Sunday, April 1, 2018

What's the Big Idea?

My first career was in advertising. I was an art director for a few different advertising agencies over the years, beginning my career in the country’s advertising hub at the time, New York City. As I began my career, I took some advertising classes at night at the School of Visual Arts. These classes focused on developing a concept for strong advertising messages. And, as with painting, it was definitely a skill that required practice, experience, and knowledge of what’s been done in the past.

The instructors at the school (all full-time art directors and creative directors at the big, well-known ad agencies at the time) stressed to us that it’s more important to first zero in on one clear big idea and then develop individual messages from that overall “umbrella” idea. This is basically how an ad campaign is developed. If the advertising relies too much on merely catchy phrases or flashy graphics, the message isn’t as strong as if there’s an overall concept that serves as a driving force behind each individual message.

If you’ve ever seen the movie “What Women Want” (with Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt), the plot is set in an ad agency, and I think it’s one of the only movies I’ve seen that accurately portrays the thought process of how advertising creatives come up with a “big idea.” Maybe it’s done differently these days, but this is how we did it when I worked in the field. The comical premise of the movie leverages how much of that process of conceptualizing an initial idea is very much a mental challenge that has to come first before anything visual or written can be developed next, with Mel Gibson’s career-greedy character suddenly having the magical ability to read the inner thoughts of Helen Hunt’s character. In the movie, they develop an ad campaign concept for Nike, directed toward women. Their concept is “No Games. Just Sports,” which would become the umbrella idea for each individual advertising message from Nike to their female demographic.

And now, after almost 25 years from when I moved on from my advertising career, I’m realizing that my more successful paintings are those for which I was able to first identify an overall big idea for what I want to visually say in the work. Since I love to paint light in the landscape, that usually plays a major role in my idea. But it often goes beyond that. And whatever visual idea I choose to latch onto, it becomes the driving force for how I handle each individual area of the painting, so that the painting as a whole will clearly convey my visual concept (the big idea).

In the recent paintings shown below, I describe my big idea for each piece.

Dusk on the High Desert, 8x16, pastel. Available at the IAPS 32nd Juried Exhibition at the American Art Company, Tacoma, WA, March 16 – April 30, 2018.

It’s all about the intense glow in the sky. Everything beneath the sky is set up in terms of value, chroma and composition so that it showcases that glow. 

A Higher Calling, 20x24, oil. Available at the OPA National Juried Exhibition, Steamboat Art Museum, Steamboat Springs, CO, June 1 – Sept. 3, 2018.

It’s all about the massive space at the top of this mountain…you know, that feeling you get when you stand on a mountain high above everything else and see for miles. The arrangement of the grass and snow patterns, and their converging sizes, as they lead toward the sliver of light in the sky, all contribute to that feeling.

Approach to Mount Hood, 20x24, oil. Available at Mockingbird Gallery the month of June 2018 during a 2-person show, "Nature's Journey," in which I'm featured.

It’s all about a huge upward, distant climb to the top (in this case, merely the top of one section on this enormous mountain). The high horizon, descending sizes of the rocks into the distance, and the small size of the trees at the very top support this idea.

Mount Bachelor from Dutchman Flat, 24x20, oilAvailable at Mockingbird Gallery the month of June 2018 during a 2-person show, "Nature's Journey," in which I'm featured.

It’s all about the contrast between the huge but barely visible mountain and the dense mass of trees that reaches all the way back to that mountain. This sense of distance contributes to the magnitude of the mountain despite its subtle indication.  


Centralia, WA - 3-day PASTEL/OIL workshop

April 20-22, 2018
"Painting the Poetic Landscape"

Bend, OR - 3-day PASTEL/OIL workshop 
May 22-24, 2018
"Composition Boot Camp" (studio & plein air)
We'll begin in the studio studying techniques to develop well edited compositions, and then apply them to field studies at two spectacular plein air locations.
Contact: Sue Manley,, 541-408-5524

Stevensville, MD - 3-day PASTEL/OIL workshop
June 8-10, 2018
"Skies, Water & Trees"
Chesapeake Fine Art Studio
Contact: Hai-Ou Hou

White Bear Lake, MN - 3-day PASTEL/OIL workshop
August 14-16, 2018
"Landscape & Light"
White Bear Center for the Arts
Contact:, 651-407-0507
$475/member; $570/non-member (A discount is available for students new to this art center.)

There's more!!! ... For FULL WORKSHOP SCHEDULE, go to