Abstract Painting and Collage

Abstract Painting and Collage

Permanent Collection artist George McNeil enjoyed making abstract paintings inspired by people and things he observed in his surroundings. Later in his career, McNeil liked to experiment with his brightly colored paintings by adding other materials like sand or fabric for texture. To create an abstracted painting inspired by McNeil, try using materials like sand or dirt, dry rice, egg shells, flour or tissue paper to add texture to your own abstract painting in the style of George McNeil. This activity is a little more advanced (teen artists), but can be adapted easily for younger artists. If you're having trouble getting your textured materials to stick, try mixing a little liquid glue with your paint. Playful imagery and bright colors encouraged! 

Materials needed for this project:  

  • Acrylic paint 
  • Brushes of all sizes 

  • Canvas or cardboard painting surface 

  • Found materials (ex. sand, dirt, dry rice, egg shells, flour tissue paper, fabric, etc.)  

  • Drawing tools (ex. crayons, markers, chalk, charcoal, pencil, etc.)

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George McNeil, Who Knows?, 1990. Oil on canvas, 78 x 64 inches.  Gift of the George McNeil Charitable Trust, 2017.05.01

Start by painting your selected surface (I cut a cardboard box in half) and use white paint to prime it. This ensures that your colors will appear nice and bright. Also, if you want to paint a face, it is useful to set up a mirror as a reference. Once you've allowed your coat of white to dry, start by laying down colors and shapes. I used a neutral color as a base for the face, then used red paint for the mouth and a couple accent lines. I was inspired by the shape of my cardboard painting surface and decided to create a human-faced butterfly (again, playful imagery is encouraged). Feel inspired by the shape of your surface, the colors you have on hand, the textured materials you collected and any fun objects in your house when starting your painting. Also, don't be afraid to make big moves  or strokes at the beginning. If you don't like what you've done, you can always cover it later on! 


Instead of just painting color on the face, I decided to use tissue paper to add color and texture. I chose pink tissue paper for the cheeks and secured it to the cardboard with a bit of red paint underneath. I also added the pink tissue paper to the throat / body area. Tip: if you're not sure what to do next, try repeating whatever technique you just did in a different area of the painting. You'll see that I do this a lot. It's very helpful in developing your abstract work. 

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I then mixed a light blue by adding white to a primary blue and added that to the wings and background near the face. I also added yellow to the bottom part of my background to make that light blue pop. George McNeil uses a lot of color in his paintings, so experiment by mixing colors and putting certain colors side by side. Again, if you don't like it, you can always cover it up! I also added primary blue to the brow area, some black to outline and add detail to the face and body (McNeil likes to use outline), and secured lime green tissue paper to my wet yellow paint.  


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Using a plastic knife, I added more texture to my painting by scraping a vibrant green paint across the top to create some hair. I also used the same method on one wing with a red-orange color. That red-orange was also applied with a brush to the body of my butterfly and the other top wing. I then added more pink tissue paper to the body, taking one section and folding it like an accordion to create a segmented effect, much like the body of a butterfly. I also thought that the eyes might look nice with the light blue painted over them. This helped to balance the color, too. 

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At this point, I abandoned my dry rice, deciding that it just didn't work with what I had going on. Please don't hesitate to use yours, though, if you feel differently! Instead, I crumpled up some blue tissue paper and secured it to my wet dark green paint. I thought that it resembled flowers only after I put the paper down. See how experimentation can turn out nicely! 

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I then used a small cup to stamp yellow rings on the wings, and with excess paint on the glass, I came up with the idea to roll it off, creating lines on random parts of the painting. I thought that this could resemble rain. Take this time to apply more paint in unconventional ways. Maybe you have some bubble wrap laying around that you could use as a stamp? 

While allowing my piece to dry, I gathered up some old drawing materials like oil pastels (crayons also work) and chalk pastels (replacement: sidewalk chalk). With a blue oil pastel, I added antenna-like lashes to the face. I also added some shading to the body with the same blue oil pastel for the sake of continuity.  Using white chalk pastel, I shaded the inside of the wings' yellow rings, using my finger to smear the chalk. I also used a light blue chalk pastel to create gestural flower petals around the crumpled blue tissue paper. Take this time to add whatever finishing details you see fit. Shading with drawing tools over paint is always a good idea, in my opinion! 

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In the end, I added teeth, dots to the middles of the bottom rings and some line work on the face. Here is my completed piece, hung on the wall for all to see! I realize that it probably isn't as abstract as George McNeil's work, but that's okay! No matter how it turns out, you still drew from the influences of the artist and created something of your own!  

We want to see your artwork! Post a photo of your work on Instagram and tag us @mocajax or #mocajax. We are working on building a gallery of smART online creations, and would love to include your art.