My first career was as an art director for advertising agencies in New York City in the mid-1980s. Around that time, I took classes at night at the School of Visual Arts. These classes were primarily for aspiring art directors and copywriters, and focused on developing creative, original concepts with strong advertising messages. And as with painting, that was a skill that required practice, experience, and knowledge of what’s been done in the past.
The title of my article, “What’s the Big Idea?” was actually the title of one of those classes. The class’s instructor did an amazing job of getting across to us—sometimes with humor, and sometimes more bluntly—that the best advertising begins with a very focused concept.
This instructor and others (all of whom were full-time art directors, copywriters and creative directors at successful agencies) stressed that it’s vitally important to first zero in on one succinct statement, and then develop individual messages from that overall umbrella idea. This is basically how an ad campaign is developed. If the advertising relies too heavily on only catchy phrases or flashy graphics, the message isn’t as powerful as when there’s one specific, overall concept that serves as the driving force behind each individual ad. Clever wordplays, or even humor can sometimes augment the message, but a focused concept is always the most important.
If you’ve ever seen the movie “What Women Want” (a film that came out in 2000 with Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt) the plot is set in an advertising agency, and I think it is one of the few movies that accurately portrays the thought process that advertising creatives use to come up with a “big idea”. Maybe it’s done differently these days, but this is how we did it when I worked in the field. The comical premise of the movie leverages how much of that process of conceptualizing an initial idea is a mental challenge that has to come first before anything visual or written can be developed. Mel Gibson’s career-greedy character suddenly has the magical ability to read the inner thoughts of Helen Hunt’s character. In the movie, they develop an ad campaign concept for Nike directed toward women. Their concept is “No Games. Just Sports.” That concept would become the umbrella idea for the individual advertising messages from Nike to their female demographic.
Now, after nearly 30 years from when I moved on from my advertising career, I’m realizing that my most successful landscape paintings are those for which I first identify a distinct visual concept. Since I love to paint light in the landscape, my concept usually revolves around light in some way. My goal however, is to pinpoint a very specific visual idea regarding what’s special about the landscape, and how I’m responding to it. Whatever idea I choose to use, that idea becomes the driving force for how I handle each area of the painting, so that the painting as a whole will clearly convey the original big idea. Some areas of the painting will simply serve a supporting role to the main concept.
For example, if I were to identify light skimming the top of a snow-covered rocky slope as my big idea, I would address the overall composition, and each supporting area of the painting so that it best showcases that light skimming the snow and rocks on the slope (as I did with the painting shown at the top of this article). The composition may also have trees and grasses, and the sky peeking through the trees, but those elements would be edited so they support the central theme. If instead my concept was to feature the light peeking through the trees, I would create a very different composition that emphasizes that area as the star of the show, with alternative portions of the composition edited to supporting roles.
To further explain, I’ll show examples of my paintings and describe the big idea behind each:
Big Idea: Radiant light reflected from the rocks and water. I set up the composition for this piece purposely to showcase the patterns of strong light and brilliant blue sky bouncing off of the rocks and water. It’s tempting to define more of the distant area on the other side of the river, but that part of the composition plays only a supporting role so was kept at a minimum.
Big Idea: As stated right in the title, the passage of light. Sometimes the title comes first before I pick up a brush, which helps me stay on track with my concept. This painting’s message revolves around the pull of the sunlit pathway into the trees, summoning the viewer to follow the light and explore further into the landscape. Notice that I continued the light into the distance, but edited it quite a bit to keep the initial passage of light as the main idea.
Okay, so painting concepts aren’t usually as clever as advertising ones (although some certainly can be). And it may seem like my painting concepts are fairly obvious. But when an artist looks across an overwhelming view of a landscape, a distinct painting idea (what to emphasize about the landscape) may not be readily apparent. There are often many different directions the artist can take regarding how to portray a portion of that landscape. The point I hope to make here is that the more you can focus a visual idea, the bigger the impact your painting will have.
I paint outdoors regularly so that I can gain a genuine understanding of my subjects. But many of my own favorite pieces that I feel have a strong visual message resulted from long hikes during which I took many hours to absorb what’s particularly striking about the landscape I explored. Sometimes I bring a small painting kit for mini color studies on these hikes, but more often it’s quick pencil sketches and detailed notes that accompany my reference photos that I bring back to the studio. With this approach, I can hone in on a certain magical element that stuck with me during my outdoor experience. Then back in the studio, I take my time to carefully explore studies that clearly convey that specific observation.
Big Idea: Magical evening light reflected on the mountainside. The colors on the mountain are quite elusive to photograph but breathtakingly magical in person. For this scene, I relied on careful notetaking with color charts along with sketches on location during an all-day hike. I followed that with multiple studio studies. Besides recording the color information firsthand, absorbing the brilliant visual effects throughout that day contributed to how I expressed my response to the subject.
Big Idea: Delicate branches showcased by strong backlighting. On location, an array of possible compositions presented themselves to me. Some of those compositions would have had me use the long cast shadows as the main idea. However, for this painting, I used the backlighting to feature the delicate edgework of the lacy branches, both in front of the light and within the resulting deep cast shadows.
Big Idea: Way up high. This one is all about being way up near the top of this mountain, and that feeling one gets when standing on a mountain high above everything else and can see for miles. The arrangement of the grass and snow patterns, and their converging sizes, as they lead toward the sliver of light in the sky all contribute to that feeling.
I have to admit that sometimes when I’m painting outside with my full gear, I can get caught up in the technical particulars as I’m racing against the light. Again, it’s only when I nail down a specific visual idea and use the short window of time wisely that I produce what I feel is a successful field study.
Big Idea: Colorful shadows in the rock. Although I often like to focus on the light hitting the rock structures when I paint at this locale, the large shadow mass here had such varied yet subtle temperature shifts, that I focused on nudging the range of color temperatures to show off those shifts. I kept all else in the composition secondary to this main idea.
Thinking back to my advertising days, I remember poring over the most creative, award-winning ads of the time, aspiring to reach that level. And now, of course, I do the same with the work of my favorite painters. In both fields, I realize that the work that packs the biggest punch always starts with a big ole solid idea!