I always get a great painting idea when I’m not expecting it. I’ll be driving down the road, daydreaming, and all of a sudden I’ll see a cloud, a tree, a road and think of this great idea for a painting. It’s kind of like waking up in the middle of the night with that great business idea. The one that gets you excited, but then you go back to sleep and in the morning you say to yourself “I’ll start working on that tomorrow..” Then that idea never happens, because it’s always, “I’ll work on that tomorrow,” and that tomorrow never ends up coming.

It can be the same with painting, and I’m guilty of it too. Sometimes those great ideas are hard to tackle because they are in your head. I think that is the main reason why its so hard to start. Images in your mind aren’t always easy to reference. It’s not like looking at a photo and trying to copy shapes and colors. Ideas are much more abstract, and hard to define in imagery. That is why I love it. Interpretation of your imagination results in dreamy, surreal paintings. I think the hard part is just knowing where to start.

I figured I’d write a short blog on how I tackle an idea when I have one. Maybe it’ll help you put some of your imagination on canvas too!

About a year ago I had this idea for a painting. I wanted to do a painting of my grandfather looking back at himself as a kid. I wanted it to be literal, but at the same time a mystery. I thought about it a long time, and I just couldn’t get the concept right in my head. So I did what I always do when I can’t quite figure out how I’m going to put my idea on canvas. I get out the sketchbook.

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I found a picture of my grandfather with a side profile and I did a little sketch of it. Doing the sketch gave me my main character for my painting, and at the same time energized my mind. Once I had something down on paper I started thinking of other ideas I could add to it. So I’d flip to a new page and draw out some other ideas and a variety of characters.

When you sketch out your idea on paper you can make a bunch of mistakes without feeling too bad about it.  A quick sketch get’s you warmed up as well as gives you a foundation on which to do your painting.  Another reason sketching out your idea is great, is you can do multiple compositions and then decide which one is more true to your imagination.  Connecting your subconscious mind to your conscious mind takes practice when it comes to drawing and painting.  The more you practice putting your idea on paper the better you’ll get at putting your ideas on canvas.

Once I have all the elements of the painting sketched out, I then do a really rough sketch of my composition. How tall I want to make the characters, how much sky, how much land. Just some basic lines here and there. That gets me started with my painting.

Next, I use a variety of reference photos. I need to have some sort of reference for shape. Clouds and trees are easy for me to do from my imagination. People and animals are not. So I use reference photos to give myself some ideas, and some information that I can use so I can get believable shapes. I usually use my own colors and try not to worry about matching colors from a photo. Reference photos will help you bridge the gaps where you can’t think of how something looks.

I try to find photos that fit my ideas specifically.  By that I mean, if I have a certain stance or certain shape I really want, I’ll search high and low for a reference photo that gives me something to go by.  If I can’t find one in my photos or online, I’ll just do the pose myself, or find a tree in the yard that looks like something I want to do.

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Once I have a composition, and all my shapes on the canvas I put everything away. No more sketchbooks, no more reference photos, no more reference material. This is where I really take the painting from an idea to a real painting. This is where I really lock into my imagination, my idea. I allow myself to make some mistakes, or to make things up because I want it to look dreamy. I don’t want everything to be completely accurate like a photo. I want it to have that feeling that its mysterious and came from my mind.


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If I were to keep referencing photos, sketches or other material I would feel too constrained. I think that would then show in the painting. As artists we should force ourselves to trust our instincts, and trust our imagination. Trusting yourself to take all of those sketches and ideas to a completed painting is vital. Trust your first instincts when making painting decisions. Don’t second guess your composition. Stick to it all the way through. There are going to be times where your painting doesn’t look right. It is part of the process. Small adjustments are okay, but don’t give up halfway through. I always hit that point of “oh boy… this painting is crap,” but I get through it and everything starts to take shape. You have to get through the highs and lows when painting from your mind.

I like to throw on some music and lose myself in the painting. I’m not thinking about technicalities anymore, about color combinations, about art theory… I’m thinking about why I’m painting this image. That will take you to the finish, and then you can look at your imagination straight in the face.. on canvas.

Check out my mini documentary about this painting below!! Thanks for reading and watching!