Techniques and materials in abstract painting

The first truly abstract paintings were developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in Paris between 1912 and 1914. Called Cubism, the movement was a new way of merging objects and figures into geometric planes. Picasso and Braque developed new methods, introducing real elements such as newspapers into their paintings by sticking them directly onto the surface. This became known as collage and is now a recognised artistic process.

Inspired by Cubism, abstract artists in Europe and especially the United States developed experimental approaches to techniques and materials. Although these artists were very conscious of their place in history, they produced artworks that would not necessarily stand the test of time. Winsor & Newton's resident artist, Matthew Gibson, looks at the development of abstract art and its impact on contemporary artists.

Gerhard Richter, January, 1989, oil on canvas
Gerhard Richter, January, 1989, oil on canvas, 320x400cm Saint Louis Art Museum, Funds given by Mr. and Mrs. James E. Schneithorst, Mrs. Henry L. Freund, and the Henry L. and Natalie Edison Freund Charitable Trust; and Alice P. Francis, by exchange 28:1990 a,b © Gerhard Richter


The political energy of early 1920s revolutionary Russia had a brief flowering in the abstract art movement known as Constructivism. Following Vladimir Tatlin's slogan "Art into life", constructivists used print and design methods such as typography to widely distribute their art works. Cubist-inspired constructivism created a revolutionary new language of art for everyone, because abstract art did not depend on the literary and classical references necessary to understand 19th century "salon" art.

Abstraction's history took a different course in the United States. Championed by art critic Clement Greenberg, "Art for art's sake" painting had little connection with life and was concerned primarily with what paintings were made of. According to him, modern painting began with Edouard Manet, then gradually refined itself through a series of movements including Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Cubism.

In post-Second World War America, Greenberg was the first to publicly support Jackson Pollock, who famously dripped and poured household paints onto his canvases to achieve an, "all-over" effect. Helen Frankenthaler thinned oil paint with turpentine and used it to "stain" unprimed canvas. In 1959, Frank Stella exhibited his "black paintings", made by systematically applying household paint in bland stripes the width of his brush, leaving a thin "pinstripe" line between the marks. The techniques and materials used to make these paintings drew attention to "flatness" and the rectangular shape of the canvas, enforcing Greenberg's idea of modern painting.

These famous artists made their work with an awareness of securing their place in the history of art. A question that remains is how this work will stand the test of time for subsequent generations. Newsprint will yellow, household paints will fade and crumble over time, and unprimed canvas will be eaten away by turpentine – which may affect the reputation of these artists in the future.

movie trailer Gerhard Richter Painting


Contemporary artists such as the painter Gerhard Richter are critical of modernist abstraction. He sees his work as "an assault on the falsity and religiosity of the way people glorified abstraction, with such phoney reverence".

Gerhard Richter used innovative abstract techniques but learnt the lessons of the past and made his paintings last. In the late Eighties, Richter started a series of large abstract paintings with – surprisingly – super-realist under painting. This layer was thinly painted and then allowed to dry over weeks. Richter's assistants prepared his oil paint, which was sieved through muslin to remove any last lumps of pigment. Unconventionally, Richter worked an oversized squeegee, a length of Perspex encased in wood, across or up and down the painting, smearing and unevenly spreading the paint, and drowning the careful painting underneath. This layer dried for a few weeks before another was worked on top. Once tacky, he cut out sections of the top layer to reveal the undisturbed under layer and then worked into the painting with the end of a brush or knife. It says a lot about Richter's knowledge of the properties of paint that there are very few drying cracks in such thick painting paint; he layered the paint correctly with slow-drying pigments over fast, using fat over lean principles.

Contemporary abstract artist Barbara Nicholls has been working closely with Winsor & Newton to produce paintings using Winsor & Newton Artists' Watercolour (now called Professional Watercolour). Nicholls applies pools of watercolour to paper and allows them to spread and intermix naturally, leaving border residues of pigment as they dry that are similar in character to the formations found in the geology and maps that so interest her. Nicholls discovered through this process that each colour had certain properties, affecting the way paints flowed into each other. Quinacridone and perylene based pigments have light particle weight and therefore spread and intermix easily, whereas cobalts, for example, are heavy and "sit" on the paper. This knowledge of materials allows her to exploit the properties of different pigments to achieve stunning effects in her abstract works.

Barbara Nichols

Barbara Nichols
Barbara Nichols

Barbara Nichols

Barbara Nicholls
Barbara Nicholls
Barbara Nicholls Art
Barbara Nicholls




The Indiscipline of Painting, Tate St Ives (catalogue) 2012. Daniel Sturgis, Terry R. Myers and others

Gerhard Richter, Panorama, Tate modern (catalogue) 2011. Achim Borchardt-Hume and others.

Mark Godfrey in conversation with Rachel Barker, Tate Gallery blog, 9 December, 2011