How to Draw an Abstract Drawing

(Abstract Still Life Drawing from Nature)

by Damian Osborne





Herewith is another post by popular demand! Let’s get abstract! Woooo! What shall we abstract from this?

Well, in this post I try to answer some abstract questions.

You know, the kind of questions you have while sitting on the loo staring at the abstract patterns on the bathroom floor?

What is abstract drawing? What is automatic drawing? What are the benefits of doodling? The role of abstract art? Abstract realism etc.

Why is abstract art good for your brain?

Please check out the video. Maybe you’ll feel inspired to try some fun abstract stuff yourself.

If you like, please comment and share the blog or video.


What is abstract drawing?

Abstract drawing is the opposite of realistic drawing, in that its aim is to veer away from pure representational art and instead focus more on expression and mood, mark-making, patterns and shapes, rhythms and tones, improvisations and the imaginary.


abstract drawing nature, still life pen drawing of flowers and leaves by Damian Osborne
Abstract still life pen drawing of flowers and leaves.


What is the point of abstract drawing exercises?

Nature is a wonderful source of abstract shapes, geometric designs and patterns. I found some interesting-looking succulents, stones and wood from the garden, and set them up on a table for my art students. 

When we are learning to draw, our compulsion is to try and get all the exact details of the subject before us.

Perhaps it is our conditioning by the photographic image in our culture, that makes us believe artwork should be as close to a photograph as possible. 

This is, of course, total nonsense. 

A photograph is in no way an accurate representation of reality.

In fact, how can reality be represented accurately? There is no such thing. 

Thus the purpose of drawing abstractly is to free oneself from slavishly copying.

And to focus instead on expression, on movement, on rhythm, on using our imagination, on manipulating and mastering the actual drawing medium, and above all — to let go and have fun. 


abstract drawing nature, still life charcoal drawing leaves and grasses by Damian Osborne
Abstract still life charcoal drawing, leaves and grasses.


abstract drawing nature, still life charcoal drawing of succulents by Damian Osborne
Abstract still life charcoal drawing of succulents.


Why is doodling important?

Doodling is a fun exercise that we often do absentmindedly — especially while chatting on the phone. Most kids draw doodles all the time, while bored in class, or on the furniture.

I didn’t understand the concept of colouring-in within the lines of my colouring books as a child.

The point is: there are no rules when it comes to doodling. And scientists and psychologists have written many articles on doodling and brain development in children.

Doodling is important because it allows the mind to wander and the unconscious to bring up images. This can be an inspiration for your art. 

It’s a pleasure to not have to worry about making a drawing look ‘perfect’.


Doodle by Luise von Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Queen of Prussia, c. 1795
Doodle by Luise von Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Queen of Prussia, c. 1795.


What are the benefits of doodling?

• It promotes spontaneity and freedom from limited A-type thinking.

• It silences the over-analytical mind because it becomes a kind of meditation.

• Allows you to tap into your subconscious. 

• Doodling is a great stress-reliever in adults.

• And it stimulates our creativity. 

• Free associative thinking allows our minds the space to conjure new concepts naturally.

• Doodling fosters design and composition ideas and encourages us to explore the medium we’re drawing with in different ways. 

• It promotes improvisation.

• There is no problem to solve.

• You can take a break from trying to do perfect or be perfect.

• Doodling is fun.


Abstract automatic drawing Damian Osborne
Abstract automatic drawing I did making random marks and squiggles. If you squint your eyes, maybe you can see a hedgehog?


What is automatic drawing?

Automatic drawing is a bit like doodling where you allow yourself to make completely random and spontaneous marks without premeditated intention.

This is a fascinating meditation. And it’s surprising what comes up.

Automatic drawing allows subconscious expression and suppresses the controlling, rational mind, thus freeing up our purest forms of creativity.  

Automatic drawing is inherently abstract drawing, as its purpose is not to represent anything particular. Usually what emerges from the exercise is our own natural design, line or pattern making.

I call it one’s personal calligraphy.  And of course, it is 100% unique to each of us.

Tapping into one’s personal calligraphy is quite revealing. Just as a person’s handwriting tells us something about the writer.


Abstract automatic drawing graphite spirals Damian Osborne
Abstract automatic drawing graphite spirals and squiggles.


Doing little doodling or automatic drawing exercises is great for loosening up and exploring one’s natural line making. It shows up one’s inherent drawing style or ‘programming’.

And for manipulating and exploring the drawing medium itself.

It’s a very tactile and non-cerebral exercise.

If you don’t draw every day, it can help you to ‘limber up’ and quickly get back the tangible feeling of drawing again.  Like driving a car again when you haven’t driven in a few months. 

It’s good to do before a figure drawing class or an art lesson. 

Automatic drawing was an important element of the Surrealist Movement and Abstract Expressionism. For further reading, see Astonishing Examples of Automatic Drawing by Widewalls. 


Jean Arp_automatic-drawing
Jean Arp, 1916, automatic drawing.


Death of the Idea, Paul Klee (1915)
Death of the Idea, Paul Klee (1915).


What is abstract realism?

Abstract realism is in the middle of the spectrum between completely non-objective, non-perspective, spontaneous or random mark-making, through to realism.

It is the creation of an abstract design or pattern based on real-life objects and inspired by objective reality. 

Abstract realism is popular in contemporary art and ranges from the trite ‘drip’ face paintings that are so commonplace to the emotive figure and portrait paintings of Andrew Salgado, Zoey Frank, Micheal McCaffrey, Alyssa MonksCecily Brown, Yunsung Jang, Martin Campos and many others.

Older well-known abstract realists include Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Chuck Close, Leon Kossoff, Gerhard Richter etc.

These artists vary the scale between abstraction and realism, creating artworks that merge the two opposites together. 

Abstract realism is a truly expressive art style that is not governed by the rules of linear perspective, space, tone or colour accuracy, proportion or accurately depicting a subject. 

Instead, the aims are expressiveness and emotion, the way it is painted, rather than the subject itself, ambiguity, and a distortion of reality in order to convey a feeling, intention or personal viewpoint.

Although, aspects within the artwork are still barely recognizable as everyday things such as figures, landscapes or objects. 

How recognizable or ambiguous these recognizable features are is the choice of the artist. 

A completely abstract painting departs even further from distinguishable elements. 


How do you draw an abstract still life drawing?

By using the plants, wood and stones I gathered for the abstract drawing exercise, we were able to explore the range between representational drawing through to pure abstraction — such as automatic drawings and scribbles. 

Abstract realism is art that is both abstract and realistic. We are able to ‘decipher’ certain shapes or patterns in the abstract design that indicate or remind us of certain realistic elements. 


abstract drawing nature, still life drawing with aloe and Cotyledon orbiculata Damian Osborne
Abstract still life drawing with aloe and Cotyledon orbiculata.


For example, I particularly like drawing the hooked-tooth leaves of the aloes and the swirling patterns of the bark, because these designs easily lend themselves to the simplified motifs of decorative shapes and lines.

The aloe thorns become a row of cursive C’s, and the pattern in the bark, a scribble of S’s. 

By not worrying about details, the artist can emphasise the overall design or compositional aspects of the still life. As well as the gestural elements — motion, rhythm and movement.

The textures, line quality, and expressiveness of the mark-making, its weight, spatial qualities, balance, and tone, form the aesthetic nucleus of the artwork. 


abstract drawing nature, still life charcoal drawing of succulents, wood and stones by Damian Osborne
Abstract still life charcoal drawing of succulents, wood and stones.


How are artists inspired by abstract patterns in nature?

We know, of course, that abstract patterns are found everywhere in nature and in the world. You need only look at the patterns in wood grain, in clouds, water, the bathroom floor, sand dunes, animal skins, plants, snowflakes, crystals, cells — everywhere. 

Types of patterns can be spirals, fractals, symmetries, meanders, waves, bubbles, spots and stripes, cracks, and tessellations.


Wave patterns on the ocean.


These natural patterns may have obvious mathematical ratios such as the Fibonacci Sequence or the Golden Mean. 

Nature is an inexhaustible source of inspiration for abstract art.

From the earliest cave paintings and Paleolithic carvings, nature and natural forms such as figures and animals, have always inspired the creation of abstract artworks. 


Lascaux paintings.


Having an aesthetic appreciation for abstract art and for the patterns in nature opens you up to see the world in a uniquely rich, ever new and continuously fulfilling way.  

As Picasso said:

There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality.”


Picasso, bull plate V 1945
Picasso, bull plate V 1945. Bull lithograph in the Cubist style of abstract expressionism.


Picasso, an abstract still life, bottle of bass glass and package of tobacco,1914
Picasso, an abstract still life, a bottle of bass glass and a package of tobacco,1914.


Isn’t all art abstract anyway?

A painting or drawing is a representation of reality on a 2-dimensional surface. Thus it is inherently an abstract distortion of reality.

Even a 3-dimensional sculpture can be abstract, in that it is representative or a manipulated facsimile of the object sculptured and not the object itself. 

Therefore it is impossible for artwork not to be abstract. Unless of course, you are speaking of the physical artwork itself — the canvas, the paint, the marble — which itself is real and exists in the world. 

All paintings are abstract. Some abstract paintings also have pictorial representation or narrative content, but in essence, they are first and foremost abstract because we have only paint.”

– Robert Bissett

To abstract means to extract or remove. All artists, whether painters or even photographers, must necessarily abstract from reality in order to create their artwork.

It is the choices that they make within the picture frame which determines the outcome; the colours, design, composition, proportions, focus, etc.

What is excluded from within the picture frame is just as important. And is part of the artist’s intention and expression.

The painter can and must abstract from many details in creating his painting. Every good composition is above all a work of abstraction. All good painters know this. But the painter cannot dispense with subjects altogether without his work suffering impoverishment.”

–Diego Rivera

Abstract also means an idea or a concept that is not tangible or material in existence.

The painting, photograph or sculpture itself may be physical, but the symbolism, the image, the representation, the interpretations, the meaning and feeling of the piece is abstract. 


abstract drawing nature, charcoal still life with wood, rocks and vegetation Damian Osborne
Charcoal still life with wood, rocks and vegetation.


What is the role of the abstract in art?

Abstract art helps us to detach from everyday reality because our brains struggle to categorize what we’re seeing. This may make us feel uncomfortable, or unfettered.

Abstract art may encourage our mind to become activated in a wider sense because it isn’t fixed to a recognizable interpretation.

Therefore, new ideas, emotions, memories, associations and creative paths may be triggered due to the void caused by a lack of definition.

This is a fertile place for the subconscious. Where we create our own meanings, interpretations and feelings. Abstract art speaks to us instinctively.

It cannot be objectively explained. It’s a personal thing.

Abstract art is a way of seeing order and chaos intertwined, from our own subjective viewpoint.

It’s an aesthetic that leaves behind binding conventions and allows us new sensations or perceptions. And a way to imagine unfamiliar realities or encounter ambiguous feelings. 

Few people have imagination enough for reality.”

— Goethe


If you’re looking for meaning through art and want to know what the hell I think makes art good, check out What’s the Point of Art? and tell me what you think. It’s just my little personal take on the matter. 


Please write a comment below if you have any thoughts or questions about abstract drawing. Or if you would like to share an interesting article with me.


Check out some of my figure drawings here. 


Latest posts by Damian Osborne (see all)

6 thoughts on “How to Draw an Abstract Drawing”

  1. Love this Damian. Well done! Have been dabbling in abstract art this past few month – a course given by a local artist. I must say…it has bent my mind!!! As much as I battle with it, I have learned so much…about myself! I’m even enjoying some of it, but I don’t see myself becoming an abstract artist 🙂
    A friend of mine has been doing “blind” painting. The artist is blindfolded & has to feel the object they draw. Haven’t done that one yet!
    Keep up the excellent work. XX

  2. I have recently discovered Bertolt Brecht, do my mind is swirling with alienation theories and 4th wall. I’m applying it to everything I come into contact with, until it’s well ingrained or I forget.! You might find him interesting.
    I love the brave way you tackle Abstract Realism.

  3. Thank you Damian! Very good description of the the whole concept of abstract expressive drawing. I am interested in this type of drawing as art therapy, particularly for grief.
    I find the exercises to be most helpful for expressing emotions that may be latent within a person.

  4. You made a good point that so many kinds of art aren’t perfect representations of what reality is like. I will keep that in mind when assessing abstract art. I plan to find abstract original paintings for sale because I’m planning to start collecting art. Abstract art seems like a good aesthetic to start with.

    1. Thanks for your comment Alice. If you enjoy abstract art and if a particular painting speaks to you, there’s no reason to justify your choices to anyone. I think it’s important to make one’s home beautiful and surround oneself with things you like, not what you think other people will like. Personally, I’m not a great fan of abstract, nor photo-realistic art. I think my personal aesthetic is somewhere in the middle. But letting go of ‘this is better than that’ and yet still having your own personal preference is, I think, quite liberating.
      Best regards and good luck with your collection,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *