What Makes A Good Abstract Painting?

Written by Nicole Nicholas


Posted on December 27 2022

When it comes to evaluating how 'good' a painting is, the criteria for judging a traditional painting is much more straightforward than that of an abstract piece of work. Traditional paintings are typically judged by their accuracy in depicting a certain subject matter. On the other hand, abstract paintings are more commonly judged by their ability to evoke emotion or create a sense of balance or harmony. 

Since an abstract artist doesn't use a literal image, scene, or object to go off, everything they express on the canvas comes from inside of them, directly from their imagination. This is why many people find it difficult to determine whether a piece of abstract art is 'good' or not. There's nothing literal to compare it to. You can't find something in a painting that just isn't there.

The truth is, abstract art is meant to be ambiguous. It's meant to be 'formless' and random and isn't meant to depict anything literal from our reality.

But still, how do you know if an abstract painting is good or bad? 

In this article, we'll explain just that. In the end, my hope is that you'll gain a whole new understanding of this unique style of art.

Here's what we'll cover:

1. What is an abstract painting?

2. What are some essential elements within an abstract painting?

3. How do intangible elements of an abstract painting effect how 'good' it is?

4. An explanation of the the history and significance of abstract works.

Let's get started!


What Is An Abstract Painting?The abstract painting "let go" by Nicole Nicholas. It features white, blue and black paint.

In a nutshell, as was touched on above, an abstract painting is a form of art that does not represent or depict any recognizable objects or scenes. Instead, it relies solely on the use of colours, shapes, and textures to create an emotional response in the viewer. Abstract paintings often have no clear subject matter and are meant to be interpreted by the viewer in whatever way they choose. An abstract art piece can be used to express feelings, ideas, and even stories without showcasing any literal objects to do so.

If you want to learn more about the various forms of abstract art that exist, check out our article, "What is Abstract Art?".


Important Elements Of An Abstract Painting

If abstract artists don't show literal images or scenes from the real world in their paintings, what do they show in their art? Well, there are a multitude of things that professional artists can use to convey what they're looking to convey. For them, it's about creating a visual experience, rather than creating a 'what'.

Here are some elements that abstract painters utilize to create their works of art:

Use Of Colour

This is one of the most important elements in an abstract painting, as colour can be used to evoke certain emotions in a viewer and create a sense of harmony within a piece. Different colours can also be used to create contrast or draw attention to certain areas of the painting.

Whether the artist uses complementary colours, an analogous colour scheme, muted colours, black and white, etc., each unique blend will promote a different response from the viewer. 

Many studies have now been created showing how colour brings up certain emotions in everyday life, in everyday people. For example, warm colours such as red and orange can evoke feelings of passion and energy, while cool colours such as blue and green can evoke feelings of calmness and serenity. Bold, intense colour schemes are known to bring out much more intense emotional responses in viewers than neutral color palettes will.

Blank Space

Blank space is very important in the layout of a painting. It can be used to create a sense of balance and harmony within a piece, as well as to draw attention to certain elements that the artist wants to highlight. By leaving some areas of the canvas blank (using 'negative space'), the artist can emphasize certain shapes or colours that would otherwise be lost in a more crowded composition. Additionally, by using space strategically, the artist can create a sense of depth and movement, if they so choose.

An image of 3 red and yellow chetah style paintingsPattern

Often artists will use patterns (a repetition of elements) in their artwork to create a sense of movement, rhythm, repetition, contrast, symmetry, balance, unity, harmony, visual appeal, etc. Patterns also help us perceive depth.

Adding Texture

Textures are often used to give a painting a sense of realism. Artists often use layers of paint, texture mediums, objects, or other materials to created a 'layered' look within the paint. This causes the piece to 'come alive' and look as if the painting itself is coming off the canvas. Textures enhance the visuals by giving the painting a 3D effect, which adds an entirely new element to the piece of art.

You'll typically only find textures added in from more experienced artists, as it can take time and experience for them to understand how various styles of paint application can effect the outcome of a piece. 


Lines are a great way for an artist to give shape and structure, create focus, and make objects appear three-dimensional. Lines can also be used to separate sections of a painting.

'Dynamic lines' are a unique style that is meant to give the illusion of movement or direction.


Depending on the style of abstraction an artist chooses to create, using shapes and symbols can be a great way to add structure and form to the piece.

Shapes can be geometric, organic, curvilinear, angular, symmetrical, asymmetrical, etc. Symbols are usually abstract representations of ideas, emotions, concepts, etc.


Balance is the relationship between two opposing forces. When there is too much of one force, it becomes unbalanced. Too little of one force also creates an imbalance. Balance is essential and is one of the main principles of art, whether that be in abstract styles of painting or any other art style that exists, it's one of the most important factors in creating harmony within a painting.


Composition is the arrangement of elements within a painting; the way all the parts relate to each other. A strong abstract composition can be created through various compositional elements, such as colour, form, pattern, texture, line, shape, etc.

There are rules of composition that artists can follow to ensure their pieces have a pleasing structure (though some artists choose to throw these rules out the window!). Since abstract art can be anything the artist wants it to be, these rules are more like guidelines than 'official rules', though following them can definitely help the final piece look more visually appealing.

MovementAn image of an abstract painting featuring blue and back.

Movement can be a stand-out, signature element for an artist painting abstract. It can be used to create a sense of energy and dynamism, as well as to draw the viewer’s eye around certain sections of the canvas.

Movement can be achieved through the use of lines, shapes, and colours that lead the eye from one area of the painting to another. This creates a visual journey for the viewer and helps to bring life and emotion into an abstract painting. Additionally, movement can also be used to create a sense of balance within a composition by creating tension between elements or by creating contrast between different parts of the painting.

Splashes are a great example of showing movement within a piece. Think of Jackson Pollock's work or 'action painting'. Anything that captures the movement of paint as it becomes frozen in time via drying on the canvas.


Emphasis can be used to help draw the viewer’s attention to certain parts of a painting, to create a focal point, or highlight certain elements an artist wants to make seen. Emphasis can be achieved through the use of contrast, colour, texture, lines, shapes, size, and placement. For example, an artist may choose to use brighter colours instead of subtle colours, knowing it will help draw the eye to a specific location on the canvas.

Color theory is a major player here, as professional artists are more likely to understand what colours go well together and how to make certain ones 'pop'.


Intangible Elements Of An Abstract Painting

Intangible elements are those that cannot be seen or touched, but can still have a powerful impact on a quality abstract. These elements include emotion, interpretation, and meaning. Here's how how these elements apply:


This represents the feeling(s) a painting evokes in the viewer, and can range from joy to sorrow, anger to peace, etc. A good abstract painting will evoke emotion and should be able to capture a specific feeling or mood and communicate it through the use of color, texture, and composition.

The goal of abstract expressionism is to 'express'. How each individual artist or painting does that will vary greatly, as it's based on a mix of personal process (what the artist is going through in their life) and a creative process (how they express themselves on canvas), which combine to create a uniquely finished piece.

Interpretation by the Viewer

Since abstract art does not depict anything literal, it will easily be interpreted differently by each individual who views it. This means that a painting may be seen as beautiful and meaningful to one person, while another may see it as dull and uninspiring.

The beauty of abstract art lies in:

1. Having no clear subject matter allowing for different interpretations

2. Encouraging creative thinking and imagination


Since abstract art doesn't represent anything literal from our reality, the meaning of each piece comes from within the artist and the viewer. The artist uses this medium to communicate their innermost emotions, thoughts, and experiences in a unique way, which will be interpreted differently by each individual viewer, making it a powerful form of communication, but not a literal one - it's very subjective.

It is up to the viewer to decide what they think the painting means, based on how it makes them feel. This allows for a very personal connection to grow between the viewer and the artwork, as each person will have their own unique interpretation of its meaning.

Through the artist showcasing their unique abstract painting style (via shapes, colors, textures, etc.), they're putting forward a visual representation of something that may otherwise be too complex or intangible to express with words alone.


Understanding The History And Significancean image of Wassily Kandinsky. c 1913

A long and meaningful history lies behind abstract art, providing insight into the motivations and development of how it came to be what it is today.

It is believed that abstract art first emerged in the early 20th century as artists sought to break away from traditional styles of painting. The movement was led by painters such as Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and Kazimir Malevich who were all pioneers in the development of abstract art. These artists sought to explore new ways of expressing their innermost feelings and emotions through their artwork.

Abstract art has evolved ever since, into one of the most popular varieties of modern art today, inspiring many current artists to explore its boundaries.

A big reason for it's popularity is due to what it gives artists - permission to express themselves and explore their inner feelings and ideas without being restricted by the boundaries of reality, which also, inherently gives that same freedom to those viewing their work.




At the end of the day, there's really no code to crack in understanding where an abstract painting is good or bad. There are guidelines, yes, but when it comes down to it, abstract art is purely an expression of what lies within an artist's mind, which is then brought to life and put out to the world for interpretation by those who view it.

Whether someone likes a piece or not doesn't change what it inherently is; we all interpret things differently, but knowing how to properly 'see' an abstract painting can bring a whole new level of appreciation and understanding for this particular art form.

Thanks so much for checking out this article. If you like it, feel free to check out the other Abstract Art articles on my site, found here: Learn About Abstract Art