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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Determining the Concept

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 (tall, narrow, decorative, multistory, bay windows, cone shaped turrets), but all the design and building choices are Ranch (low profile, single story, unadorned, wide overhanging eaves, L, U or box shaped configurations)...will 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 reference photo for a painting I recently completed for the upcoming 30th Anniversary Show at the Greenhouse Gallery in San Antonio, TX, 3-24 February.
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.
Reference photo 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.
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.

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 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 on canvas

Here are some 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?
- Composition of the subject matter elements?
- Color relationships?
- Lighting?
- Overall mood/value relationships?
- Action, activity, movement?
- 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 clearly 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. 
Some of this is due to lack of ability but often it is because insufficient thought was given to establishing a concept.

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