Defining the Concept

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When painting outdoors in Portugal some years ago, I had just put the finishing touches to a painting when to my delight and total surprise, I heard a lot of little hands clapping. There behind me stood a large group of children. They stood in total silence as they had watched the painting develop. I couldn’t speak Portuguese. They couldn’t speak English, but the painting was able to easily speak both languages. It made the connection between us and we thoroughly enjoyed the moment. 

We communicated through art. We connected because the concept of the painting was clear. They related to the scene, the mood, the color. It captured for them that which they experienced everyday and may even have taken for granted until someone came along and caused them to take a second look. There before us was the lighthouse, the rocks, cliff and ocean. They got it. But what if the drawing was poor, the subject unclear, the composition uncomfortable, the values confusing or the color inappropriate? Would my delighted audience have hung around?

Over the next two weeks, I will be sharing with you three paintings that I hope will clearly demonstrate the points I’d like to make concerning this subject of “Concept”…its definition with regard to painting; how to determine it, and how to execute it.

This week I hope to explain what I mean by having a clear concept before beginning a painting…and its importance. I have taught my students that every painting begins with an idea. Why do we wish to do this painting and what is it we really want to get across? I brought up these questions to my students because I need to keep bringing them up to myself.

Photography is a great tool for the artist, but it can be at the same time our greatest hindrance. Man! Do I know that. I have to continually remind myself to slow down, look, and THINK, before beginning a painting. It’s relatively easy to copy a photo, it’s much more difficult for us to “speak for ourselves” rather than let the photo speak for us. 
Below is an appealing stone house that I photographed in the Texas Hill Country. The scene has a lot to offer as is and my original plan was to create a painting of it, but as I contemplated the subject my thoughts ran to feelings of loneliness and isolation. There are a number of ways those feelings could be represented, but then the scene also gave me a profound sense of silence, of standoffish mystery. That’s what I decided to exploit. However, I did not want the feeling to be threatening…just a little mysterious. 

Mystery of the Night photo

Reference photo for “Mystery of the Night”


I began to visualize how that might be accomplished. Mystery is often accompanied with darkness, sometimes strong dramatic shadows. There’s also a sense of mystery associated with fog. In other words, things are not distinct and that contributes to the mystery. For this painting, I chose the darkness of night. What does the darkness of night look like? What values would one expect to see, and what colors could be used to depict that feeling? These were all considered in selecting the palette below.


Color selection


The block-in proved that the palette selected would do the job. However, I was not pleased with the drawing of the house so decided to redesign it somewhat and adjust its placement.

Mystery of the Night (1)

First attempt: The mood is established but I lost the sense of standoffish mystery I hoped to achieve. I redrew the house by pushing it back and narrowing it, increasing the appearance of height and distance.

"Mystery of the Night" - 12" x 16" - Oil

“Mystery of the Night” – 12″ x 16″ – Oil


As I write these blogs, there’s always the possibility that my vocabulary will be so deficient that you’ll miss all the valuable things I have to say. The other possibility is that I express myself with profound clarity but have nothing worthwhile to communicate. Both, sound like some of our politicians. Certainly, by themselves neither is preferable. The ideal, of course, would be to have a fabulous vocabulary with profound things to express, and an audience that hangs on our every “word”. Our job as artists is to get our point of view across to the viewer of our paintings in a way they can clearly understand. The children of Portugal did not need an interpreter. They understood.

As artists then, we are communicators, and with that comes responsibility. Since we are the ones initiating the “conversation”, we have the responsibility of making our communication clear. Just having a great concept, something great to say, is not enough however…it’s also important that we have a well developed vocabulary.

The quality and extent of our vocabulary is directly proportional to the mastery of our craft…(composition, drawing, values, color, etc.), and the use of the tools of that craft…(pencils, pens, brushes, paints, etc.). The more refined our vocabulary, the more clearly and beautifully presented will be that which we have to say. Unfortunately, many of us artists have more to say than our artistic vocabulary allows. Let’s say we all have a fairly decent artistic vocabulary; there’s still this other important element of successful communication…What have we to say? The answer to that question will be the concept. It could be compared to an outline…and that’s pretty important whether the communication be verbal or visual.


Interested in purchasing this painting? It’s available. Click HERE.



John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
To view his art and bio, please click HERE.