Posted by: Julie Duell | May 11, 2008


Hello all!

OK hands up if you have ever looked at abstract paintings and said “I don’t like abstracts – I don’t understand them” ?

Did you put your hand up?  Well join the club! Most people have and do!   I certainly have and still do sometimes! However I now know the process taking place in my brain when I jump to that conclusion: “I don’t understand abstracts!”   Of course, we are missing the point if we want to “understand” them – they are meant to be “felt” rather than understood, like music without lyrics.

You see we all have one side of our brain (usually the left) that deals with logic.  It is the side we use the most in daily function and survival – because it recognises and names objects and stores information about them.  We need that information to make physical choices about our practical interaction with those objects … e.g. how to pick up a cup, when it is safe to cross the road, etc.etc.

The other side of our brain (usually the right side) does not use words, numbers or logic and has much more to do with our creative side.  Rather than naming separate objects, it notices relationships between them – for example, it may pick out all the red cars in a car park that form a pattern … or it might perceive the similarity between a sail on a yacht and a butterfly wing.   It senses the patterns and drama around us formed by light and shadow – the patterning and rhythm in music – the shape of objects grouped together or overlapping…..  and infinitely more.

Our left brain logical side has no doubt been reinforced from an early age to take precedence over our right brain creative side by parents and teachers who snap us out of our “right brain” daydreaming by calling for us to “pay attention!”   Does that ring a bell?  Gazing out of the classroom window enjoying the clouds drifting by and then being pulled back to the lesson at hand! How much of a dreamer are you?

 Of course, abstract designs and patterns are all around us every day!    Just cut a tiny window out of a piece of paper and look through it around you, moving in and out from your eyes.  You might see a collection of abstract shapes in the corners of a room or anywhere a number of objects meet.  Here are some I photographed in my studio this morning.  I zoomed in to avoid too big a view so as to include only parts of objects:


Methods of approach for abstract painting:

The above method of photography is one way to look for reference to get started.

Another way is to paint a little of something in your room, then turn your canvas around and paint another bit you like. Keep doing this – turning the canvas around continually as you paint.  You will end up with impressions of your suroundings expressed in a more abstract way.  Abstract painting requires a feeling for design or pattern making and is a great way to develop your sense of composition.  The tricky bit is at the end, deciding which way is “up”!


Sometimes Tony and I have fun just playing with acrylic paint- trying out textures and combining run, drip, flow effects.  I usually use these as a background or base to add to – for example…these bird studies of a flamingo and egrets. In each case, I imagine what would best go with the semi-accidentally achieved background – so the process is an adventure rather than a contrived painting from the beginning!

The next painting, entitled “Flash Flood, Tacoma” evolved from driving through a flooded roadway to the Framers one morning. On returning home to my studio, I wanted to capture the atmosphere created by reflections of trees not usually flooded.  After giving it some thought, I came up with an experiment of flowing thick house enamels onto a large board in vertical stripes, then raking through them horizontally with a wide comb.  I  then had to line up the light and shade on the trees with the reflections – so it took quite a bit of innovation.  The touches of red brought the cool colouring to life, as did the egret.  This painting was Commended in the Wyong Festival of Arts in 1989.  Until the trees and bird were added, it was very much a watery abstract.

Then there is ‘subliminal’ painting where you let go of conscious control over your brush & painting process and see what comes.  I have done this a couple of times and been surprised at what evolved…just following the prompts or impulses as they come, with no direction or end result in mind.  Scary?  Mmmm yes a bit, but what have you got to lose?  You can always paint over it again if something turns out not to your liking!  This is what happened in my first “let go” painting – two blue figures back to back seemed to want to turn and embrace each other in warmth so I called it “The Embrace”.  I have no idea what it means – I just know it felt good…

This next painting took place many years later.  The placement of the colours coincided with the shakras but I only realised this later.  Any offers of interpretation anyone?

This next painting is one I did while my late husband, John, was under anaesthetic having an operation.  It just “appeared” under my brush and is clearly he and I in an embrace.  It makes one wonder what can be accessed through our subconscious doesn’t it?

Another approach is painting to music.  Try mixing the colours you feel express your favourite music and play it as you paint.   I remember slowly flowing house enamels on a big board once to the Moonlight Sonata. It was a wonderful experience watching the colours meet, merge, blend and interact like a slow dance to the music and I “helped” them along with my fingers in the paint! Unfortunately I don’t have a photo of it.

It is interesting that we allow ourselves to listen to music without lyrics without walking away saying “I don’t understand it!”   Yet most of us seem to desire a physical painting to be representational of something we can name.

One way to overcome this is to view art as though it WERE musiceach colour, tone or shape being a “note”.   After all, music and art have much in common – particularly abstract art … most have rhythm, contrast, linear content, harmony and contrast … and just like music, good painting compositions need to have harmony with variation to hold our interest.

Another approach is to play with textures by using various flat objects to collage.  Here are some examples using acrylic paint, sand, various papers and texture paste:

Here is my YouTube to show you how to make your own texture paste and apply it.    The recipe is equal parts of PVA glue and white acrylic  wall paint, thickened with talcum powder until it holds a peak.  Create smooth border edges with masking tape if you wish. Spread the paste onto  firm backing and create textures in it with a variety of objects (bottle tops, combs etc.)   Embed any flat objects you wish before paste dries. It is an excellent adhesive. When dry, paint with metallic acrylic paint. Let dry once again and flood with waterproof ink (I used black).  When dry, buff it back.   I used 3D fabric liners as well to create lines and dots, then added glass buttons as well. Use your imagination and have fun!


The painting below is my very first collage attempt, back in the 1970s.  I called it “Peace Voyage” since a boat like shape appeared along with a white dove. By the laws of gravitation, it led me to 3 wonderful women artist friends at that time.

Nature give us the most beautiful abstract and semi-abstract patterns…just look at the interesting flat patterns to be found in shadows


Next are some I have photographed in the rocks, water and trees.  I tweaked them a bit with my paint program on the computer to make them look more “painterly”…


Some of us are more “right brained” than others.  For example, because of my solitary childhood, I had ample time to dream and imagine through play and therefore exercised my creative side fully – whereas if I had grown up with other children I would have been stronger in my left brain activity through relating and interaction with them.  This of course, like everything, has plusses and minuses but in my case, I am very grateful that it led me to creativity through art.  Here are some more of Nature’s patterns that lean towards abstraction.   Just relax and enjoy them for their colour, texture, shape, line and feeling…


When the logical side of our brain comes up against something it cannot name, such as the content of an abstract painting,  a natural initial rejection takes place and a little voice pipes up in our head “What is it?  I can’t recognise anything I can name, so let’s move on.  It bores me.”   Has that been your reaction?

However, after a short time the logical side of the brain gives up, allowing the right side to take over, relax and explore. This is the creative side essential for expression through art, music, drama and dance.  Rather than needing to label and name things, this side perceives patterns, relationships between shapes, musical sounds, expressive movements etc.  It senses mood and atmosphere, and often evokes past memories of similar experiences, giving us nostalgic feelings.

This is the side that senses the body language of someone talking to you while the right side of the brain is busy deciphering their words.  Because such observations are “nameless”, we tend to describe them as “gut feelings” or “intuition”.


We certainly, I believe, are more contented and balanced when we exercise both sides of our brain well. Giving the right creative side a chance to come into play relieves the stress that can build up when the logical side has been working hard.  That is why a walk in the sunshine, “stopping to smell the roses” is so beneficial…just allowing ourselves to “be in the now” and observe life around us.  Creating artwork puts us in this mode and it becomes a creative adventure that enhances our appreciation of everything around us.  It is this appreciation that I see as the chief benefit in creativity of this kind.

If you would like to venture into abstract painting but can’t quite seem to let go and try it, perhaps try putting away your brushes and try new methods such as the ones demonstrated in this Youtube:-


Another example would be:   To play music, we need to use both sides of our brain.  The logical memory applied to the learning of scales and reading written music blends with the feeling side so that we can express our emotions when playing the melody.   We can tell the difference if someone is playing music learned strictly by rote as against someone expressing themselves through their instrument – and this of course includes the miraculous instrument we are born with – our voice.


My personal approach has often been that of the SEMI-ABSTRACT – recognisable but imaginative. This is a happy medium to me.  Here are a few examples of my own efforts to portray something more interesting than a photographic image.  Playing with line, shape and illusory glazes is such fun!



OK – did you enjoy this post?  Did it make any sense to you?  Have you anything to add?  I just felt that abstract artwork needed a bit more understanding … however like me, I’m sure you will sense when paintings are just gimmicks and those that are done with sincerity. I guess if they evoke an emotion in you, even a negative emotion, they have succeeded in conveying something from the artist to the viewer – however personally, I feel there is enough negativity in the world without adding to it – therefore I prefer to focus on the uplifting, beautiful or humorous.   How do you feel about art content?

There is an excellent book that came out many years ago called “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards.  It has great exercises and explanations relating to the “way of seeing” that is necessary for people to be able to draw.  In essence, it retrains the brain to stop naming and giving information about the subject matter and allows the drawing hand to connect with and draw what is actually seen.

I hope you have found some food for thought in all this….please share your thoughts via comments if you wish – I’m sure we would all appreciate sharing ideas about this puzzling subject.

Cheers,   Julie

PS  A few more of my own semi-abstracts over the years to finish up with:




  1. Well, Dear Julie,
    Once again you have opened my eyes, my mind and my heart in such a way that it feels as though I might explode! Who would ever have guessed that there is more to abstract painting than a need to hide it in a corner. Like many others I’ve looked upon it as a waste of time, and the works of those who had no idea about what art is — and in fact the shoe is on the other foot — for I’m the one who has been hiding in the corner and not allowing the light to flow in.

    Looking at your paintings above I’m almost blown away by the beauty in them, the reason for them, and the mystical flowing, which, before your explanations I would probably have just passed by with a grunt. I must add though that your colours would stop anyone in their tracks and cause them to have a second and third look. With each post on this website I am blown away by the many diverse styles of your work, and each with a meaning and a beauty to it.

    Thank you for awakening in me the urge to get out there and paint from within and not be so concerned about rules.
    Again I am thanking you for your generosity in laying before us all this wealth of information and help. Blessings to you, Julie, I hope you live forever! 🙂

    • I hope you do get to enjoy abstracts Robyne. I think it is where we learn more about our inner self – likes, dislikes, preferences etc. I am enjoying it at the moment through needle felting which offers wonderful textural dimensions. Enjoy all you do Robyne!

  2. Hi,julle I really like your abstract painting.i am not learnt artist but I like to paint. I got tips how to creat abstract painting.

    • Abstract painting is a wonderful place to be in! I am enjoying waterproof inks on yupo paper. Must put up a post or Youtube on it soon. It’s painting along with nature and getting amazing effects. I’m hooked!

  3. Thank you Julie! Ditto Jan’s reply–she said everything I wanted to say. I took an abstract class once & found your presentation so much easier to get–thank you!
    I do semi-abstract work & listen to mystery stories so my left brain is completely engaged– it works for me because that leaves my right brain free to indulge in wonderful colors & shapes. i even do this when I do representational work. If I need to work on composition, perspective or something logical, I turn off the tape or CD & work quietly, letting my left brain do all the work. If I want to paint a purely abstract piece I will put on a favorite bit of music & go for it. Loved your work–it also felt spiritual.
    Thanks again! Love, Alice

    • Wow! Thanks Alice! We are sisters in creativity. Go with the flow! Julie

  4. Hello and thank you for sharing .I really enjoyed looking on this and other topic sites . Your work is so varied and it is a delight to see such responses .My art class is at present been out painting around a beach estuary . I am trying to move in and out of the landscape to find the magic as we play with limited palettes. Regards Penny.

    • Hi Penny – Thank you for sharing and best wishes to all in your class as you all discover the unfolding joys of creative painting. Julie

  5. I found your site on google and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work.

  6. Hi Julie, This post is truly marvellous. I’ve enjoyed it so much! You’ve explained the abstract concept so well, I’m sure anyone reading your words will seek out more abstract paintings to “feel” their effects. The site loaded very quickly with all images so beautiful. You really are an inspiration to all who have the desire to create. Love Jan

    • Thankyou Jan…It is wonderful to know others are enjoying opening up to new says of seeing and feeling the world around us, and so nice to share these experiences.

  7. Thanks Candace. Hopefully I am now directing people in how to load only the posts they are interested in, 1 at a time. Should help. Julie

  8. love your images, took quite awhile to load but worth the wait. candace

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