5 Steps to Get You A Strong Abstract Design For Painting - Creative Catalyst Productions

5 Steps to Get You A Strong Abstract Design For Painting

May 17, 2018 4 min read

“Every strong painting begins as a strong design,” says Salminen in his workshop A Designed Approach to Abstraction. “Even my very realistic urban street scenes are conceived as designs initially and I feel very strongly that design is probably the common language that binds all styles of painting together.”


Design is important. We all know that intuitively, but on a practical level, how do we go from a blank piece of paper to a strong design for painting? 

In his workshop, A Designed Approach to Abstraction, Salminen shares his five steps for doing exactly that.

Here’s how:


1. Choose four simple objects to draw
It’s all about shapes. So let’s make some.

First, choose four simple objects to draw. These four objects are going to be the basis of your abstraction. Choose simple objects that have variation of line.

In his workshop, Salminen selects two objects because they are geometric and blocky. The other two because they are linear in nature.

Try and choose objects that can’t be too readily recognizable.

““If any one object is too recognizable it becomes difficult throughout the process to submerge that image into the painting,” says Salminen.

2. Draw line drawings
Next, draw your four objects on four separate pieces of inexpensive copy paper. Start with the most complicated one to get it out of the way. Don’t be too worried about exactness in your drawing.

“The purpose of the drawings is purely informational. When we’re all done with this process we’re going to throw the drawings away,“ says Salminen. “We are primarily concerned with drawing the shapes.”

Salminen says there are only three rules to follow: First, draw firm solid contour lines. Second, make sure your drawing touches the edge of the paper three times. Third, don’t use shading.

It’s important that these are line drawings only. The goal isn’t realism. In his drawings, Salminen disregards details like tags. He unrealistically extends parts of the drawing so that it will touch the edge of his paper.


3. Combine the line drawings
Lay your first drawing under a sheet of tracing paper. If your tracing paper is larger than your drawing paper, make lines to indicate the edges of your drawing paper. You want each drawing to line up perfectly with the ones before it. Now trace drawing number one. Repeat three additional times making sure to line each drawing up.

“Whether we think about it or not, we all have compositional cliches that we’ve developed over time, says Salminen. “I’m going to ask you at this point to suppress those.“

What he means is don’t make changes to the lines at this point. Don’t erase. Don’t correct. Don’t move one of the papers so that the lines seem better on a compositional level. Trust the process and just trace.

What Salminen is trying to get at is true unpredictability.

“What I’m interested in seeing at this point is seeing these shapes come together in a very unpredictable and very random manner.”

As you add each drawing to the tracing paper, it becomes harder to see the lines. It’s OK to slow down to make sure you accurately record each line.

“Those individual objects have lost their identity now,” says Salminen as he finishes his own tracing, “and have been translated simply to a page full of shapes.”.

And that’s what you want: A page full of unpredictable shapes on which to start building your abstract design.

4. Transfer small drawing to your watercolor paper
Now that you have a page full of wonderful shapes, it’s time to get them onto your watercolor paper.

Salminen suggests working large for this process.

“There are a lot of advantages of working on a full sheet,” says Salminen. “When you get into the very complex portion of the drawing you have enough room to include all of that detail and it won’t become too tight and too cramped. So the physical space is advantageous.”

To transfer his drawing, Salminen uses the age-old method of the grid drawing. He folds up his tracing paper into 16 sections. He draws lines on his watercolor paper as well and then starting in the upper left hand corner, he works one grid section at a time until he fills the page with his lines.

Salminen suggests covering the rest of the grid with paper so that you can focus on one rectangle at a time.

“Your drawing is your vehicle for getting into the painting and you don’t want to become a slave to the drawing,” says Salminen.  “By the same token, you’re going to be very reliant on having a wealth of shapes to work with as you go through the painting process so don’t start simplifying or eliminating shapes for the sake of ease of drawing. Try very very faithfully to put exactly what you have here on the paper to the best of your ability.”

5. Create value shapes
Now it’s time to start using all those shapes you’ve created.

Head back to your tracing paper and create three values using the shapes on your paper: light, middle, and dark. Follow three rule for each shape.

For the light shape, make it the dominant shape and touch the edges of the paper three times. Salminen has his white shape take up a third of the total space and follow Edgar A Whitney's advice, wants to make sure the shape is irregular, unpredictable and oblique.

Next fill the area around your white shape with your middle value. This will make your white shape pop.

Finally add your darkest shape.


In order to avoid predictability Salminen makes sure that the size of his dark shape doesn’t approach a third.

“Because we would have then divided our composition into a third, a third, a third and that would be predictable and that would be boring,” says Salminen.

Get Painting!
Now that you have your shapes and your values you are ready to add pigment and texture to your piece. You have built a solid design foundation on which to build an abstract painting.

Learn more about John Salminen's workshop A Designed Approach to Abstraction.



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