How to Develop a Unique Painting From an Idea

Woman painting on a canvas outside.


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 Concept, Scheme, Innovate.

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Concept, Scheme, Innovate

Female artist on a ladder painting with spray paint.


Concept: The initial idea you have for a painting, or something you see that's inspiring or that 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.

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Artist notes for developing a painting with jugs of different sizes.

Marion Boddy-Evans

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, a photo in a magazine or on the web, a line of poetry or a line 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.

Even if you're short on time, take five minutes to jot down the idea in your painting sketchbook or creativity journal. Do it immediately while the idea is still fresh in your mind. Then, it's saved for a day you may need to break a creative block or you 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.

In the photo above, 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 these leads to see where they take 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.

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Artist sketchbook showing different painting ideas.

Marion Boddy-Evans

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, or 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.

This photo 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. On the top right, I've made thumbnails of ideas for compositions. In the middle right, I've made color swatches for a possible limited palette.

On the 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.

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A still-life painting showing four stages of progression.

Marion Boddy-Evans

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 the options from your sketchbook, decide on the colors you're going to use, pick the style of brushwork, determine the format, and so on. Make a note of this in your sketchbook, then get to 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.