The 4 Core Principles of Abstract Design

small-abstract-studyWhere do you get ideas for abstract designs? How do you get started creating an abstract composition? Are there any Tips or Tricks to making great designs?

Well these are all very good questions, and yes there are strategies that I developed over the years for generating good aesthetically pleasing abstract compositions.

Now abstract designs can be found all around us if we look for them. In the patterns created by shadows falling across the ground, in the clouds in the sky, in the reflections off of puddles, in reflections on storefront glass, or the distorted images we see looking thru rain soaked windows. I could list a million more examples like these, but let’s move on to finding “good” designs.

Finding “good” abstract designs is not as easy as simply finding abstract designs. How do you know when it’s good? Well if it makes you go “Wow!’ If you see something that takes your breath away, that’s a good start, but now remember everything is relative to context. Seeing a spectacular cloud formation while sitting on a dock of the bay [sorry] doesn’t necessarily translate into a great abstract design for a painting.

So what do we do? How do we take the inspiring abstract designs that we find, and make them good abstract designs to build our paintings around?

It requires some study and practice, because although you already have an innate sense of good design, it still needs to be trained and developed. To that end there are many things you can do.

Visit Art Shows, Galleries, and Museums. Don’t force yourself to like or appreciate anything and take what others, even experts say, with a grain of salt. However do try also to keep an open mind, to be teachable, but not too mesmerized by all the hype, you need to trust your own instinct a little, but not entirely. Does that make sense?

You can of course study design & composition pick up some books at your library perhaps, do a google search. First steps you’ll want to get acquainted with terminology and Principles about what makes good design. Things like the rule of thirds, and color dominance, Repetition and Variety, Values Scales, Colory Theory, all of these and more. Then most importantly spend some time arranging your own compositions. Play around with ideas that come to you. Inform yourself with the academic knowledge, then put it to practical use in your own way. Slowly over time you’ll develop your own sense of style, and some of the principles will become more important to you, as they have for me. I’m very fond of Variety (or variation) as I believe it’s quite often neglected and that my paintings are stronger, better for taking the time to include variety in my design considerations.

If no ideas come to you then use those images those abstract designs in nature, in piles of trash, or wherever you found them, use those images to start, and ask yourself, what do you like about the design? what bothers you about it? what do you think needs to change? where’s the center of interest? where would it be better? then start editing that image, removing color, adding new shapes, or manipulating shapes already there. Just play around with it, explore ideas, and have Fun! as you do more ideas will begin to come to you. You’ll finally arrive at a composition that makes you excited. Now save it, and start over.

Practices like this are addictive, at least they are for me. I’ve sometimes spent hours on a rainy day just dreaming up and creating dozens of new abstract design ideas. Most will never become paintings and that’s ok. I learned from the experience, and you will too. The more time you spend thinking about abstract designs the better you’ll get at it.

I keep sketchpad and pencil on my nightstand, and often wake up in the middle of the night with a new abstract design just waiting to get out. They’ll come to you like that, in your dreams and sometimes, not often but sometimes, you’ll remember each detail and get it all jotted down with thumbnail sketches and notes on how to paint it, the entire process that you dreamed about moments earlier, and with any luck you’ll manage to get that masterpiece onto canvas right away before it all slips away. So keep some drawing and writing materials bedside, and when those dreams come you’ll be ready to make good use of them.

How many times have you completed an abstract painting and realised you did not really designate a center of interest. You have instead created an All Over Design. While that is an acceptable theme in structuring an abstract painting, it is one I advise you against. I call it Wall Paper, and I see it everywhere, especially with beginning students. You discover some colors that look good together or a pattern or texture that you fall in love with and you put it all over the canvas with very little variation. That’s natural I think. I’ve certainly caught myself doing it, but with just a little deliberate intent, you can take your artwork to a new level.

I’ve found that starting with a composition that makes use of these 4 Core Principles helps avoid making wallpaper. The 4 Core Principles are;

  1. The Rule of Thirds
  2. A Diagonal Thrust
  3. Each Corner Unique
  4. A Strong Value Composition

Naturally these are just a few of all the possible compositional considerations you can make while creating your abstract designs, but you got to start somewhere, and I suggest these 4 Core Principles as an excellent way to begin. Later you can worry about other ideas like repetition and variation, color harmony, and so on.

So what do I mean by each of these? Let’s break it down.

The Rule of Thirds you’re probably already familiar with, I know most people are, but just to make sure for the beginner students who might be reading this. It’s the idea that all good compositions should have one area of the painting that draws more attention than any other area on the picture plane and that that one area, called the center of interest is best placed at the intersection of imaginary lines dividing the picture plane into thirds both horizontally and vertically. Let me simplify that. Imagine placing a Tic-Tac-Toe over your painting, and where the lines cross each other choosing one of those as your Center of Interest. You’d then proceed to make that area the most eye catching part of your painting, and there are several methods to achieve that. I’ll go over some of them further along in this article.

A Diagonal Thrust simply means that rather than having elements predominantly arranged in horizontal or vertical directions that they are tilted, slanted or arranged in at least a somewhat diagonal manner. The idea being that it’s a more interesting composition as it implies action or energy or even tension, an out of balance state.

Each Corner Unique is fairly straight forward, just let each corner be different from the others, no two identical. I’ve never fully understood why, but from the time I started using this principle, my artwork received a better reception. It might go back to not making wallpaper, and creating some variety in the composition. Just know that many artists follow this rule and if you do I think you’ll see that improves your art.

And finally we come to A Strong Value Composition. This is the most important of the 4 Core Principles. If you only remember one thing remember this, that underneath every great painting lies a strong abstract value composition. So what does this mean?

Well it means you’ve used the entire value scale for one thing, and this is something I’ve been noticing a lot lately in the paintings I’m asked to critique.

I see a lack of a strong value composition. The artist has focused entirely on color and used pure pigments and thrown in some black and white but not included any of the lower values. Even yellow the lightest color when applied straight from the tube or bottle is about a value 4 leaving values 2 and 3 neglected.

One simple solution and a strategy I personally employ is to do a great deal of mixing and blending on the canvas, and to use a lot of white paint in that mixing, making tints of colors right there on the canvas. That way you’re most certainly assured of getting some value 2 and 3 of colors and generating a stronger value composition.

Also you must consider the arrangement of the values so that only where you want the center of interest do you place the darkest dark and lightest light together. You may still have those extreme values represented elsewhere but not right next to each other, except near the center of interest.

A strong value composition also means arranging the values in an pleasing manner, where there’s a balance established without resorting to an all over design. Now creating such a balance is not an easy thing to teach, as you simply have to develop a “feel” for it, but one idea is to place the values of lights and darks and midtones in a rhythmic pattern. Keeping in mind not to let this pattern become too mechanical and predictable, but to use some overused terms, let it be natural and organic.

If you apply these 4 Core Principles to your artwork regularly, I guarantee you’ll see an improvement in you abstract paintings.

So what about all the other Principles of Design? What about Color Dominance and Harmony? Well those are important considerations also, but it’s my thinking that it might be overwhelming to tackle everything all at one time. I think it’s best to start with just a short list to use as a guide. Spend some time practicing these 4 Core Principles to where they become second nature and then move on to more studies and practices.

You’ve got to learn to walk before you fly! So remember to keep a sketchbook by your bed side and drawing tools, and start visiting galleries and even online really studying other artists work and critiquing those abstract designs asking yourself, what do you like about the construction of this or that painting, and what you think could be done to make it a better painting too. No one but you will ever know you critiqued Picasso’s artwork, so be brutal.

The idea is to get you to start thinking about what makes a good strong abstract design, because the more thought and practice you put into it the better you will become and the more confident you will become also. Word to the wise try not to become too confident too fast. I’ve seen it happen to many of us. We get a little recognition for our artwork and we think we’ve arrived when actually we’ve only just stepped upon the journey. I’ve been at this coming on 20 yrs. now and I still have much to learn. It’s truly a lifelong journey, so relax, but stay awake. It’s not about getting there it’s about being here.

Now Study and Practice are the only path I know towards Mastery of any subject, regardless of whether it’s academic or practical. While many pursuits of excellence can be measured scientifically such as in a proficiency of mathematics of chemistry or computer science. Most often in those fields there’s only one correct answer, well Art is not like that at all,. So while you can study all the artists before you great and small and learn what strategies and design considerations were important to them, ultimately you’ll have to develop your own voice and your own strategies towards making good art.

I encourage you if you’re serious about becoming a better abstract painter, to take the time and effort to study and practice. Many artists I know do warm up exercises before they set about creating a painting. Me I simply practice right on the canvas quite often, expecting that much or even all of it might get covered up with many layers.

Well I hope you found this article helpful, and I hope you decide to give the 4 Core Principles a try. I’m certain if you do make them a habit that you apply to all your abstract paintings, that you’ll find your artwork has reached new heights.

As always your questions and comments are welcome.

Until next time, Happy Painting!

Andy Morris







  • jane

    Reply Reply January 15, 2017

    Thanks Andy… i am a newcomer..and i so need direction…. i am still not free enough… and now i know what u mean about wallpaper.. i think that is what i have been creating now that ive read this… i will strive to let go and not try to balance and form what needs to be free.. i will keep listening and following you .. as u are wise.. Jane

    • Iruva Loi-Tohoury

      Reply Reply January 15, 2017

      I do abstract art in pastels and it works fine but it’s cheaper than paint.

  • Patricia

    Reply Reply January 15, 2017

    Thank you so much for your good advice Andy. I am looking forward to seeing what difference it is going to make to my work. It is of great comfort to have some good rules to adhere to in the back of the mind whilst painting. Best wishes

  • Kath

    Reply Reply January 15, 2017

    Thanks for this article, I found it very useful. I think it will be helpful to me to use these principles when composing a painting. I struggle to create my own compositions and tend to start by copying something I like and then adapting it. Hopefully, I’ll start to develop my own style using these principles. Thanks.

  • Allie

    Reply Reply January 15, 2017

    Great article, thanks for taking the time to share your knowledge!

  • Stewart

    Reply Reply January 15, 2017

    Thanks Andy. Very useful guide. I’ve never done and abstract painting until I did your Udemy course. Really enjoyed it. Looking forward to making a better study of other works.

  • Jay

    Reply Reply January 15, 2017

    Very helpful article Andy. Thank you

  • Samia Karam

    Reply Reply January 16, 2017

    Thank you for your generosity, it was very helpful. I will send you one of my painting to analyze it.

  • peter

    Reply Reply January 16, 2017

    Thank you Andy for a great article.

  • Royce

    Reply Reply January 16, 2017

    Thanks for the great advise and reminders, Andy. You’re an inspiration and thoughtful teacher.

  • Michele

    Reply Reply January 17, 2017

    Thanks for this valuable information, Andy. You da bomb!

  • Priscilla

    Reply Reply July 2, 2017

    Really appreciate your reinforcing these principles that we sometimes forget. Also enjoy your beautiful, awesome creativity. Thanks, Andy.

  • Thanks, Andy. I am aware of all the principles, etc. that you wrote about – just hit a creative dry spell and needed to read or hear something to get me started again. I think your four-step formula is a good place to start. Thanks, again. I have a few abstracts (that worked) on my website.

    • andymo7_wp

      Reply Reply May 14, 2018

      Those are wonderful paintings Faye.

      I noticed you’re using Weebly, are you using the Free Level?

  • Kathy kay hall

    Reply Reply July 28, 2018

    Hi Andy , i recently became interested in abstract art..i studied fine arts. Abstract art seems more emotional to me .it evolks thought or moves my immagination. I have been watching it being demonstrated on utube. Abstract has its own language, a language i am eager to embrace. Is their a paticular book you would recommend. I found you through my question on google, what are the principles on abstract art. Also is it possible to hear more from you? Thankyou for answereing my question . I know to keep tab and pen by bedside, but now i will do 74 yrs young and disapointed in myself for not learning sooner. I am looking forward to my journey.

  • dale whitney

    Reply Reply August 23, 2019

    im 92 ww2 good reading thanks

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