Before subject or composition, before values, shapes, or color, before you pick up a brush you must first have a visual idea, an artistic concept. Beg, borrow or steal an idea, but get one! Only Emotion comes before this.
All successful works of art have a visual concept or idea. Work that does not have a visual concept may be a sketch, a study or a ho-hum painting. If you have an idea firmly in mind you're halfway home. What are some concepts painters have used to insure their work reaches the level of true art?
"The idea is more important than the object." Damien Hirst
Ask yourself what is it about the subject that caught your eye; what are you ..."thinking and feeling in relation to the subject. What was the first split second impression. Why did you stop to photograph it? Was it the shape, color, texture, contrast, simplicity, atmosphere, or the light?" Al Brouillette, The Evolving Picture., pg 10.
Make something from this partial list the idea for your painting:
You may want a subject, but don't make something like this the idea of your painting:
If you have firmly in mind something from the first list, then you can begin to focus on something from the second list. Facts alone are boring, emotion and relationship are interesting.
"When you arrive at the point where you can say, 'That's exciting,' then you can start working out the details of your subject...
I develop shapes, values, and colors that happen to suggest buildings...
If a painting is to be honest, it must come largely from the subconscious." Al Brouillette
"Moving, compelling, with significant emotional impact...that's what I mean by successful art." Robert Bissett
"Man's reaction to his earth expressed by means of a medium is ART." Jack Clifton
"The various details in a landscape painting mean nothing to us if they do not express some mood of nature as felt by the artist." Robert Henri
"Without atmosphere a painting is nothing." Rembrandt
In the art world today, pictures that rely on one of these elements may qualify as art:
Nothing wrong with any of these, in fact, they have carried many a painting. But for lasting value there is another, more essential artistic element. A painting can be pure magic, it can pluck the strings of your heart, it can make your day, change your worldview, make you want to take it home. By what alchemy is this done? That's what we must discover. (Hint: Visual Idea) - Robert Bissett
"Don't become overly enamored with nature. Don't fall in love with another artists work. Don't be mesmerized by a photograph. Your painting is not there. Take note of your emotional response, learn what you can, then go within, add mood, inspiration and wonder. Now you're ready to paint." - Robert Bissett
"Perceptive observation is seeing with your brain, feeling with your eyes, interpreting with your heart." Robert Wade
"The beginning painter is focused on learning technique with the goal of accurate reporting and detail. Then comes the realization that composition and design are more important. In time, if there are to be good paintings, an underlying visual concept guides the entire process. Finally, the occasional artist discovers how to breath life into the canvas and it sings with a pure voice." Robert Bissett
"Without a good idea at
the start only failure can result."
"In love and war, in food and art, the quick, intuitive decision, without verbiage, is the one worth heeding. The French call it "coup d'oeil" (power of the glance)." Robert Genn
"It's this abstraction, subtle or strong, that makes your work live as a thing-in-itself and become something unique and different from what it represents." Robert Genn
"Need must find idea and method. Obsession follows. Obsession cannot occur before idea. As idea leads, the form of one's art emerges, and at its best, an accumulation of painted images leads to a surrogate of the real world." (Hiram Williams)
"It should not be hard for you to stop sometimes and look into the stains of walls, or ashes of a fire, or clouds, or mud or like places, in which... you may find really marvelous ideas." (Leonardo da Vinci)
"Without planning, your painting will probably be indecisive and fragmented, and you'll try to say too much in one picture." (Ron Ranson)
"Plan like a turtle; paint like a rabbit." (Edgar Whitney)
"Before you compose your picture it's a good idea to ask yourself why you're doing it." (Anonymous)
"Although an image is clearly visible to the eye, it takes the mind to develop it into a rich, tangible brilliance, into an outstanding painting." (Jeanne Dobie)
"An artist is paid for his vision, not his reporting." (Tom Lynch)
"An artist" said James McNeill Whistler, "is not paid for his labor, but for his vision." An altered state of seeing can help an artist better define that vision. Looking back doesn't necessarily bring on a sense of contentment. It's one of the pro-tools that creators need in order to better understand what it is they're up to. The idea is to seek out and kill the banal and ordinary. The idea is to find and honor the central motif. The idea is to make your vision stronger. Robert Genn
"What good is a balanced composition if the painting doesn't sing with life's energy and spirit?" (Marney Ward)
"Art is idea. It is not enough to draw, paint, and sculpt. An artist should be able to think." (Gurdon Woods)
"The relationships of shape, texture, and color all contribute to the creative action that gradually becomes the expressive concept." (Marilyn Hughey Phillips)
"When I begin a composition, I try to clearly understand the idea behind the subject... my subconscious tends to reinforce the idea by complementing and contrasting colours in patterns around the subject, leading mind and vision to the centre of the composition." (Ken Strong)
"The ideas must all be in the eye before they are carried out with the brush." (Anonymous Chinese painter)
"When I work on an idea for a painting... the first thing I think of is the atmosphere I am trying to achieve. I want to create another world for the viewer to walk into." (Carol Cottone-Kolthoff)
"The foundation of my ideas is the result of being inspired by a particular shape, quality of light or arrangement of form." (Tom Francesconi)
"The idea is more important than the object." (Damien Hirst)
"I generally 'see' the finished work before I start and carry it around in my head for weeks, or longer, before beginning a painting." (Janet Hayes)
"I must always have a clear image of the form of a work before I begin. Otherwise there is no impulse to create." (Barbara Hepworth)
"I start every painting by asking myself one essential question, 'Is this a powerful image?'" (Suzanne McWhinnie)
"Titian, Tintoretto, and Paul Veronese absolutely enchanted me, for they took away all sense of subject… It was the poetry of color which I felt, procreative in its nature, giving birth to a thousand things which the eye cannot see, and distinct from their cause." (Washington Allston)
"When you are young, you study the masters for their techniques and style. But when you are older, you study them for their emotion, feeling." (Chiang Chao-Shen)
"The real master of art expresses feeling rather than technique, which is achieved through intuition rather than education." (Quang Ho)
"One can be a technical master – full of craftsmanship, but not in most senses an artistic master." (oliver)
"In the hands of a master, light and shade is one of the great qualities of art." (John Sloan)
"To become masters, we need to be able to tap our inner creativity, and then combine the inspiration we receive from within with the technical skill that has come from years of experience.' (Marney Ward)
"That which they call abstract is the most realistic, because what is real is not the exterior but the idea, the essence of things." (Constantin Brancusi)
"When you see a fish you don't think of its scales, do you? You think of its speed, its floating, flashing body seen through the water... If I made fins and eyes and scales, I would arrest its movement, give a pattern or shape of reality. I want just the flash of its spirit." (Constantin Brancusi)
"Do not copy nature too much. Art is an abstraction." (Paul Gauguin)
Painting with a Concept
At first, learning to paint must include painting things well. This is reasonable. Consequently, most painters feel they have succeeded in this quest when they can paint the subject convincingly and capture a look of reality. However, any thinking person might ask if more is possible than this technical proficiency.
If you have ever been moved by a great work of art, you may have wondered if it possesses something else. ''How can paint, shapes, color, and edges be so compelling?'' Paintings with more impressive technique often lack this ability to move the viewer. Instead, they impress with rendered detail and inspire wonder at the work involved. Some may lack technical prowess and instead rely on sentiment or storytelling. Some may simply depend on bravura brushwork.
Standing before a great painting, the inquisitive painter must wonder where the magic lies. The image compels you to examine the surface beauty and return again and again, leaving a lasting impression. What is the lure?
The underlying culprit is the concept. Rather than seeing each object as a separate entity, concept creates a relationship between objects, thereby creating something greater than the whole. This underlying visual message creates a beauty beyond subject matter and is the real reason behind the painting. Abstract ideas, though difficult to grasp, directly affect the development of an artist. The less personal and the more universal the motive, the more compelling and sublime the statement becomes.
How misty, indistinct and abstract can I go and still have a landscape? (David Leffel)
If you just copy your subject matter you're missing ninety per cent of the art.
Visual concepts must be understood before you can learn to paint. Concepts are plans for solving problems of light, air/space, dimensions or form, color, value, edges. How the painting will be read, the value range, the colors that will be used, the brushstrokes, etc.
Great paintings are simple in concept. Great paintings have one essential visual idea. They have an underlying idea about color, shapes, values, edges, alone or in combination. These are things that paint can do. The idea, or visual concept, creates a relationship between objects.
This is an idea that you find exciting or meaningful to the extent that you are willing to put in the hard work of abstracting from reality and showing others in paint what it is you find important.
You must have this fixed in your mind and work towards it in the final work. Others may look at your chosen subject and easily miss what is so obvious to you.
On your canvas you do not merely recreate the subject in paint. Knowing what can be done with paint you are saying something in this scene connects me with a universal truth, with an elevating thought, or an inexpressible feeling-tone.
Examples of Concepts
Why start a painting before you have a visual concept or idea? Use one or more thumbnail sketches to find a good concept for your painting. Write down in words the idea you have decided on. Evaluate your painting...did you communicate your idea?
Analyze the old masters' and new masters' paintings. What visual concept or idea do you see? Make a note of it. Try the same thing in your painting.
"The difference between a professional and an amateur is: A professional borrows from a master and an amateur borrows from an apprentice."
What is the visual concept in this self-portrait by Rembrandt? Hint: it's not the man.
Light and Shadow or Chiaroscuro. See how the figure seems to be emerging from the shadows? Very dramatic and entertaining. Rembrandt used this idea a lot, but it's only one possibility. Imagine this same painting, but with uniform lighting. Boring.
What is the visual concept in this painting by Vermeer?
It has to do with light, but this time it's about light washing across the painting from left to right. That's the artistic idea behind the painting that makes it hold together as a work of art, relating all the objects to one another. The subject matter is a woman with a jug and various other subordinate objects. Imagine this picture with uniform frontal lighting. It would still have great composition, great shapes, lines, textures. But the unifying principle is gone and with it the magic.
And this one by Turner...what's the idea?
How misty, indistinct and abstract can I go and still have a landscape?
Venice by Donald Teague...
The remarkable atmospheric feeling of volume, space and light quality is what this is about. A built environment on the ocean unique in all the world.
conception/execution - Conception is the birth process of an artistic idea, from the initial creative impulse through aesthetic refinement, problem-solving, and visualization/realization. Execution is the second half of the creative process: the actual carrying out of the idea, in terms of method and materials, which often involves compromises and alterations of the initial conception. Artists often see the initial conception as the guiding force for their aesthetic decisions, in terms of formal elements of design, and in terms of the expressive content desired. Contemporary conceptual artists place more emphasis on the first part of the creative process; traditional artists are somewhat more concerned with the techniques and methods involved in producing the artwork. The painter Henri Matisse advised, in his essay On Painting, that artists should keep their initial impulse in the front of their minds when working on a painting, to make the best expressive and formal decisions.
Read about the creative process.
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Learning to make art is a life-long process. These are the best books on my shelf for that purpose. Some are more advanced. No particular order. These links will take you to Amazon.com, new or used is your choice. You might also check your local library...ask about interlibrary loans, or a used book store.
"Too often emerging artists focus on nuts-and-bolts techniques--form--as the key to creating powerful paintings. Here author Gerald Brommer reveals that emotional content is the most vital consideration."
A must have for anyone who wants to make real art, beginner to advanced. This is the part of picture making that is almost never discussed in depth. Here is a whole book about it. Many professionals know this, but may not be able to articulate it.
The book is in three parts: Selecting Elements, Sketching the Scene and Using Color to Evoke Emotion.
The Elements of Art - good
Cybernetic art program - amazing
Dip 'n Daub - abstract art generator 358k
Cityscapes - artificial creativity, good one
Generative Art - program <300k
“There are mighty few people who think what they think they think.” So wrote Robert Henri, author of The Art Spirit, 3 speaking of the various answers to the question, What do I do when I paint? Beginners in art usually think of themselves as “painting that ” – say, a landscape. So they include every visible cow, barn, tree, and cloud. In reality, their first artistic impulse sprung from a rather quick glance, which is something far different from a photographic visualization of everything stimulating their retinas. What attracted them to notice this landscape was the massive, quiet dignity of a weathered-red barn surrounded by wind-shook acres of grain. In their original glimpse, they never saw the cows, they didn’t notice the clouds, and they barely registered the trees. Later, upon reflection, they think they did, and that mistake in thinking accounts for many an ineffective painting.
Accomplished artists do not think of themselves as painting the total landscape seen after inspection. Rather they feel moved by some image, and they lay paint on canvas in a way that they hope will create a similar reaction in a viewer. They will leave out the cows and rearrange the clouds to enhance the impression of the majesty of that barn rising from those fields. They often remind themselves, “I am not painting that – a visible figure over there. I am painting this – a mélange of paint that expresses my disposition when I see that and promises to evoke the same disposition in someone else.” This image may be something in nature, a sitting model, the memory of several experiences, or even the pure image of colors in a pattern.
...the specific symbol most significant to us is the human face. Infants, in their earliest differentiations of consciousness, learn to notice faces. I am always amazed how they spontaneously look at our looking organs – not our ears extending out from the sides, not our noses sticking out in front, not our lips that sing them lullabies and smooch them with kisses -- but our eyes. They “read” a frown far earlier than they understand a word. This image of the face and eyes is loaded with feeling and remains at the core of their sensibilities for the rest of their lives."
What Do I Do When I Paint? by
Tad Dunne, PhD