before or after the main subject. If done after the main painting is done, mask the painted area so flecks of paint don’t land where you don’t want them.
Note: This is also a technique you can use to create a snowy scene!
Textured nature background via Mary P. Murphy
Create interesting textures using everyday objects
Using everyday objects to create interesting textures is an easy and fun way to create abstract imagery in your watercolor work. In the above painting, the watercolor is spread over the work surface using the flat end of an old credit card, creating artful smears that add texture and tone to the piece. Combined with representational elements in a painting, this creates a gentle, abstract effect while leaving the overall painting recognizable as (in this case) a nature scene.
Portrait via Hannah Gill
Blur the lines of reality
In the painting above, the elements of a classic watercolor portrait are there, and the proportions of the face are intact. But what makes this painting abstract is the blurred lines around the defined features of the face, fading into watercolor washes with a gradient of blue and red. The colors blend, creating deep violet tones where the paint overlaps and adding an otherworldly, abstract effect to the piece.
Let it bloom
You can create fascinating abstract effects with this simple “blooming” method. First, generously wet your watercolor work surface with water, as if you were doing a wet watercolor wash. Then, apply thick, wet dots of paint in various colors all around the surface. The wet paint will combine and “bloom,” expanding and creating a dreamy looking landscape. This could be your entire painting, or it could act as a backdrop for a more involved painting.
Note: Beware using too many colors with this method, as the painting can become muddy.
Let it bleed
An easy way to create an abstract look with watercolor is to let the paint drip vertically down a surface. In the above photos, three lines of wet paint were applied to the work surface, with each color rather close together, barely touching. Then, the paper was held vertically so that the paint could drip down the surface. The colors blend as they drip, creating a cool, abstract, modern look.
Use a treated paper
While you’d typically use an absorbent, matte surface for painting in watercolor, you can attain some cool effects by using a slightly glossy or satin finish paper. Above, a simple blue-and-green wash was applied to a satin-coated card stock (not quite glossy, but with a coating). The paint doesn’t totally adhere to the paper, which gives the wash an interesting, slightly oxidized look. This method can be used to your advantage when creating abstract scenes.
Use masking fluid to create layers
Even a fairly standard watercolor gradient wash can become spectacularly trippy when combined with abstractly applied masking fluid.
To create the above effect, apply the masking fluid in a Jackson Pollock-esque method — flick it around and letting it drip down the page. Once the masking fluid sets, apply a watercolor wash over it. After everything dried, peel off the masking fluid for a fascinating abstract effect.
Combine watercolor and non-waterproof pen
Applying watercolor paint over lines drawn with a water-soluble pen can create interesting abstract effects. The ink will “bleed” into the paint irregularly, creating an ambient gradient of colors and textures.
For best results, use colors that will bleed into one another harmoniously — for instance, red paint and violet ink work great, as shown above, but you might not see the same effect with yellow paint and violet ink, which could create a muddy scene.