Review: A Designed Approach to Abstraction with John Salminen

Posted April 01 2015

John Salminen’s video should come with a warning, “Watch the first part of this DVD passively and you will miss out!” His is no ordinary demonstration. You’ll take a journey into abstract shapes and values and learn everything you need to know about design. He invites you into his world and, at the beginning, it’s like he’s beside you every step of the way as you draw with him and design your painting with him. The key words here are “with him.” Yes, it’s the next best thing to his being in your studio, holding your hand to start you off and get you into his process so it becomes your process too.

While he takes you step-by-step at first, don’t panic. This is definitely not a cookie-cutter approach, stifling your creativity. He helps you make choices that keep your work intriguing and varied so you have a wealth of shapes with which to work. You’ll look for irregular, unpredictable, and oblique shapes, dealing in pure abstraction with no recognizable subject matter. With his examples, you’ll know exactly what he means.

The beginning is structured so you’re comfortable enough to get to the place where you can become painterly and . . . creative.

Once you have your design, then it’s time to watch him assess and refine his piece. Here, it’s up to you. Pause and go to your own painting on occasion or watch it straight through to see how he works, taking in his many lessons like how to knock back intense areas, “sealing off any exits,” and avoiding monotony.

John says that every strong painting begins as a strong design, the common language binding all styles. Value is his favorite design element and he describes his paintings as “value dependant.” Closely related middle values can make a piece glow and are the strength of watercolors. Watch as he introduces intermediates to add transitional passages, helping you move from dark to light areas.

You’ll see how he works with the 9-Value System, from the lightest light (white of the paper which is number 1) to from the darkest dark, number 9. In every painting, he says that we have an obligation to fully represent all the values we’re capable of, including the very dark ones, which many watercolorists shy away from. State the extremes, even in a high key piece. But there needs to be a visual linkage, a visual pathway, among the various shades.

John’s approach to beginning the painting is unusual, using tracing paper and then transferring lines and shapes that produce surprising results. Tracing paper gives you layers to work with and lifting a piece isolates various shapes.

First, you will make some simple linear drawings and he gives you specific criteria. He’ll show you how to combine them and you’ll see interesting shapes come together in an unpredictable, random manner. Then you’ll make decisions – light, medium, and dark values. And again, he explains this thoroughly so you cannot possibly go wrong.

During this process, he throws out valuable bits of information such as even when it’s broken and fragmented, the eye will follow a dark shape more than it will a white shape. Keep the light shape intact. He helps you focus on the relationship of shapes, illustrates ways to provide a visual pathway, and points you toward your center of interest, telling you how to make that area sing.

Following the mostly 80/20 ratio, he spends time explaining and demonstrating dominance, curvilinear and geometric shapes, and the use of warm and cool colors. Among other things, he’ll show you how he masks areas, lifts paint, and adds calligraphic lines.

John discusses the difference between a trick and a technique and then emphasizes technique, integrating a little collage, incorporating texture, and creating a push/pull illusion. He likes putting dark acrylic into a corner, turning it into a black void and giving the piece much depth. Then he shows you how to smooth out the surface with a dry brush. You’ll also see how to use a mouth atomizer, the most effective way to spatter, and even how to sign your name.

Once you get used to this way of working, you’ll never be stuck for an abstract design idea. And when it comes down to it, even the best realistic painting has the underpinning of a good abstract design.


 Adele Greenfield is an artist as well as a consultant/coach who has led workshops on the international lecture circuit in creativity and change, communication and image, and coping with stress She is also author of a handbook on creativity and several recorded programs. Topics include public speaking and how to relax and re-energize. Her articles have been published in magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Woman’s Day, and Industry Week. Adele lives in Charlotte, NC. Email her at