Sunday, August 25, 2013

Realism, Concept and Innovation

The ability to render reality has always been a compelling skill for any artist to have. For the non-artist, the illusion of reality, painted or otherwise is just as compelling.

Why is realism so compelling?

Realism is easily digested, and a there is a level of comfort judging art on the basis of how convincing the rendition is. While there may be an idea behind the work, a viewer doesn't have to get caught up in whether the concept was successful or not to connect to the art.

For an artist, positive reactions about their ability to render realistic scenes is inspiring and rewarding. If you are an artist, at one time or another in your career, you will try to recreate the emotional experience by dissecting previous works and attempt to incorporate similar qualities into a completely different subject. Even if the result is disappointing, the exercise is certainly an effective way to improve one's technical skills and perhaps even sales.

Find The Right Balance

There is a challenge in the pursuit of mastering realism. The focus on rendering can shortchange the quality of the concept. Concept is the why and how of your painting. Without settling on a strong concept first, the pursuit of craftsmanship and skill will take over your art.

I'm not suggesting we abandon realism for concept, but I'm suggesting that concept is what makes art memorable.

If you think about all the memorable still-lifes, portraits and landscapes you have seen, which are the ones you remember most?

For me, Andrew Wyeth's Cristina's World, Raphaelle Peale's After the Bath, Eakins' The Gross Clinic, John Singer Sargent's Lady with a Rose. represent an ideal. While they are realistic, they are also grounded by a concept which keeps them fresh.

There's no question that realism is welcomed by many collectors and galleries alike. But there is an opportunity to improve and excel by exploring the notion of concept as well.

Commit to Exploring Concept

There are two ways to embed your work with concept. The first way is by developing an idea through sketching, and resolving the concept before you begin painting. The second way is to develop the idea as you paint, giving yourself permission to shift the emphasis from technique to subject and style.

Developing the concept as you go, even for just one painting, can re-energize your work and your art. The process may seem counter-intuitive, but I am confident that your heart will soar, and you'll connect with new energy to paint.

Coming to a neighborhood near you.
27 x 40, pastel on archival paper, © 2013 Tom Weinkle
Foggy Morning, 24 x 36, pastel on archival paper © 2013 Tom Weinkle
I paint using both processes, but the second way is more exciting for me. I've included examples of both approaches above so you can see the differences. The upper painting was completed with the idea in mind before I began. In the lower painting, the concept evolved as I painted.

Give both methods a try. See if the rules you were following to render reality suddenly are a little less important when you focus on concept. Find out if you have a burst of energy to explore, invent and learn by focusing on concept in different ways. Whatever style you are most comfortable with, I'm confident your skill and talents will grow along with your art.


  1. Oh, Tom, these are gorgeous!! Thank you for posting them in such a large size - They make PERFECT desktop backgrounds!! (And of course, your advice is priceless as well! I'm glad I signed up for your posts!)

  2. Thanks Rita! Just added yours and Barbara Benedetti Newton's blog to my list of artist friend's own blogs.