5 Steps to Getting Clear

Solving Painting Problems Before They Happen

“Painting an abstract piece can be easy. But the important thing about this style is that it has to show something definite, otherwise its just a mess…”


Granny Smith Apple
Granny Smith Apple

One of the great things about being part of the blogosphere is that I don’t always have to have a brilliant insight as a spark for a post.  The inspiration for this post is from one of my readers. Thanks so much for the idea, Kokot! (As a bit of an aside – if you haven’t checked out Severny Productions you should! He is the self proclaimed “tart of the arts” and if that isn’t enough to get you interested he covers just about all the artistic genres from fine foods to fine arts. )

Showing Something Definite:

Having a clear vision is essential to ANY art form, not just abstract painting.  Art is expressive and communicative by nature, so a failure to know what you want to convey when you start is like deciding to deliver a speech but not preparing what you want to say. It can be rambling and fuzzy at best or mortifying at worst.

So how do you get your vision?

  1. Explore your subject thoroughly.
  2. Narrow your focus.
  3. Sketch it out.
  4. Tack up a roadmap.
  5. Polish your image.

Explore Your Subject Thoroughly:

I am not a patient person by nature. Once the paints are out of their tubes I want to get my hands in there and start flinging paint around.

Which means that in the past I have often taken the first idea and run with it. Whether or not it was the best idea.

I’m not advocating a “go slow” approach here, but  if you take photos of your subjects before you paint them, take a couple more than you usually would.

What other emotions could be involved with this piece of art?

Are there other angles a viewer could approach your work from? Do you like those different ways of engaging with the work or are there ways to help focus the viewer’s attention?

What other symbolism could you use to express your idea? What symbols or images have other artists used?

Is there a way you could give an old idea or symbol new meaning?

Narrow Your Focus:

Ok, now that you have a bunch of ideas going – its time to weed out the ones that don’t play as nicely together. Let’s say that you were going to paint a still life of an apple. You may have already considered different types of apples  (Macintosh, Granny Smith, Red Delicious…), apple associations (Adam and Eve ate the “apple” from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the apple in Snow White, Apple Computers, as American as Apple pie…),  and apple shapes (cut in half, an apple with a bite out of it, whole apples…).

Now it is time to start sorting those ideas and paring them down to the ones that work the best together.  For example, trying to work with the idea of the apple as the spark for original sin and the idea that apple pie is comforting, homemade and all-American may turn out to be at odds and confusing to the viewer unless you were trying to create a very subversive piece of art.

On a more basic note: perhaps you were planning to paint a bowl of apples when a single apple would be just as compelling. Switching to a single object can also be a way of narrowing your focus.

Sketch It Out:

Don’t scrimp here.

My art teachers harped on having sketch books full of ideas and sketches – but I never thought I had time to do stuff like that. The only time I worked in my sketchbook in school was when I knew that the teacher was going to be looking.

I was dumb.

It takes only minutes in a sketchbook to find out if a composition works, or if it has problems.  If you find you don’t like the way something looks in a book, erasing it only takes a minute. Getting it off or correcting it on the canvas takes considerably more time and frustration.

Then when you find something you like, sketch it out on canvas.

Give yourself a clear idea of where you are going.

I use thick watercolour crayons on my canvases, because they leave beautiful marks that disappear completely into my acrylic paints and I find them easier to work with than a brush. Other artists sketch with brushes or charcoal. We all find what works for us in the end, so try out your options here.

Tack Up A Roadmap:

If you are working from a photo, put it where you can see it.

 Pull out the sketch you loved in your book and put it up on the wall.

Set up your still life in the studio.

Pin up swatches of colour and words that inspire you or relate to your work and ideas.

Make your painting space a place you want to be, and also a place that reminds you of your initial ideas and where you want to go with them.

Polish Your Image:

As you are working, continue to evaluate your ideas and the way you are executing them. This is where you can get “nit-picky” (if you are so inclined) with technical areas.

Do you need this line or can you obscure it a little?

Do things look balanced to you or is a little adjustment in order?

Where are the areas you want the viewer looking? Make these areas sharp, or add contrast or colour to draw the eye.

Does this colour evoke the emotion I want to convey or would another be better?

How do the shadowy areas contribute to the painting?


Clarity, in my experience is rarely a lightning strike. An idea can be a flash of brilliance, but I find I can never remember enough of that brilliance to create a painting I loved without fleshing it out  in sketches and through some trial and error.

Struggle with your art.

It is worth it.


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