Executing the Concept

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In some ways, I believe, determining a concept for a painting is more difficult than actually executing it. Knowing what you want to say and how you’re going to say it is critical to one’s success as a speaker. Creating a great painting has many similarities.

David Leffel says, “Every great painting can be defined as a picture with one essential idea. It is what the painting is about”… that’s what is important to him. His ideas of concept seem somewhat loftier than mine. In reality, maybe we’re saying the same thing, just coming at it differently.

In the book, “Oil Painting Secrets of a Master” by Linda Cateura, Leffel goes on to say, “The student paints things, the mature artist paints ideas about things.” He uses this example. Say an artist wants to paint a portrait that conveys the depth of character of his subject; the concept then becomes the color, intensity and direction of the light, while the subject is of secondary importance.”

Photo reference for "Spring"

Photo reference for “Spring”


In the painting, “Spring”, everything began with the subject. It was chosen because I like the subject of farms and rural life, but also in this case, I liked the objects themselves and the linear quality of the composition. That part of the painting was set…the questions then became, what specifically do I want to highlight about the subject, and what is the mood I wish to create? Once those questions were answered, the concept was established…and as Leffel says, that concept “is the structure and framework on which your assembled subject matter is suspended.”

Once the subject of the painting is selected, I use a variety of means to aid in the selection of the mood for a painting: the subject as initially observed, imagination, recorded memories of various moods of nature, plein air studies, landscape photography, other artist’s work, or color schemes discovered while experimenting with the color wheel.

George Inness - "In the Roman Campagna"

George Inness – “In the Roman Campagna”


In the case of “Spring”, George Inness’s painting, “In the Roman Campagna”, was the inspiration.¬†Once the concept has been determined and all the research material has been assembled, it is important that all succeeding decisions, made throughout the painting process, support the original idea.

Canvas selected. Drawing and value block-in done with raw umber begins.

Canvas selected. Drawing and value block-in, done with raw umber, begins.

Raw umber value block-in complete.

Raw umber value block-in complete.

Color application begins while matching established values.

Color application begins while matching established values.

First layer of color basically complete.

First layer of color basically complete.

Further refinements.

Further refinements.

"Spring" - 12"x 24" - Oil

“Spring” – 12″x 24″ – Oil


Your answers to the following key questions will be helpful in executing your established concept.

1 – Has the correct size and proportion canvas been selected that most effectively communicates the idea? (Many times I have seen students create preliminary drawings for paintings and then go on to select a canvas of a totally different proportion. Later they wonder why the painting didn’t work out).

2 – Is the subject well composed upon the canvas? Is there a clear focal point? Has attention been given to creating interesting positive and negative space? Is there unity with variety? Does the organization and placement of the subject effectively portray your idea?

3 – Does the drawing indicate proper proportional relationships of the subject matter elements? Is the aerial and linear perspective accurate?

4 – Does the value structure of your painting successfully convey a mood consistent with your concept? Have you created a variety of value shapes and edges? Do these direct the viewer’s eye through the painting as you desire? (The mood of a painting is established through an informed use of value. For example, the value relationships of a foggy day will differ considerably from those of a sunny one).

5 – Do the color choices harmonize with your concept? (Color enhances the mood, it does not create it. There are many schemes that can result in color harmony. Care must be taken in selecting a palette that suits your concept. In my work, I have discovered more often than not…less is more. The fewer colors on the palette, better the chance for a harmonious painting).

6 – Does the technique/paint application support or detract from the overall idea. (Good painting is about clearly communicating what you want to say; it’s not about the frills and side show of a showy technique).

7 – Finally, is the painting framed in such a way as to be compatible and supportive of the concept.

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