How to Create Abstract Photos with Oil and Water and a Little Dish Soap

How to Create Abstract Photos with Oil and Water and a Little Dish Soap

Oil and water are like chalk and cheese. They just aren’t the same are they? But despite their seeming incompatibility, each brings out the qualities of the other. As photographers, we love a good juxtaposition. There’s nothing that creates balance better than imbalance – well, it’s definitely the case here, at least. So in this article we’re going to use that to create some abstract photos.

For this project, we are going to create a body of images that look as if they come straight out of a chemistry class instructional… or a 60s liquid light show. With two philosophically opposed house hold items, several more amicable components, and a camera. The process is simple and the results are abstractedly beautiful and a little trippy too. Intrigued? Check it out below.

How to Create Abstract Photos with Oil and Water and a Little Dish Soap

How to Create Abstract Photos with Oil and Water and a Little Dish Soap

Things you will need to do this:

  • Camera
  • Sheet of glass
  • Two objects to set your glass on (I used milk crates but chairs and even stacked books work too)
  • A macro lens or extension tubes (I used my Kenko extension tubes)
  • Tripod
  • Towel
  • Some colorful materials
  • Oil (it doesn’t really matter what type, I used vegetable oil)
  • Dishwashing liquid soap
  • Water
  • Eyedropper or spoon

Find a background material

First, you’ll need to gather a few materials for the background of your image. You are looking for colored cardboard, magazines, posters, cloth, scraps – anything with a bit of color that won’t be missed if it gets coated in a little oil or dish washing liquid. Duller toned materials like brown or black won’t reflect light as readily, so aim for brighter colors to begin with.

Don’t worry too much about intricate patterns or details as they wont show in the final image. While you are scouting for materials, grab an old towel too, it’ll come in handy later.

How to Create Abstract Photos with Oil and Water and a Little Dish Soap

For my abstract oil project I selected a cardboard gift bag I had around the house and a reflective folder I flattened out. The bright color combinations of the bag will create smooth, vibrant gradients. The reflective sheen of the folder will guide a greater amount of light up through the image, but the holographic flowers can yield surprisingly subtle results.

How to Create Abstract Photos with Oil and Water and a Little Dish Soap

The reflective cardboard I used for this image directs small speckles of light up into the splotches of oil. The overall grey tone of the cardboard contrasts with the flecks of colors to create a surrealistic, rainy atmosphere.

How to Create Abstract Photos with Oil and Water and a Little Dish Soap

This is an image with the Happy Birthday bag as a backdrop. None of the details are discernible, but a soft gradient separates the image into soft hues

Setting up

One you’ve assembled a neat pile of colorful bits and pieces, it’s time to set up. The aim here is to construct a bridge of sorts for your sheet of glass to sit on. To reduce the impact of a potential oil-spill, I set my rig up outside. Wherever you choose to setup just make sure you work on flat, even ground. Grab your milk crates (or chairs, etc.), set them down a little distance apart and set the glass between the two. Now take a few of the colorful materials you’ve selected, and position them on the ground, directly under the sheet of glass.

To set up your camera, I strongly recommend using a tripod. Because macro lenses and extension tubes can reduce the amount of light reaching your camera’s sensor, the tripod will steady the camera for longer exposures. A tripod will also cut down the handling of your camera with oily fingers. Once your camera is locked into the tripod, turn it on, select Live View Mode and focus the camera on an area directly in front of the lens. You’ll need to be able to watch what you are doing on the LCD screen in the next step.

How to Create Abstract Photos with Oil and Water and a Little Dish Soap

Positioning my pane of glass between two milk crates, I then set my cardboard birthday bag in the space underneath. Using a tripod is highly recommended as this project requires a fair bit of hands-on adjusting and fiddling both behind and in front of the camera. The lemon tree is not mandatory

Time to start cooking

Gather your water, dish washing soap, oil, spoon (or eyedropper), and towel and place them within reach. Begin by adding a small spot of oil to the glass. Keeping an eye on your LCD screen will help you position your drops within the camera’s field of view. To build up layers of liquid, add dots of water or dishwasher liquid to the center of the oil. As the liquids span out over the glass, add in new droplets of the different ingredients. Alternating between ingredients takes advantage of their natural resistance to each other, delineating shapes and patterns more readily. If you like, you can use the tip of your spoon or eyedropper to manipulate the shape of the growing bubble.

That’s about it really! The rest is totally up to you. You can’t mess up, so don’t worry if you aren’t getting perfect circular bubbles or patterns. Allow the medium to take shape as you cycle through your three ingredients. Try running a spoon through the middle of the concoction to create smaller clusters of bubbles. Or use a greater ratio of dishwasher liquid to oil to enhance the spiderweb look of the cleaning chemicals. Even spritzing mists of water over the glass can make fascinating reflections.

Experiment with the background and elements

While you are watching the details unfurl beneath the camera lens, don’t forget to experiment with your background too! Add or remove materials, layer new colors, add materials which have a greater or lesser reflective surface. Use a flashlight (torch) to illuminate different areas in the image or shine the light up into the bubbles suspended on the glass.

There are no hard and fast rules – the more you experiment the more you’ll discover. And, once all your liquids have inevitably pooled in a messy, semi-clear river of goo, grab your towel, wipe down the glass and start again! A word of caution, however, this project can become an addition in itself, not only because it looks good, but because each result is so illusive and unpredictable.

Have fun and share your abstract photos made from oil, water and dish soap in the comments below.

This smooth effect was created as the oil and dish washing liquid slowly spread over the surface of the glass

The delicate strands in this image is a result of the dish washing liquid being spread across the glass surface with a spoon


This image was photographed with a single color background. The consistent color illuminates the beads of oil and water in the light

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Megan Kennedy is a photographer and writer based in Canberra, Australia. A lifelong fascination with flight has inspired her photographic practice in documenting the intricate form of aircraft. Megan is also interested in travel photography and documenting human interaction with the modern landscape, through both intentional and incidental intervention. She is well versed in both digital and film practice. Both her writing and photography has been featured in numerous publications.