What’s the concept?

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The great, Paul Strisik, former master artist and teacher, urged artists before beginning a painting to have a clear “conception of the subject”. I call it “your painting concept”. What is meant by a “painting concept” and how is it determined? In this update of a former blog post, I explain. (Click images to enlarge)

Photo concept

“Last Light” – 12″ x 16″ – Oil


When someone designs and builds a house or just purchases existing blueprints…before any of that…a decision has been made, an idea is finalized as to the style of house desired. It might be a 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. That single decision affects all further construction.

For example, if the concept is Victorian but all the design and building choices are ranch, will the result be Victorian or ranch? Obviously, it will be ranch. What happened? The original 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.

So, even before the canvas is selected, a decision must be made as to what we want to communicate. 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. I don’t want to leave the impression that deciding upon a concept is always easy and comes naturally. Many times, the subject itself will clearly reveal a concept for you…the overall design, dramatic lighting affects, and interesting color harmonies are but a few…but other times, as in the examples below, it really takes some thought.

Here are a few of my paintings illustrating the point. As you can see, the photo was only the starting point. Imagination took over from there. Each achieved painting is preceded by the photo used to inspire the final work; I call it the “photo concept” even though it merely records the subject. Paul Strisik says, the real measure of an artist is what we do with it.

Photo concept

Photo concept

Painting concept

“Rain’s on the Way” – 16″x 20″ – Oil


Photo concept

Photo concept

"Lifting Fog" - 9"x 15" - Oil

“Lifting Fog” – 9″x 15″ – Oil


Photo concept

Photo concept

"Another Snow Coming" - 9"x 15" - Oil

“Another Snow Coming” – 9″x 15″ – Oil


Photo concept

Photo concept

"Places in the Heart" - 16"x 30" - Oil

“Places in the Heart” – 16″x 30″ – Oil


photo concept

Photo concept

"Kansas Morning" - 10"x 14" - Oil

“Kansas Morning” – 10″x 14″ – Oil


Photo concept

Photo concept

"Tuscan Village" - 12"x 30" - Oil

“Tuscan Village” – 12″x 30″ – Oil


Photo concept

“Land of Abundance” – 35″ x 65″ – Oil


Here are some helpful tips and questions that will help in determining a clear concept:

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

* Am I passionate about painting this subject?

* Do I have an understanding of the subject?

* What is it about the subject that deeply and instinctively appeals to you? Some possibilities are: composition, color, lighting (overall mood/value relationships), and the  emotion activated within you.

* How can I best communicate the most compelling aspects of the subject?

* Think. What do you want to say? What made you stop to paint, sketch, or photograph this scene in the first place? Fine painting is more than an emotional outburst.

* Will eliminating some elements and accentuating others aid in emphasizing what is most important?


As you can see from all of the above images, my motivation was inspired by the composition. From that point, I brought my concept of the subject to the final work. As a landscape painter, an understanding of nature and its various moods is key. This knowledge will allow more freedom when selecting a concept.

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