How Art Speaks

“Concept is the reason that you’re painting the painting. It is the idea that you wish to convey to the viewer, and it is the guide to everything that you will do in your painting — from the selection of the surface you paint on, to the approach used to paint, the color scheme, the values, the edges, and all other considerations.” – Marc Hansen

Art is a form of expression. We all know this intuitively, whether we’re viewing a work of art or hoping to create one of our own. Art has something to say to us, and as artists, we have thoughts and ideas we want to share with others. Every good drawing or painting should tell a story, and, true enough, many times a work of art speaks to us.

But how does this happen? What are the means by which art becomes a language of its own capable of expressing thoughts and sharing a narrative?

It begins with our desire for self-expression in art. From there, our desire becomes a concept. We first must understand and define for ourselves the ideas we hope to convey with our painting.

Although I’ve been painting now for nearly two years, this is still a very new practice for me. Up until now, most of the oil paintings I’ve done have been subjects not of my own choosing. I’ve followed painting demonstrations in books I’ve read, I’ve watched oil painting tutorials from Artist Network, and I’ve made up my own practice exercises to help me learn various landscape essentials, such as painting mountains, or painting skies.

Now it’s time for me to move forward, to begin painting more from my heart instead of my head, to find my own voice as an artist, and to create landscapes with stories to tell.

Again, the question is how? What are the specific means of expression we find in art? What elements do we use to convey our thoughts and emotions? I’m reading a lot on this topic, and I’m discovering many different ways. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned.


Color, of course, is one of the most significant forms of artistic expression available to us. I won’t attempt to list all the ideas associated with various colors. A search online will provide many references. Books on color theory may also provide helpful information on color symbolism.

Color Symbolism

Color alone, however, isn’t enough. Colors can mean many things. Red, for instance, may symbolize love or express danger. All right, it’s possible these two ideas are in some way related, and maybe at some level we do perceive love as dangerous, but that’s stretching it a bit, I think.

Other colors can also be contradictory. Yellow can symbolize joy and happiness, yet it’s also the color we associate with cowardice. Or consider orange. I used orange in this painting in hopes of expressing my thoughts about autumn. To me, autumn is a time of warmth and wonder.

Autumn Lake - Framed
Autumn Lake – Oil on 9 x 12 Canvas Panel by Judith Kraus

Not my best painting, and perhaps not even a good expression of my thoughts about autumn, but had someone told me that orange not only symbolizes warmth but also approaching danger, I might have thought twice about using the color. Still, I can see how the autumn season is a time of approaching danger — at least, in the sense of winter coming. And then, too, how can we paint any autumn scene without using autumn colors? It is a bit of a puzzle.

The point, of course, is that each color can symbolize many different concepts, and these can vary from individual to individual. We may choose a color to represent an idea or as part of a seasonal scheme, but a viewer might have his or her own thoughts upon seeing that color.


Even something as basic as the shapes we use can affect the viewer’s perception. Triangular shapes are seen as sharp and may create feelings of discord or discomfort. Circles suggest peace, fulfillment, and infinity. Squares and rectangles provide a sense of responsibility and certainty. Odd shapes may leave the viewer perplexed and puzzled.

Light and Shadow

Undoubtedly, one of the best methods for creating mood and atmosphere in a painting is through the use of light and shadow. I’m working on this principle. Oh, how I’m working on this! Although the concept is a fairly simple one, it’s difficult to put into practice. Here is one oil painting where I’ve tried to show the morning sunlight shining through a clouded sky.

Where the River Rushes By - Framed

Yes, I tried. As you can see, I didn’t achieve the degree of lightness I hoped. Perhaps I can go back and re-do this a bit to add a stronger element of light.


Whether we’re painting or drawing, we have many different surfaces — or grounds — to use for our art. We can choose papers with varying degrees of tooth. We can apply different textures to a canvas with gesso, we can use acrylics or thinned oils for toning, and, of course, we can choose to orient our canvas in a particular way, or use a particular shape. A square canvas, for example, immediately suggests stability and security. Vertical paintings often have a sense of bigness or power. A horizontal canvas may give a painting the feeling of spaciousness and openness. 

Of course, much depends on what we do with our canvas or paper, but choosing a ground that’s appropriate not only for the specific medium we’re using but also for our concept gets us headed in the right direction.

Lines and Edges

In art, we speak of hard edges or soft, and we hear a lot about line quality. These are basic rudiments in learning to draw or paint, and they are also important elements in how art speaks to the viewer. Crisp, strong lines can feel harsh to a viewer. Soft edges and indistinguishable lines have a gentle sense about them.

Brushstrokes and Textures

Among the most important tools at our disposal are the brushes — and other implements — we choose. Good brushstrokes can definitely help use express our thoughts in a painting. Sometimes we want our strokes to be barely noticeable. Other scenes call for obvious brushstrokes. We can apply the paint in thick layers with a palette knife, we can use various methods to create delicate lines (yes, I’m still working on this), and we can experiment with other methods of putting paint on a canvas, watercolor on paper, or pastel on paper. With any medium we can — and should — experiment a bit, playing around to create different effects that help us express our emotions.



These ideas may be helpful, but they’re far from exhaustive. There are many other elements in art that are used to evoke mood, to create emotion, to give a painting an atmosphere, and to tell our stories. These include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Balance
  • Harmony
  • Repetition
  • Movement
  • Unity
  • Rhythm
  • Focus
  • Contrast
  • Pattern
  • Proportion

Our work may also include additional symbols beyond color symbolism. Dogs symbolize loyalty; roses symbolize love. Other common symbols include ravens as an omen of death or disaster, butterflies to symbolize transformation, and rabbits for fertility.

I’ve enjoyed learning more about the “how-to’s” of expressing ourselves through art, and I hope some of this information will be helpful to others. I’m truly only now beginning to think of concepts in painting, and I hope that soon my paintings will have stories to tell, ideas to share, and a visual voice that will make viewers not only stop to look but also to listen.

Please share your thoughts on tips, tricks, and techniques we can use to make our art more expressive!





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