How to Successfully Begin a Creative Work: Vision, Materials, Research & Composition

Every creative work starts with an idea, painting is no different.  You must start with your vision for the work.  Once you have the idea, take time to consider the type of surface or support, size, and whether to build or purchase it.  I built my own canvases for years, mounting them on hard board.  This gave me a firm surface to work on with added durability.  The problem I faced was weight and time.  Often I was moving a large body of work from my studio to a gallery or show.  Some of these pieces were 36” X 48” paintings and were very heavy.  If I couldn’t park close to the gallery, I was carrying them long distances, adding an extra challenge – especially on a windy day.  Eventually I switched to a stretched linen canvas.  They’re still durable, but light weight and easy to move.  When working on a canvas that isn’t backed, it’s important to know that the canvas will bounce from a quick moving brush stroke.   

For purchasing your supplies I recommend Blick Studio.  I’ve always lived in remote areas making it difficult to get to a good art store.  Not only can you buy all types of supplies from Blick Studio, but they can also answer your product questions.  Another resource I would recommend is The New Artist’s Manual: The Complete Guide to Painting and Drawing Materials and Techniques.   

After settling on your idea and size, you’ll want to progress into your research.   I’m prominently speaking to realists.  It’s not unusual for me to research hundreds of photographs for a few days before settling on the perfect combination.  However, I avoid placing every rock, blade of grass and tree into the painting.  A piece can get busy and your eye should have resting points.  So choose wisely what is necessary and what is not.  I rely heavily on photographs for the subject, color scheme, lighting , time of day, background, and foreground.  There are also various parts of the work that come out of my head.  Such as placement of the subject, size of subject, horizon line, general theme, texture, and undercoating.    

Hand in hand with the research is your composition.  A work should have a focal point, with everything else falling away from it and ending in a vanishing point.  Even if I have multiple subjects, there’s always one that catches your eye first.  For me, that subject is the first thing that pops into my head when I’m contemplating a new work.  From there, I consider the emotion I feel and want to convey, which then relates to everything else in the piece.  The placement of all the objects in a painting are to be well thought out.  Each one will either add or detract from the subject.

Another thought is observation.  As I write this I’m sitting at my laptop, it’s early morning, I’m gazing out through some very large windows.  The sun’s not up yet, but the sky is waking up.  There is a scattering of deep blue-gray, wispy clouds dancing by.  They’re beautiful!  Most people won’t notice them this morning, but regardless they are there, teasing me to be captured on canvas.  To see what most people don’t see is such a blessing.  It inspires me constantly and causes me to seek all the details.  This form of observation should be allowed and cultivated by the artist.  Always take time to see the world around you, it’s exciting, delightful and energizing. 


Years ago, I was at a gallery in Colorado.  The owner had just come back from a purchasing trip in Europe asked me to go downstairs.  He then showed me many original works from the old masters.  I was in awe, delighted, and shocked all at the same time.  He began pointing out things in these paintings that I was doing naturally.  He was speaking in an art language I wasn’t familiar with or understood. 

Many years later I was taking some college classes in math.  The professor asked us to do a report on Fibonacci and the Golden Spiral.  As I researched the topic I was amazed at what I learned and the relation between nature, mathematics and art.  The old masters used the Golden Spiral and that’s what the gallery owner was trying to show me.  I didn’t have the math knowledge but I did have an eye that recognized it.  I never realized there was a correlation between math and art until that moment.  Luca Pacioli, a contemporary of Da Vinci said,  “Without mathematics there is no art.”  If you’re not familiar with the Golden Spiral then you may want to research the topic, it’s incredible and useful.  This is why your composition is so important. 


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