Abstract Cities

This exercise is about creating abstract designs which balance blocks of subordinate, dominate and accent colours. The designs will be used as covers for guidebooks for 10 cities.

I found a blogpost on Gladworks which was a useful introduction to the theory of colour combinations.


Jason Roberts in his article, ‘Colour – thinking in proportions’, talks about thinking and planning colour use in terms of its relative expansiveness. I took some notes and then experimented with producing simple subdivided colour squares inspired by two photographs I had taken from my travels.




This was a starting point for thinking about and identifying subdominant, dominant and accent colours and seeing how blocks of colour looked next to one another in different proportions. It was interesting to see the different combinations that could be created from one photo.

I then spent some time researching the cities that my designs would be based on and looking at how other artists/designers used block colour in abstract art.

Mark Rothko has been described as a great abstractionist and colourist yet he himself was uneasy with these labels and stated his interest was in expressing human basic human emotions using colour as an instrument. This made me think about trying to use my choice of colour combinations for each city to represent the essence of the emotional/cultural/historical/human elements within it.

I was inspired in the use of accent colours by the work of artist Emerico Imre Toth…. the examples below show a considered use of bolder hues in small splashes to contrast against the neutral background colours.

Megan Duncanson uses blocks of colour in vibrant hues to give her abstract cityscape paintings a very energised quality. I was interested to see how she had used a very varied and large colour palette with success – the balanced of her paintings is good and it was interesting to think about how she had used a lot of bright colours in close proximity yet had managed to avoid a jarring effect visually. I think she has achieved this by using tints and shades of different colours.

Janie Kliever’s article titled ‘100 Brilliant Color Combinations and How to Apply Them to Your Designs’ gives lots of different examples of setting a mood with a particular colour palette and I found it quite inspiring.


I started my designs by focussing on one country and experimenting with different types of abstract ideas. I took a photograph of Marrakech and created very simple blocks of colour based on the different elements in the picture. I then used the colour picker tool in photoshop to choose colours from the photograph to use for my blocks.


I tried initially to limit myself to a palette of three colours and selecting a dominant, subdominant and accent colour. This immediately looked very boring and amateurish so I introduced different tints and shades of my dominant colour – red and subdominant – yellow. I found a very useful website collar.com which takes a colour value and then generates palettes of tints/shades, tones and similar colours.

I then created two designs using shapes that I developed from images connected to the city…. and experimented with two colour schemes with a similar dominant and accent colour but different subdominant. It was interesting to see how much this changed the overall feel of the designs. The first is more modern, vibrant and youthful and the second quite relaxed and elegant.

I had planned to choose my favourite design of the three and create my designs for the other cities in the same style. I started with Manchester and sketched some simple blocks based again on a photograph.


I didn’t find it as easy to generate a colour scheme on my own and the colours I was playing with just didn’t work. I transferred my photo to adobe colour CC and tried to get some inspiration from the schemes that they generated.


This did help and I was pleased with my final design.


By this point, I had spent a huge amount of time of just two cities and was feeling frustrated…. I’d lost a lot of time to multiple colour changes for each element in the designs and while I had learnt a lot felt I needed to approach the whole exercise differently. For the remaining 8 cities I decided to spend some time producing some possible colour palettes before I worked on the designs. Using my research and photographs I put together different combinations.


Armed with my potential colour choices I went back to designing the book covers. I used a combination of default shapes and creating my own with the pen and pencil tools in Photoshop and Illustrator.


I liked the strong bold colours of the Spanish flag and my first design incorporated large blocks of each colour…. as soon as I’d finished though I realised that the red and the yellow clashed horrible and created a sense of vibration and tension with one another. This made me think that if I wanted to use both I needed to make them accent colours and use them very sparingly. My second attempt feels much more balanced.



When I was doing some research into Managua I discovered this photo


The stained glass/tiled effect of the monument seemed to lend itself quite well to working with blocks of colour and I decided to try a mosaic for my abstract design. Having laid down some tiles I was pleased with how the colours worked together visually but didn’t feel that it reflected and captured the essence of the city which has been described as ‘chaotic, broken, poetic and mesmerising’. I decided to use the pencil tool to draw larger, more loosely defined blocks of colour – this worked much better and choosing bold primary and secondary hues rather than muted tones created the atmosphere I was aiming for.


I tried different accent colours for the title and tallest building in my Manhattan abstract… yellow to represent the colour of NY cabs, green for central park, orange as the colour on the flag, and red for power, elegance and trendiness. My favourite was the yellow, the complimentary of blue which was the dominant colour of my design. The contrast between complimentary colours makes them work well as a pairing for dominant and accent colours. The high contrast gives the design vibrant, fast-paced feel which works well as a representation of Manhattan.


This design was my most abstract and so gave me the opportunity to really try and create an colour scheme which described the city visually. I think that the lighter greens/blues work better to create the feeling of fresh water and a beach/coastal region. The shape and layering of the blocks of colour has quite a dynamic edgy feel which reflects the bustling port city.


Changing the size of the blocks of colour in my designs makes a difference to the overall effect as my two designs for Melbourne demonstrated. In the first example with the smaller blocks of colour the blue defines the tone of the design and is quite stylish and sophisticated and calm with a subtle suggestion of wealth and luxury. Increasing the size of the blocks of colour and switching the dominant and subdominant colour from blue to yellow makes the composition much more visually dynamic and creates greater visual tension and contrast.



My designs are all very different and I guess wouldn’t qualify as a series…. I considered doing all ten in a very similar style and in fact any of my designs could easily be translated to the other countries (as shown by my Manhattan and Malmo covers) but as I progressed I found that different styles of designs gave me the greatest scope for experimenting and learning about the effect of size, shape and positioning of different colours within a composition.

My final ten designs:



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