What’s the Big Idea?

Art instruction books typically begin at the same point — a long list of materials with helpful information about why we might need each item. Some are optional, of course, and the author shares his or her reasons for including them on the list. That’s great, especially for someone who is a true beginner in a particular medium.

In many respects, I am still very much a beginner in oils, having been painting for only four years. I enjoy reading through the materials lists, but at this point I already have a fairly good idea of what works for me.

Next, most art instruction books go on to lay out a few basics about the particular medium and how it’s applied. Oil painting instruction books, as an example, give exercises for brush strokes, painting with a palette knife, and general steps on how to approach a painting.

One thing that’s all too often overlooked, however, is the why behind the wherefore. Of course, if we’re following along with an art instructor — either through a book or with an online tutorial — we’re not choosing our own subject matter. Most likely we’re copying whatever “demo” the artist presents.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with following along as an artist shows different techniques, mixes various colors, and goes about starting and finishing a painting while we watch. We can learn a lot from such demonstrations. But at some point, we must move on. While we can gain a great deal of skill through art instruction, we don’t truly become artists in our own right until we set out on our own, and that means choosing what we will paint.

This probably does not sound problematic. After all, as artists we’ve come to see the beauty of the world around us. We’re awed by colors. We love the interplay of lights and shadows. It’s not so much of problem of “What shall I paint?” as “How can I ever paint everything I want?”

At the same time, though, choosing what to paint is one of the most important decisions we have to make before we head for the easel. This, I think, is especially true for landscape artists. While all the lakes and rivers and trees around us may be beautiful, the simple truth is that some scenes are better than others when it comes to art.

I’ve addressed questions before about focal points in art. Some art instructors go so far as to say that landscapes don’t always require a focal point, but I’ve come to disagree with that to a certain extent. A focal point serves many different purposes.

  • First and foremost, the focal point catches the viewer’s eye. It’s a way of saying “Look at me!”
  • Second, the focal point is a starting point. Once it’s caught the viewer’s attention, a good focal point should lead naturally to additional points in the painting.
  • Third, the focal point is a “center of attention” for what we, as artists, are saying with the painting.

Before I began studying art, I naively believed that focal point was merely another term for subject. That statement is true in some ways, but untrue in others. Having now spent a few years learning to draw and paint, I’ve come to understand that a good focal point isn’t so much a what, but a why. It’s not simply whatever we’ve chosen to paint; it’s the meaning we find within it.

To put it another way, a focal point represents the BIG IDEA behind our painting, and this is the real starting point for any canvas we put upon our easel. As I browse through photos on sites like Pixabay, I’m looking for those that make me stop and take note.

Here’s one that caught my attention this morning:


Now, I can’t say for sure whether or not I’ll be painting this scene, but looking at it gives me an opportunity to EXPLORE — my word for 2021 — the whole concept of finding a “big idea” behind a work of art.

So, what’s the “big idea” here? What was there about this painting that made me choose it from among the others on display? For this painting, the “big idea” is its warmth. I love the soft, warm color of the sky. I was also drawn in by the stark contrast of the dark foreground.

Contrast — the differences between light and dark — is the primary method we use to create a focal point in art. What I’ve learned is that a “focal point” is a single point in a painting where the lightest light and the darkest dark come together to create a sharp contrast.

It might be tempting in this scene to suggest that the sun is the focal point, but I’m more inclined to see the rosy glow at the center as the true focal point. This is where my view goes. From there it travels toward the sun, wanders along the distant hills and comes around the the dark foreground. There, having traversed the entire scene, I’m ready to leave the painting and move on.

Many — most — of my paintings lack a “big idea”, and as I continue learning about mood and atmosphere in landscape oil painting, I want to pay close attention to focal points and how they serve to express a “big idea”. That big idea represents the reason I’m painting the scene. It’s too easy to paint something simply because “it looks pretty”. A gorgeous view of a lake. Distant hills. A stand of trees. Yes, those are all beautiful aspects of nature.

Yet without a “big idea” that connects us to our subject, we’ll be left with “pretty pictures” that don’t have a strong narrative. We need “big ideas” before we begin to paint, and then, as we paint, we can work to make that “big idea” a strong focal point for our work.


  1. I have been an artist for over 40 years. I must say that starting with a landscape painting would be a hard gig for me. I prefer something more close up. Good luck with your journey.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. I’m glad you liked the photo I chose. I’ll probably paint it sometime over the next few weeks as I continue learning about “mood and atmosphere” in oil painting. Wish me luck!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. One thing I love is finding parallels between art and so many other creative endeavors, and, as you said, to life itself. We’re all interconnected at a deep level, and I believe creativity springs from the same source.

      Liked by 1 person

I'd Love to Hear Your Thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s