What Is Your Intention?

I often ask my students what their intention is with a painting. Those that have worked with me for a while know what I'm asking. I'm trying to get the artist to tell me what they want the painting to say. What is their intention with this painting? What are they trying to communicate?

Having a firm intention in mind when you start a painting will free you. For instance, if you start a piece with the purpose of expressing joy, then certain formal elements will play into that. And certain elements won't belong or will be secondary. Joy denotes bright color, ebullient shapes, lively composition. That's different from a painting whose intention is grief or sadness. Somber colors, moody paint passages and so on, will be more appropriate for that type of painting.

To be clear, intention is different than inspiration. Sunlight casting shadows on a park bench may inspire you. You may love the idea of shadows on a park bench. It may feel uplighting and joyful to you, and you go on to express that intention. On the other hand, maybe the shadows on the bench remind you of loneliness or isolation. These are two very different ideas or intents. But they had the same inspirational spark. And the formal elements that create these ideas are also very different. Once you are inspired, you can then decide what you intend to do with that inspiration.

Structure is created with all of the formal elements like line, color, shape, texture, and composition. Intention relies on structure. And structure relies on discipline. If you're trying to express joy and you've decided that your palette is bright, bold colors, you can't just suddenly start adding in grays and browns for no good reason. Even though you really, really love Van Dyke Brown. You can't just add it because you want to. It won't work within the structure you have set up to create the intention that you want.

So it goes like this:

  • Inspiration.

  • Define the intention.

  • Create the structure by using discipline.

    Easy right?

Inspiration may provide the spark, but intention will provide the structure. And structure relies on discipline.