What Is Abstract Art? | 5 Solid Designs That Work

Artist Mark E. Mehaffey answers the question “What is abstract art?” and shares his abstract art techniques by presenting five examples of compelling compositions and solid designs for eye-catching paintings.

By Mark E. Mehaffey

You may ask yourself, Just what is abstract art?

In order to define it, first let’s take a look at some of the ways a painter can organize his efforts when painting in an abstract or nonobjective way. While both styles rely on the elements of art (shape, value, line, color, contrast, texture, form within a space), abstract art usually has a basis in reality, as in something being “abstracted.” The artist is the one in charge of what is being abstracted and to what degree. Sometimes the viewers can’t tell; sometimes they can.

In contrast, nonobjective art is totally reliant on the elements of art as subject. There’s no underlying reference to anything real. I make the distinction between abstract and nonobjective; a lot of artists do not. I regret that the two terms have become virtually interchangeable. We’ll use the term abstract in this article.

Abstract art isn’t synonymous with chaotic design. To avoid the “put some paint down and mush it around” syndrome, which, I’ll admit sometimes results in a good painting, a more considered approach will give you a leg up on producing a work that is well-designed and for which the application of materials match what you want to say; in short, a work that has meaning.

"Visual Layers: Red and Black" (mixed watermedia on Yupo, 20x26) by Mark Mehaffey in article on how to create abstract art
The abstract art design of “Visual Layers: Red and Black” (mixed watermedia on Yupo, 20×26) is built on contrasts: dark versus light values; large versus small shapes; saturated versus neutral colors; geometric shapes versus organic, gestural lines. What holds these contrasting elements together? A simple H composition. Both vertical sides of the H are handled differently; the lower left extends farther, firmly anchoring the other three arms.


See the Scaffold or Underlying Design

Part of every workshop I teach involves a definition of abstract art and an introduction to painting in an abstract or nonobjective way. It’s sometimes a difficult stretch for those who’ve been accustomed to having a subject for their work. If you’re locked into a subject, especially a photograph of that subject, it’s sometimes difficult to see or create an underlying structure that can act as the glue or scaffolding to hold everything together.



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).

These basic foundations are not all inclusive, and they all have valid modifications, but hanging the elements on these structures will help hold a nonobjective design together. Let’s take a look at some.


Defining Abstract Art Design #1: The Horizontal Grid

"Obsessive and Compulsive 2" (transparent watercolor on paper, 22x30) by Mark E. Mehaffey
The grid structure is certainly obvious in “Obsessive and Compulsive 2.” You can imagine many different variations on this design, which provides a strong underlying scaffold or design for an abstract work.

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.


 Defining Abstract Art Design #2: The L

"Random in Orange" (acrylic on canvas, 36x48) by Mark E. Mehaffey; article on how to paint an abstract painting
You may ask yourself, How do I begin an abstract painting? A scaffold for your abstract art design or an underlying structure is what you need, such as this inverted L design with a bridge in “Random in Orange” (acryilic on canvas, 36×48).

Random in Orange (above) 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.


Defining Abstract Art Design #3: The Cruciform

"Visual Layers in Blue" (mixed watermedia on Yupo, 26x20) by Mark E. Mehaffey; good underlying structure in cruciform design
The cruciform composition is a very strong yet ubiquitous structure or art design on which to build an abstract painting. As you can see, in “Visual Layers in Blue” (mixed watermedia on Yupo, 26×20)e I made some modifications with an extra-wide right horizontal and extra elements in the picture. Sometimes an extra vertical or crossbar may be helpful to “mix things up.”

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.


 Defining Abstract Art Design #4: The S or Z

"Visual Layers: Red Rectangle" (mixed watermedia on Yupo, 26x20) by Mark Mehaffey; how to create abstract art
To give my abstract elements form in “Visual Layers: Red Rectangle” (mixed watermedia on Yupo, 26×20), I used an S composition for a solid design base for my painting.

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!


Defining Abstract Art Design #5: The Overall Arrangement

"Loot" (mixed media collage, 12x12) by Mark E. Mehaffey how to create a good abstract design
Most of the design elements—the collage pieces and the painted elements—are about the same size and distance apart in “Loot” (mixed media collage, 12×12); however the dominance of the elements vary.

The concept behind Loot (above) arose from a discussion about our national debt—and the fact that China owns much of it. My wife and I’d recently returned from China (the people, the food, and the camaraderie of the Chinese artists were wonderful), and I had some Chinese paper money left from the trip. That money was the impetus for this collage. The surface is multilayered to represent the complexity of this international finance problem. I felt that the addition of the rusty metal would serve as a warning, “Don’t spend what you don’t have.” The design has an overall structure. Most of the collaged and painted elements are about the same size, and they’re about the same distance from one another.

However, the emphasis on or importance of these elements varies. Some are partially hidden; others are very dark against a lighter value. When using an overall design, take care to make sure there aren’t too many elements that are the same—or you risk confusing or boring the viewer. To attach the collage elements, I used acrylic matte medium; I also added medium to the acrylic paint to achieve a greater translucency, allowing elements that were glued down previously to peek through subsequent paint layers.


Find Your Path in Abstract Art

There are as many ways to paint as there are artists. What works for me might not work for you. Nonetheless, if you’ve tried painting nonobjective work or pushing your representational work into abstraction and you haven’t been happy with the results, try this approach:

  1. Start with an idea—a concept to direct your work.
  2. Build your abstract painting on a solid compositional structure.
  3. This is the fun part—use whatever materials and whatever technique you have at hand to support the first two steps.
  4. Finally realize, as with all creative work, there are no hard and fast rules, except the ones you make for yourself.


Here are a few more formal definitions:

What Is Abstract Art?

Abstract Art Definition: 20th-century movement characterized by the reduction of natural appearances into simplified forms; for example, constructing art on the basis of geometric shapes or intuitive gestures

Nonobjective Art Definition: art that doesn’t depend on the appearance of the visual world as a starting point; the assumption is that art doesn’t have to be about anything other than formal elements: shape and color

Yupo Definition: 100 percent synthetic, waterproof paper originating in Japan; watercolorists are drawn to its impervious surface


Mehaffey’s Materials

Acrylic Paint: Golden paints; Golden mediums (spray gloss varnish, gloss and matte medium); M. Graham paints; Liquitex paints; pre-primed canvas; tung wood panels; Arches 300-lb, cold-pressed watercolor paper; Yupo synthetic paper

Watercolor Paint: M. Graham; Daniel Smith; Winsor & Newton; Yupo synthetic paper; Arches 140-lb and 300-lb, rough paper; Fabiano Artistico 300-lb, rough

Collage: decorative papers; painted papers; rusty metal; Golden acrylic matte medium


Meet Mark E. Mehaffey

Mark E. Mehaffey is a signature member of the the National Watercolor Society, the American Watercolor Society and the Transparent Watercolor Society of America. Recently he won a top award at the Shanghai Zhujiajiao International Watercolour Biennial. He is the author of Creative Watercolor Workshop (North Light Books, 2005), available in bookstores or at www.northlightshop.com. A former public school teacher, he has two video workshops available from ArtistNetwork.tv: Paint Dramatic Acrylic Flowers with Mark Mehaffey and Watercolor Painting on Yupo with Mark Mehaffey. Visit his website at www.mehaffeygallery.com.


Other Books, Downloads and Videos You Might Like:

To see more of Mehaffey’s paintings, read the article in the January/February 2011 issue of The Artist’s Magazine. Click here to download the issue.

Follow along with Brian Ryder as he explains his methods for abstract painting in this video download.


2 thoughts on “What Is Abstract Art? | 5 Solid Designs That Work

  1. Anonymous says:

    Abstract art is a different language in itself that uses some strokes of color, lines and shapes and form. Abstract art is always difficult to understand. Do you want to learn how to decode the language of Abstract Art?

  2. Rudy C says:

    You can hardy make some “instructions” or manual how to do an abstract artwork. Neither you can explain it clearly. Artist expressing themselves by creating art representing their own vision. People sometimes hardly get or understand what is representing. Art create filing in observer, similar to filing you have watching a sunset, for example……

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