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How to Understand What You Want to Say

by Keith Bond on 1/9/2012 9:38:01 AM

This article is by Keith Bond, Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews.  You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.


Not long ago one of my students said to me, “I don’t even know what I want to say [in my paintings].”


We were discussing the reason/purpose/motivation/inspiration for doing a painting.  His technical abilities are at the point where he can take his art to the next level by having something to say – by having meaning in his painting. 


There is a difference between merely rendering a subject and feeling something about a subject and then expressing that emotional connection.  Don’t get me wrong.  Rendering is important.  It isn’t about rendering vs. expressing.  It is about rendering and expressing.  It is both observing and feeling.


I have felt my student’s frustration as well.  It took me years to understand on a deeper level what I wanted to say with my art.  It took a long time to understand my muse.  Often, I would be out painting en plein air and come across a scene that spoke to me.  I had to paint it.  But I didn’t know why it spoke to me.  I didn’t know what it was saying to me.  I just knew that I responded in some way. 


You might be at that point, too.


Let me share a simple, yet often overlooked exercise to help you identify why you respond to a subject.  If you understand why, you will make better decisions when it comes to determining how to paint/draw/sculpt/photograph/sew your subject.




That’s right.  Write.


Suppose you are standing in front of a beautiful landscape that caught your attention.  Take out your sketchbook and begin writing what you like about the scene.  Is it the light, the textures, the colors?  Is it the arrangement of shapes?  Is it the solitude?  The peacefulness?  Is it a mood – hope, optimism, melancholy, excitement, awe?  Is it the majesty of the mountains?  Is it the vastness of the prairie?  Maybe it’s the chaos of tangled brush, twigs, and briars.  Perhaps it is the evidence of man living in harmony with nature as seen in well tended fields.  Maybe you see the scene as a metaphor for something you are experiencing in your life.  The list is really endless. 


This exercise works for any subject, not just landscape. 


I have found that if I spend a few minutes trying to articulate on paper what I see and feel, then I gain greater clarity and understanding.  Searching for words helps me understand what I am feeling.  You will find that your understanding as well as your emotional response will deepen over time.  You will begin to respond on multiple levels to your subject.  You will begin to have a relationship with your subject.


With this insight, you can then manipulate your medium, your composition, your color choices, etc. to find the best way to express your emotional response to the scene. 


After making a few notes, do a few thumbnail sketches in your sketchbook.  Ask yourself, how do I express x, y, and z? Does a square format or a rectangle best support the idea?  What proportion of rectangle?  1x2 proportion?  Does a low or high horizon express the idea better?  Horizontal?  Vertical?  Do I crop in tight on the subject, or give plenty of space around it?  An intimate scene, or a panorama?   Large canvas or small?


How can I manipulate the composition to support the idea?  How can I rearranging the elements to add to the composition?  Do I divert the stream?  Transplant the trees?  Move mountains?  What elements can I leave out?  Where do I place the center of interest?  How do I lead the eye?  Where are my sharpest edges?  Lightest lights and darkest darks?  Do they support or hinder my idea? 


What quality of brushstrokes do I use?  Thick and bold, long and fluid, short and choppy?  Thin and feathery?  Transparent, opaque?  What combination/variety can I use?  Where?  Do they support or distract from my idea? 


Notice, with all these questions there is one common denominator: Do they support the idea?


You will move away from simply rendering a scene – as beautiful as it may be – to expressing an emotional response to the scene.  Your art will be filled with more meaning, because the subject has more meaning to you.


In time, identifying what you respond to, and knowing how to express them will become more intuitive and will flow more naturally.  You won’t need to walk yourself through every question all the time.  You will already know.  This exercise is designed to help you get to that point. 


So start today.  Write.  Analyze.  Do it with your next artwork.  Then do it with the one after that.  Continue to do it until you discover that you already know intuitively what you want to say.


Go, now.  Take out your sketchbook.  Write.


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Topics: art appreciation | art education | creativity | FineArtViews | inspiration | Keith Bond 

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Stephanie Benedict
Great post. I've heard it said before that by putting our thoughts into words helps us clarify our thinking, indeed, that we may not know what we're thinking until we try to verbalize it. But I hadn't really thought about applying that to my paintings before! Thanks for the great idea.

Carol Schmauder
I love this advice, Keith. I think it is a great idea to write down your feelings about a subject. I, like Stephanie, had not thought of doing this before. I pick subjects to paint because they move me in some way but I can't always identify what it is exactly that makes me want to put that particular subject to paper. I am definitely going to put this advice to good use.

Natasha Isenhour
Beautifully, simply said. I am pushing myself out the door into the world of plein air. I am so smitten with the landscape yet have seldom painted it. You hit on the issue precisely. I haven't really explored exactly what it is that makes me fall in love with the terrain here in NM ovee and over again. My paintings have always been about the emotion that the subject raises in me. Always. And each time it is about how i identify with an element or perhaps many elements within the subject be it a bird ir a building. It is so easy then to both render and express what i see/feel. I am going out the door with my pochade box and my sketch book right now! Thank you for the breakthrough!

I have been journalling for years to figure out what I want to say but never this way. That is a great idea to do it immediately, not the next morning.
It is amazing, the impact of seeing words on paper, because sometimes when you do it is like "WTF that is not me! Where did that come from?" or the opposite "Really? How amazing! that explains so much"

R Yvonne Colclasure
Thank you so much for this post, Keith. I have been in this gaping void for a while now, almost to the point of just giving it all up because there has been no life in my paintings, though they are reasonably well executed. They have lacked that certain something that makes them speak to other people. I will definitely adopt the practice of writing as well as the thumbnails before painting now.

Sandy Askey-Adams
Thank you Keith...a wonderful article.

Now if it could only help me get out of this artists block. Not where I want to be for these many past months. More to it than what meets the eye.


I was just talking about this topic with my business partner and sister collaborator. We were talking about this in context of another artist who is our age and working on her thesis and dissertation. My partner co-curated a show with her. We came to the conclusion that many artists early in their careers or lives (depending on when one awakens to the creative) tend to become excited about their ability to create, not necessarily having a reason to create outside of the ability to do so.

We deduced that it takes time, often a long time, to develop a voice that has something to say outside of recording what one sees or considers beautiful.

Having something to say requires evolution of the person, the artist. It's an ongoing process. Not necessarily linked to skill development.

We as a team always ask those we work with what it is that makes a person paint, draw, film, video, photograph, design, compose, print, perform and so on. For us it is always exciting to encounter a person, and artist, who wants to wrangle with a social, psychological, political, philosophical dilemma.

Sheila Psaledas
I used to write down my initial thoughts and feelings, but found another way to get it done. I use a voice reccorder when I go painting. Soemtimes when I am trying to jot down all of my thoughts I get side tracked. With a reccorder I can just let my thoughts flow out. I replay them a bit at a time as I am working, then when I get back home I listen to my verbal notes again as I am finishing up. It's also been a great help for remembering the location of my field trips, because in the past, especially when I am just driving around taking photos, I don't always pay attention to road signs.

Ned Mueller
Wonderful subject! I am always telling my students that most paintings are ruined at the start..mainly because not enough thought, ideas, planning are given consideration. I was kind of fortunate that I was an Illustrator for over 25 years and almost always did small value studies and color studies of the assignment I was given...this really helped in growing into being a "fine artist" and I was always amazed by how many of my artist friends and students did not do this. Now, there is a lot to be said for sometimes just diving in...but most really successful paintings are given a lot of thought and then even more after seeing the painting with a fresh eye..six months later! I have done a lot of plein air shows the last few years and have found that they are a lot of fun and we all get a lot done, but they can lead to some bad habits due to time restraints and such. On the other hand I think that thinking too many things out can take away some of the joy and exploration of the finished piece..but those are thoughts that can take up a book or two of thinking!

Marsha Hamby Savage
What a wonderful post and great questions to ask oneself! I have always had questions that I tell my students to ask right up front about what drew them to the scene, is there one thing that just made them go "wow, etc. ... along with many you listed. Thank you for bringing the subject up at this time. This is a good idea to get back to in this new year. A very valuable tool to find how to up the level of one's work.

Keith Bond

You are right. There is a point when over-analyzing takes away the joy and sponteneity. It's a delicate balance. But even if an artist doesn't plan everything out, knowing what you want to say is critical.

Lisa Manners

Thank you so much. Your article today is inspiring. I am aware of which subjects evoke my deepest feelings. They are the very same ones that I try over and over to paint, am never satisfied with the results and never finish. Your idea of writing about the subject is simple and brilliant. I can't wait to try this and see what happens.

Sharon Weaver
As you point out, writing is one of the best exercises to help an artist understand what inspires and motivates them. I like the idea of pinpointing the element which first caught your eye. The "why" is often the single hardest point to articulate but if you can it keeps your work much more focused. As you paint you can ask yourself if you are being true to your original vision.

Donald Fox
Students of writing are often taught two basic questions to ask before writing: what is my purpose and who is my audience? Painting and writing are both forms of communication. Most of the questions you suggest are addressing one or both of the basic writer's questions. Successful writers also brainstorm, which is exactly what you're doing by writing in your sketchbook. Good post.

Diana Moses Botkin
Thank you for articulating these excellent thoughts, Keith. I wish I'd known to think about these points to get my mind right (write) decades ago!

Kathy Chin
Thanks for the article really makes a lot of sense to write things down. Better that than to have a vague feeling about why you like the work.

Thanks again for the great idea!

Lee McVey
Excellent article, Keith. Writing is not often associated with painting, but it certainly can clarify why an artist chooses a subject to paint and clarifies the difference between copying the scene and painting the emotional response to the scene. I've been asking my students to write a sentence or two about why they chose a particular scene. Too often, some of them will simply say I like the rocks, or I like the water. Then I start asking questions about what it is about the rocks or the water that appeals to them. It really causes them to slow down and think about why they are painting.

I've enjoyed reading everyone's responses to your article.

Esther J. Williams
Keith, I am glad to see this written, I have always felt that writing about anything you do helps you to grow. I`ve been keeping journals for years but my artist sketchbooks are my favorite. In them you will find the thumbnails, notes, inspirations and keywords. Sometimes when out in the fresh air I will write down a full descriptive story about a place that intrigues me and not paint it right away. Later, if I go back there to paint, I find that story and read it again. It is remarkable how it draws out the muse and gives clarity to what I want to say and how to go about and paint it. Other times I do just as you requested, write about that scene just before I paint it. I did that on Saturday, there was a wilderness location that I drove to and when I spotted the scene that spoke to me from my heart, I took out my small black sketchbook. I sat down with the thermos filled with my decaf coffee and began to write a poetic story. The word 'wild' kept coming into my mind. It affected how I approached that painting process and how the piece turned out, a wild feeling and looking workstudy that held it`s own merits. I listened to my inner self and produced something new and unusual.
In reading through my sketchbook of 2011, I began to see quite a lot of growth that took place over time. The evolvement of an artist is a incredible journey that only we can guide through our inner sanctum. We write our own book of life and our art is the visual result of what some people think should remain unspoken in words.
When time is of the essence as in a plein air competition, I still feel the quick sketch and a few notes, like keywords will help set me into the right direction of what to say with that load of paint on the tip of the brush. Sometimes I just dive in and paint when I am under extreme pressure to produce a workstudy in very short time.
By the way, Kevin Macpherson has an exercise in one of his books about writing what it was that provoked you to paint a subject. It is the Style vs Content exercise. He states, "style is not an end to itself; the message is what matters." He describes how to write a story in 20 words of how a scene made you feel. Then reduce those 20 words to a poem eliminating any unnecessary words. Ask yourself what gives your poem it`s power. There`s more, you will need to read it in his book "Landscape Painting Inside and Out."

Donna Robillard
I loved reading the suggestion of writing what we want to say with our art. I had never thought of that before, and I can see how it would give focus to what I want to say. Thank you for the very helpful advice.

George De Chiara
I discovered that writing about my work has helped me understand why something spoke to me when I first started blogging about my paintings. I've been amazed at how much more of an understanding I have now of why I choose certain subjects to paint and my approach to painting them. Great idea about making those initial notes in the sketch book first.

Phil Kendall
Paint...analyse...record...paint...repeat...Microsoft One Note 2010 is good for this process

one day my art will have a will be my last work of art and the first one into my estate.

Hello Keith:

Thanks once again for a very interesting blog. I am an artist and teacher and have often talked to my students about taking their art beyond just a replication of reality. Your idea about writing down how your mind and soul are reacting to what is in front of your eyes or mind is something I totally agree with. This thoughtful approach is what makes the difference between a masterpiece and an illustration great advice write on.

jo allebach
I couln't agree more. With out the voice and neassage to get across it can be a nice painting but will lack connection to the viewer. This writing excercize I feel will clarify my nessage to make a much more dynamic piece of art.
Thanks for all the messages.

tom weinkle
great suggestion. thank you.

Kim Jacobi
If you had told me 3 years ago that I would be an artist I would have said, "I have a job." I do batik, an ancient resist form of dyeing fabric using melted wax. About a year ago I was in Palm Springs and went to meet a very successful abstract painter. He told me that an emerging artist shouldn't change his style until he had "exhausted all he had to say with his current style." Since then I have tried to figure out what I was trying to say with my art. Did I HAVE anything to say. WAS I saying anything? Your article has helped me to understand what that abstract painter meant. Thanks much!

Kim Jacobi

Elayne Kuehler
You have written a wonderful article. New students just starting out, but who already have a great appreciation for fine art, many times do not realize that there is great psychology in great artwork and they as students will benefit greatly by getting in touch with themselves to discover what it is they need to be painting to fullfill and gratify themselves. It takes a lot of quiet time to do that. Artists need a lot of quiet time to think about the depth of their work.

Thankyou Keith for the wonderful artcle/advice. It has put some peace in m mind which turns a bit chaotic once faced with the overwhelming beauty of any landscape! I will try writing down my thoughts as you suggested.
thanks once again...


Regina Halliday
You really have a way of connecting with the reader and I love how expressive and honest your articles are. Yes, connecting to a picture and convey why you painted it in the 1st place brings out the best in your artwork. I try to answer all the questions in my artwork. Great article!


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