Sunday, October 3, 2010

Turn a Good Painting Idea Into a Great One

I often get a good idea for my paintings, rush to start, and before I know it I am up to my eyeballs in problems that I could have avoided had I worked with my idea a bit.

There are several things to do before you begin painting that will help you to: 
  • clarify your idea 
  • identify problems before they arise
  • and turn a good painting idea into a great one!
Our first ideas are not usually our best ones. A good idea is better than no idea, but it is usually only the beginning of a great idea.  A good idea needs some work before it can become a good painting.

(I have recently written about how to find good ideas for your paintings. You can read that series by clicking on these links: Day 1Day 2 and Day 3.)

Transform your idea with thumbnail sketches.
Thumbnails are small, quick drawings that help develop the initial idea by examining important compositional elements like format (the size and shape of your paper or canvas), viewpoint (where you position yourself and how much you decide to see) and focal point.

The thumbnails help you to build on your initial idea, to develop it, and sometimes to grow several painting ideas from the first one.

To demonstrate, I have started here with onions in a bowl. It's a simple idea, but after doing some thumbnails, I realise that there are many ways that I can approach the subject matter, and many possible paintings that I could work on.

By playing with the format, viewpoint and focal points, I can see which composition may work best for a painting.

Transform your idea with a viewfinder
A viewfinder will block out visual distractions and focus your attention on the subject matter.  It is useful for visualising how the subject will fill the format and help you to come up with a strong composition.

A viewfinder can be paper or card with a rectangle cut out, (an empty slide mount also works well, particularly out in the field.)  I find it useful to cut my viewfinder into two "L" pieces, so that I can change the size and shape of the 'window' I am looking through.

Here is my set up.  I have placed my bowl of onions in a box to remove any background distractions.

Notice my viewfinders on top of my sketchbook.

Here I am using my viewfinders to explore composition and cropping.

There is a really nifty viewfinder that you can purchase at Artwork Essentials, if you don't fancy making your own!

Transform your idea with photographs
Use your camera to take photographs of your subject matter. This is a quick and easy way to experiment with different viewpoints and compositions. The camera has its own built in viewfinder.

Here is a sample of the many photos that I took of my bowl of onions.

Transform your idea with lighting
I have set up my angle-poise lamp and tried lighting my onions from different angles. Lighting can transform the shadows, highlight or details or bleach them out, and radically change the mood of a painting.

Transform you idea by looking at other paintings
Click here to see Van Gogh's painting of onions, Cezanne's onions, or Matisse's onions.

Here are many other onion paintings.
To see some fabulous onion paintings, go to Carol Marine's Painting a Day blog. I also watched the video of her painting the cups and apple - loved it!

Transform your idea in other ways
There are many other ways to turn your good idea into a great one.  You can change the colour, introduce texture, work in different mediums, but I think I have given you enough to think about for one day!


  1. Ive just linked your wonderful blog to my blog, thanks for sharing

  2. Thank you Chris - much appreciated!

  3. What an inspiration Kerry. Well done. Will follow it regularly and tell my friends about it. Dell