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Ask the Art Professor: How Do You Begin to Think Conceptually as a Visual Artist?

02/20/2015 02:11 pm ET | Updated Apr 22, 2015

"As a visual artist, I have never been able to work serially. I feel stuck in a rut that seems impossible to break out of. I thought working serially might help me break out of it but here is the problem: I have never worked conceptually before. I don't put any specific emotion, concept, feeling or anything into a painting or drawing. How do you begin to think conceptually as a visual artist?"

Unfortunately, many art students are taught to learn technique and content separately. They are instructed to first focus exclusively on mastering technique because they are told that they are "not ready" to address the subject matter of their artwork. The consequence is that students develop technical proficiency, but in terms of content, their artwork is vapid and meaningless. This is a common problem that many beginning artists face.

To think conceptually, find a compelling reason to create your own original content. As an art student, it took me many years to figure out exactly why the content of my artwork mattered. I devoted all of my energy towards learning how to paint realistically, and didn't spend any time thinking about my subject matter. I had always been fairly confident in my painting skills, but my senior year, there was a student in my painting class who created breathtaking paintings which were incredibly vibrant. I felt extremely discouraged because no matter how hard I worked, my paintings just couldn't compare to hers in terms of technique.

When I started working professionally, this experience just became even more pronounced. Eventually, I had to accept the fact that there were always going to be people who had stronger painting skills. The only way I was ever going to distinguish myself was through my ideas. This realization provided the motivation I needed to start generating my own content.

Learning how to think conceptually is tough for many artists. The process is unpredictable, and there are no answers at the back of the textbook. Some concepts will flow easily while others will have you banging your head against a wall for days on end. In the beginning, I can guarantee that you will fail much more than you will succeed. Keep in mind what works for one person may not work for another. Be prepared to go through a lot of trial and error before you find a system that works for you. Here are some concrete actions you can take:

1. Develop both technique and content in every artwork.
Creating a piece that strikes an effective balance is exceptionally difficult, so this approach will be rocky and frustrating at first. Inevitably, you'll create pieces that are strong technically but weak conceptually, and vice versa. Even if you're unhappy with how things are going in a piece, push through and keep developing both aspects. Resist the temptation to revert back to creating pieces that only focus on technique.

2. Put everything on paper.
For many people, brainstorming means sitting down and running thoughts through your head. This is never productive. With no physical record of your thoughts, it's impossible to get any perspective on what you're doing. Instead, keep yourself active by sketching and writing as you think. Reserve judgment on your ideas and just let everything spill out on paper. Often times I will think an idea is stupid in my head, but when I sketch it out on paper, the sketch demonstrates a lot of potential. On the flip side, there are ideas that sound great in my mind, but are terrible on paper. You won't know until you've seen it on paper.

3. Aim for specificity.
The more specific your idea is, the more engaging it will be to your audience. Subjects that are too broad come across as generic and vague. I once had a student who said she wanted to concentrate on "20th century themes" in her project. Her topic was so immense that I had no clue what her project was about. By contrast, one of the most intriguing topics I've seen in class was a student project that was about Korean face massages. According to the student, the Korean face massages she received were extremely painful and the specifics of her vivid descriptions captivated the class. The fact that her topic focused on one area of the body within the context of a specific culture provided a strong direction for her project.

4. Push your ideas to evolve.
Many artists terminate their brainstorming process prematurely. My students tell me all the time after sketching just one or two ideas, that they have found the best idea. Good ideas don't happen immediately, your concepts need to go through multiple stages of development to fully mature. Give your concepts time to be transformed, manipulated and adjusted.

5. Recognize and avoid clichés.
If I had a dollar for every art student who drew a clock to represent time, I could send my kids to college for free. Clichés happen because an artist didn't take the time to think beyond the most obvious response. If you do an image search on Google of your subject, the same image that appears over and over again is the cliché. When I start brainstorming, I intentionally sketch out the most clichéd image I can think of. Once I identify what the clichés are, I can eliminate them and move onto something that is more unusual.

Actively think about your subject throughout the entire duration of creating an artwork. With enough practice, thinking conceptually will eventually become a permanent part of your artistic process.

Ask the Art Professor is an advice column for visual artists. Submit your questions to clara(at)claralieu.com