How to Make an Easy Abstract Painting Using String and Oil Crayons

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In this exercise, you will learn how to make a beautiful abstract painting using the string exercise as a starter, see my post “Be Random – Make and Easy String Painting

In the above post you will see where to stop the process and continue here with this exercise.

Allow 2 hours for this exercise. Find a quiet place, set time aside for yourself, just relax and enjoy the process.  To be unconcerned about the outcome will bring out your best work.

You will need:

  • good quality watercolour paper, at least 180gsm
  • a box of oil crayons (childrens’ quality is okay)
  • an inexpensive set of watercolour tubes, (you can make all the colours you need with red, yellow, blue, black and white)
  • rags for spills
  • a container for water
  • a palette, (I used an old kitchen plate)
  • a large brush (I used a new household paint brush)
  • string
  • acrylic paints, (red, yellow, blue, black.)
  • a board and tape if you have them, this is helpful but optional only
  • scissors
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This is similar to what you will start off with. I actually pressed the string a second time with this one using a lot more paint on the second application.  I did not pull the string through as with the first pressing,  I just laid the string down, pressed it and lifted the paper off. Make sure to allow the string pressings to thoroughly dry before proceeding.  This should take from 15 to 30 minutes depending on the weather.

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Proceed to colour in the shapes using oil pastels. Try to choose either red, green and yellow, OR blue, yellow and green.   See if you can isolate some shapes (in this case I imagined  fruit, cut oranges or similar.)  If you can see shapes, colour them in and in some places go over the original colour with another to make it interesting.  In the background follow the lines made by the string using parallel strokes every which way and that.  Try to leave lots of white space if you can.  This is called “repetition with variation”,  a very powerful tool when making art.

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Continue to colour in the work and you will notice it start to look interesting.  Make sure you leave lots of white spaces for the surprise step that comes next!

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Next, absolutely flood the paper with a watery watercolour paint mix (see image below.) To make a watery wash see below * Remember it is not wise use paint out of the tube directly, always make sure there very small amounts of the other primaries e.g. red, yellow and blue to make a beautiful tertiary colour.  It seems best to  choose your wash colour as the opposite of the main colour you used in the isolated shapes. For example, if you have used mainly yellow in the isolated shapes, the opposite is purple, mainly orange, the opposite is blue, mainly red, the opposite is green and vice versa.

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Here is the finished work!  See how the oil pastel marks have resisted the water colour to make a lovely abstract painting.  In the right frame with a colourful matt board this work could possibly look fantastic! :

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This image shows how to use horizontal strokes to flood the paper using a large brush.  Make sure to always put the wash down and leave it!  It is best to let the paint run in its own way.  Then magic happens!

* To make a watery wash blend about 1/2 cup of water with small amounts of pigment. You may need to use a small flat plastic bowl for this.   Always test on a piece of paper first to check the colour.

How did you go?  Did you have fun and enjoy the process?  Inbox me your work if you like at  I would love to see it!


An Easy Exercise with Oil Crayons after Modigliani

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Modigliani was an Italian painter who painted mainly in France during the 1920’s.   He was a figurative painter who was known for his modern style.  His style was characterized by mask-like faces and elongation of form. Sadly, he died at age 35 from meningitis caused by poverty, overwork and addiction to alcohol and narcotics.

Here is a simple way to copy the unmistakable style of Modigliani using oil crayons, baby oil and a pencil.

Allow 1 ½ hours for this exercise.

You will need:

  • 1 set of oil crayons (these are usually inexpensive)
  • 1 A3 size piece of good quality paper which will take some heavy duty “crayoning” (you can use a smaller piece of paper if you wish.)
  • 1 bottle of baby oil (I used coconut oil.)
  • 1 6B graphite pencil
  • A clean rag or disposable kitchen cloth.
  • A picture to copy from.  It is best to use a person with their neck and shoulders visible in the snapshot.  Great photos are obtainable from with no restrictions on copying.
  • 1 medium sized paint brush (watercolour brushes are good)

In true Zen style, you will approach this exercise with no purpose in mind; you are doing it for the fun of it, the joy of it.  If you can let go and enjoy the process, you will be surprised at the result.

Step 1

Tape your paper to a board (optional).

Taping the Board

Step 2

Loosely draw in the figure with a black oil crayon. Make sure to show the head, shoulders and clothing.  The more elongated the face and neck the more like a Modigliani your work will be.

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Step 3

Fill in all over the drawing with light coloured crayon.  I had only a dull orange so went over it again with white.  Don’t worry about staying within the lines, just colour over everything.  The grey smudges will add life to the work.

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Step 4

Select your colours and place them out of the box.  To obtain colour harmony it is best to restrict yourself to either:

You may use various tones of these colours so get out all the reds, all the greens, black and white or all the yellow/oranges, all the blues, black and white.

Colour the shapes with the selected colours.  Go over them again with another colour to blend and make interesting shades.  Go over the colours a third time to make sure there is a thick coating of oil crayon.  The more oil crayon on the paper the more the work will look like an oil painting.

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Step 5

Paint the baby oil on all sections of the drawing.  Make sure to wipe your brush clean with a kitchen cloth before painting over a new section. This will help to avoid “muddiness” of colours.

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Step 6

Draw in the outlines again with your 6B pencil to sharpen up the image.   Make it nice and dark and keep your marks loose.  You may wish to hold the pencil by the tip to loosen up.  Don’t worry if you go outside the lines.  That’s what makes a loose authentic picture drawn by a unique person – you!

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In the end, I thought my painting made the girl look too pretty.  If you research Modigliani’s work, you will see the elongation much more pronounced and the faces more mask like.

Here is a portrait done by Modigliani for you to compare your work with.


A Few Facts About Oils

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Oils have a quite unjustified reputation for being difficult so I will detail a few tips that may change your mind!  At the end of the post you will find a great link to help you preserve your masterpieces.

  • Oils are the most forgiving of all the painting media.
  • Oils dry very slowly and give you plenty of time to think about your approach.
  • You can easily rework the paint if you change your mind.
  • Oil-painting is less technique led than say, watercolour.
  • Right from the start, a would-be artist can produce pleasing images with a richness and depth of colour unmatched by any other medium.
  • With tube paints, the pigment is held in an oil-binding medium, usually linseed oil.
  • Paint from the tube can be thinned down with solvent, (preferably the odourless variety) turps or a mixture of either with linseed oil.  (I do not use turps due to its toxicity.  I thin my tube paint down with either linseed, walnut or safflower oils only.)  The choice is yours.
  • Various effects can be obtained by thinning down the paint or using it fresh from the tube. Other types of thinners are available at art shops. Odourless thinners seem to be most popular with artists nowadays.
  • Work can be built up in a succession of thin layers or applied directly as thick dabs of buttery, creamy, textured colour.
  • Paint surfaces can end up either smooth and glossy or thickly encrusted with swirling paint.  Australian artist Ben Quilty shows us great examples of the latter style in his work.
  • Oil paints can be used on hardboard, canvas boards, stretched canvas and paper.

With the above work, I chose to paint the goup in oils and in a Sfumato style. I thinned down the paint and applied probably 6 or 7 layers allowing the work to dry for a couple of days between each.  It took ages!

“Sfumato” is an Italian word meaning “to evaporate like smoke”.  The Mona Lisa was done in this style. There are no harsh outlines with areas of different colours blending together.

The following site is a great reference on how to preserve your oil paintings:

Secret Artists’ Business – How to Paint in Oils Without Toxicity

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Would you believe I did this oil painting with no linseed oil, no solvents, no mediums of any sort and no tube paints?

Yes, it’s true.  It is possible to paint in oils without breathing in any fumes and if the room is not well ventilated, that’s okay too.  I will explain…

The most toxic thing about oil painting is the linseed oil.  Nobody tells you this and because it is a natural substance, everybody thinks it is not toxic.  The fumes from it are harmful and skin rashes are common. I have been made very aware of this by having a blinding headache and feeling fatigued after using linseed oil.  I solved the problem by inventing my own way of painting in oils.  I will explain my process.

Firstly, I purchased powdered pigments from Blick Art Materials,  I ordered a warm and a cool of each primary colour plus one black and one white. You will find them under the letter “P” for pigments. I chose the Sennelier brand because the pigments are rich with a great depth of colour.  Blick Art Materials were great to deal with and the parcel arrived very quickly.

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Next, I purchased a bottle of safflower oil.  I tried to find food grade but could only find organic but this is not necessary.

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Next I put a small amount of the powdered pigment on my palette and mixed it with the safflower oil.  I made a runny consistency to start the painting off.

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Mix it well to take out the small lumps that will appear. The rule of fat over lean must apply as with oil painting generally.

Next I applied the paint.  Make sure you mix the powdered pigment and oil together well otherwise it will become clumpy.

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Next I rubbed back the paint into the canvas with a cloth in the Sfumato style which I like.  You don’t have to do this but make sure the paint is very lean for the first and subsequent coats.  You can use thicker paint as the work progresses.

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Don’t forget to clean your brushes with Eucalyptus Oil as per my post in the “Way to a Non-Toxic Studio” category.

Here is a picture of another work completed in this way. The drying time takes a little longer than traditional oil painting depending on the thickness of the paint although this can be a good thing.

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Cleaning up is a piece of cake. There is no need for turps or solvents or any kind.  I sometimes use a disposable palette but mostly glass plates from my kitchen to mix colours.  As there is only oil and pigment on the palette, just wipe the plate clean with a disposable kitchen towel.  Easy!

To clean your brushes refer to my previous tutorial on how to do this in a clean non-toxic way.

PS Always use a mask when blending powder pigments.  They are not the best when inhaled and the powder sometimes floats in the air when you cannot see it.

How to Clean Oil Paint Brushes Naturally

In this lesson, I will show you a fantastic non-toxic way to clean oil paint brushes.

Bristle brushes are used for oil painting and are rather inexpensive.  Many artists toss the brushes out after a few uses.  However, cleaning the brushes is easy, especially when no chemicals are involved.  Here is the process.

Wipe all excess paint off the brush with a disposable kitchen cloth.

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Grind the brush into some newspaper, a paper towel or something disposable.  Make sure you get right down to the base of the bristles to remove as much paint as possible.  Wipe clean with a disposable kitchen cloth.

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Stand the brushes in a jar with Eucalyptus Oil over night.  I use a water soluble solution which I obtain very cheaply from the supermarket.

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Repeat the above process again, wiping the brush, grinding it into the paper towel and standing in the Eucalyptus Oil over night.

The next day, wash the brushes in hot water using pure soap and voila!… they are like new again.

Tip: If you are in a hurry to use the brushes you can skip the second overnight soak in the Eucalyptus oil if you wish.  However there will still be a small amount of paint in the brushes.

How to Prepare a Canvas Using Your Own Gesso Primer

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Photo courtesy

If you want your work to last, it is wise to prime your canvas first because oil paint will eventually rot an unprimed canvas.  I recommend priming with Gesso when using all mediums including watercolour.  It is possible to use watercolour on a primed canvas as per my post, “A Few Facts About Watercolour.”

Firstly, hold your canvas under warm running water.  Using pure soap (Sunlight or similar works well), lather up a soft and gentle scrubber (old ones are good) and wash the canvas down thoroughly with the soap and water.  This removes the sizing and starts you off with a “clean slate” so to speak.

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Rinse until water becomes clear then dry off the canvas using an old towel.

Once dry, go ahead and cover the surface with Gesso primer.  You may use the Atelier brand which leaves a lovely chalky finish.  If you like, you may make your own Gesso (which is just as good and much cheaper) with the recipe below.

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Leave the canvas to dry, preferably outside.  This should take about 45 minutes depending on the strength of the sunlight. If there is no sun where you are, a hair dryer will do the job.  When dry, softly sand the canvas down with a very fine sand paper and wipe clean with the old towel.  I usually prime, sand down and wipe off three times to make the perfect chalky finish for drawing and painting. Don’t forget to allow your primed canvas to dry completely before sanding each time.

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This process prepares a fantastic surface to work on and I recommend leaving it for at least 24 hours to set. If I am feeling keen or perhaps doing a commission, I prime the reverse of the canvas too but this is entirely your own choice.

This is a lovely relaxing preparation and sets the tone for wonderful things to come.  I urge you to go slowly with this, smile, breathe deeply and concentrate only on the task in true Zen-like fashion. If you love your canvas, your canvas will love you and that is the start of developing a wonderful synergy with your upcoming work.

My Own Gesso Recipe

Most of this stuff you will have on hand at home so it is easy and quick to make your own Gesso primer. To make the primer you need a pigment, a binder and a tooth.

You will need to put one cup of warm water in a bowl, add one cup of glue, one cup of baby powder and a cup or so of left over paint.   This will make a syrup consistency.  If you want yours to give better coverage, use more pigment.  Usually, equal amounts of everything makes a perfect mix.  It is best to test first for coverage and drying time.  This dries fast!

When storing, rotate the sealed storage jar every now and then to keep the even syrupy consistency of the mix.