How to Develop a Unique Painting from an Idea

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CSI for Art (Concept, Scheme, Innovate)

Unique Painting Ideas
"Ooh, I like what you're doing, might just have to use that idea...". Image © Getty Images

How do you take the beginnings of an idea for a painting and develop it into a finished painting? There are three steps: research, development, and execution. I call it CSI for Art: Concept, Scheme, Innovate.

Concept: The initial idea you have for a painting, or something you see've that's inspiring or you'd like to try, that's the concept. You do some research and investigation on this idea, to see what else you might discover, whether it's about a particular artist or paintings by different artists on a similar subject or in a similar style.

Scheme: Figuring out what you might do with the concept. The aim is to consider options and alternatives, develop and refine your idea(s), try out a few through thumbnails, sketches and/or painting studies.

Innovate: Mix what you now know with your creativity and usual artistic style, to come up with something that's yours as you create your full-size painting.

Next page: Let's look at each of these in more detail, starting with the Concept...

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CSI for Art: Concept

CSI for ArtIdeas
A page from my sketchbook where I was developing a concept for a painting inspired by the still-lifes of Morandi. Photo ©2011 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

An idea for a painting, a Concept, can come from anywhere and everywhere. It might be something you see outside, a painting in a gallery or one a friend's done, a photo in a magazine or on the web, a line of poetry or from a song. It can be a vague idea or a definite idea. It doesn't matter what it is; what matters is that you take the concept and develop it.

If you're short of time, still take five minutes to jot down the idea in your painting sketchbook or creativity journal. Do it immediately, while you remember. Then it's saved for a day you may need to break creative block or wish to try something new. If you use a sketchbook to investigate an idea, you've got all your bits and pieces in one place. It's then easy to sit and look through it all. Another option is to put everything into a file, to keep it all together.

The first thing to include is the initial concept, the thing that caught your interest. Make notes about what you like about it, then dissect it by taking each of the elements of art in turn. Some you'll probably look at more in-depth than others. I know I tend to focus most on composition and color.

The photos above are from my sketchbook when I was studying the still life paintings of Giorgio Morandi. The pots against the red at the top right have different lighting; in the one arrangement the pots cast a shadow, in the other there's strong light from the front. To the left are thumbnails of four of Morandi's paintings, with notes on the lighting, shadows, and where the foreground/background line is.

Elsewhere in my sketchbook I stuck in photos of my favorite paintings by Morandi, made notes on the colors Morandi used, the style of the pots he used most often, things that caught my eye. One thing tends to lead to another; follow it to see where it takes you. Once your head is buzzing with information and ideas, think about developing these into a painting.

Bottom right in the photo is a result of my Morandi research, a small study I painted of the pots without any shadows (neither cast nor form shadows). I then made notes in my sketchbook (not shown in the photo) about what I did or didn't like about the study, as well as other ideas this prompted. This is part of creating a Scheme for a Painting, which is looked at on the next page.

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CSI for Art: Scheme

CSI for Painting Ideas
Some pages from my sketchbook where I've tried out variations on my idea. Photo ©2011 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

Once you've researched and investigated your concept, it's time to Scheme, to develop and plan. Think of your sketchbook as a sketchbook, notebook, diary, photo album, all-in-one. There's no right or wrong way to record the information and ideas you're gathering and developing, do it however you like but be sure to do it. Take a look at this photo of pages from a notebook of Leonardo da Vinci's notebook and you'll see how the pages are full of written notes. Sometimes that's faster or more helpful than creating an image.

The photo above shows more pages from my sketchbook when I was studying the still-life paintings of Morandi, where I'm looking at how I might turn the ideas I've got into a painting. Top right I've made thumbnails of ideas for compositions. Middle right I've made color swatches for a possible limited palette.

Bottom right I've made three studies in watercolor of a composition. I put the pots on a piece of paper, then turned the paper to get different viewpoints. (I also traced around them so I could reposition them exactly if I ever wanted to move them to another table.) On the left is another study I made, of quite a different composition.

The point of a study isn't to create the perfect still life painting, but to try out an idea without investing too much time or paint. You can then easily compare and analyze, make notes of what you like or don't, and benefit from further ideas that painting the studies generates.

You'll get to a stage when your fingers itch to paint an idea at full size. Then it's time to Innovate..., which is looked at on the next page.

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CSI for Art: Innovate

CSI for Painting Ideas
Still-life painting inspired by those by the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi. ©2011 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

By the time you've got the Concept and Scheme done, your fingers will likely be itching to start the painting "for real". This is the stage to Innovate, to mix your creativity with your idea and research to produce a painting that's your own. Choose one of your options from your sketchbook, decide on the colors you're going to use, the style of brushwork, the format, and so on. Make a note of this in your sketchbook, then get painting.

The still life shown in the photo is one I did after studying the paintings by the Italian artist Giorgio Morandi. The pots and jars depicted are my own, bought from charity shops for this project. The arrangement is one I chose after having done studies of quite a few options. The colors I've used echo Morandi's, except for the use of dark Prussian blue in the foreground. Again, the foreground/background colors I chose after having done some studies with different colors.

Don't artificially constrain yourself by thinking "Oh, I could never do that". It may be you're attempting something at the limits of your present painting skill, but by doing it you'll be building on those skills. You may not get the result you wish, but you'll definitely learn something by trying. Keep the painting and a year from now try again, then compare the results. You'll probably be pleasantly surprised at the improvement.