Determining the Concept

Posted on

David Leffel, in Linda Cateura’s book Oil Painting Secrets from a Master, says “The idea for a picture comes before you begin to paint. It is the artist’s way of seeing things.”

When someone designs and builds a house or just purchases existing blueprints…before any of that…a decision has been made, an idea has been finalized as to the style of house desired. It might be Colonial, Ranch, Country, Contemporary or Victorian; whatever the choice, that decision is the concept. It is called that because everything that follows is a result of that choice.

For example, if the concept is Victorian, which is a tall, narrow, decorative, multistory, with bay windows and cone shaped turrets, but in the building stage you constructed a low profile, single story, unadorned structure with wide overhanging eaves, would the result be Victorian or Ranch? Obviously, it’s Ranch. What happened? The concept was not adhered to.

Similarly, for us artists, if the decision is to depict a landscape shrouded in fog, but the painting actually produced contains intense color and high value contrast, the concept and finished piece have become incompatible.

Below is the photo reference used for the painting “Texas Hill Country”. The demonstration reveals how the photo influenced the final painting but had little to do with determining the mood for the painting. The concept for this painting was all about the mood.

Now when one considers this photo, there are lots of possible concepts. Just consider the many ways in which the scene could be cropped. In addition to that, just about everything can be moved, removed, added to, or changed in some way. The basic information is still there. For example, the road and fences could be removed creating a vast pasture with cattle…and we haven’t even begun to consider the many moods of nature that could make this a very exciting piece. Anyway, I hope you get the idea. Every painting needs to begin with a clear concept. (Click images to enlarge)

Photo reference for “Texas Hill Country”


So, even before the canvas is selected, a decision must be made as to what we want to communicate. In fact, that decision will determine what size and proportion of canvas is ultimately chosen.. Once the concept is established, don’t deviate from it or the likely result will be a confusing, discordant painting…or one significantly different from the original concept/idea. The main idea needs to remain the main idea throughout. That doesn’t mean changes can’t be made during the painting process, they just need to fit within the main idea without creating disharmony.

For the painting, “Texas Hill Country”, the big simple idea was to maintain the feeling of expanse, isolation, and sheer silence. I felt a sunset with its diminishing light would add great drama, and in light of the impending darkness, increase even more the sense of utter quiet, isolation, and even apprehension. The very faint sound of the distant vehicle brings the scene to life.

With all these things in mind, everything following: drawing, composition, values, color, even the quality of the edges, must be consistent with the chosen mood.

Beginning stage: Palette choice is white, ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson, and lemon yellow. Canvas is toned with various mixtures of UB/AC. Block-in begins.

Mood is established. Block-in is sufficiently complete.


Seven benefits for first selecting a concept

David Leffel, in the book mentioned above, believes that just as a writer’s theme must precede plot and character, and they in turn must express the novel’s theme…composition gives substance to a painting’s concept.

Leffel goes on to offer seven valuable benefits for first selecting a concept. Working with a clear concept will:

1 – Keep the technique under control because you’re forced to work within the constraints of your concept

2 – Provide consistency throughout the canvas

3 – Help identify what to emphasize and what to downplay

4 – Help pull all elements of the painting together, thereby creating unity

5 – Help you know when the painting is completed

6 – Give you a sense of direction

7 – Give a sense of fulfillment when you have accomplished the given task

“Texas Hill Country” – 16″ x 20″ – Oil


Helpful tips for determining a clear concept

1 – Paint what you enjoy and understand. Painting is difficult enough, so begin with something that stirs your soul.

2 – Think. Fine painting is more than an emotional outburst.

3 – What is it about the subject that deeply and instinctively appeals to you?  a) Composition of the subject matter elements?  b)) Color relationships?  c) Lighting?  d) Overall mood/value relationships?  e) Action, activity, movement?  f) What emotion does the subject activate within you? (Fear, awe, joy, peacefulness, etc.)

4 – The more clearly and specifically we can determine the items listed above, the more clear we will be in communicating our concept.

I have found through many years of teaching that young artists, when working from photos, have a very difficult time moving beyond the reference material. The photo dictates the concept, the composition, color and detail. The mind tends to disconnect and the hands go to work. If I’m not careful, I can fall into the same trap very easily.

Some of this is due to lack of ability but often it is because insufficient thought was given to establishing a concept.

I hope this helps. First things first…THINK.

***If you would like to receive this weekly blog automatically, please complete the simple form on the bottom right of this page. To receive my monthly newsletter complete the form on the top right. Thank You.

I’m pleased to offer both of my instructional videos and book as a complete set for the first time. They may also be purchased individually. All are best sellers and include everything I’ve taught in my workshops. You can now take my oil painting workshop right in the comfort of your home, and for a lot less money than physically being present. (Click image to learn more)

For those that have purchased the book, I invite you to join our new Facebook Group – “Limited Palette Unlimited Color”. If you qualify, I hope you’ll join us. Check us out on Facebook. HERE is the link.


Want to take your painting to the next level? I can help. Click HERE to learn about my critique/mentoring programs.


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


Please Note - You must be logged into a Facebook account in order to write comments. We highly recommend using Google Chrome, Fire Fox, or Internet Explorer since some individuals have not been able to leave comments on the Safari browser. If you have any issues, please email me.