A painting’s concept needs to be considered from two directions and with two separate purposes in mind. The first is the artist’s purpose, which helps to focus the painting, unify it, and help it accomplish what the artist is trying to express. The second is from the viewer’s perspective, not only in trying to ascertain the artist’s purpose but also (and this is entirely personal and individual and may or may not conform to the artist’s actual intent) what the painting suggests to that viewer.
My own feeling about the importance of “concept” is that an artist must have a concrete purpose to know how to effectively “say” anything through his/her work. Although a certain amount of ambiguity can add interest to a work, the more ambiguous a concept is, the greater the risk the artist takes that the viewer will not understand or appreciate what the artist is attempting to express. So it can be a challenge to find the right balance of precision and “looseness” to keep the concept clear but the execution interesting.
There are many types of concept that can be expressed through art—not only aesthetic (the conceptual category of “Bouganvilla Spray,” above), but narrative, descriptive, emotional, and so on, which often overlap. These are general categories of concepts, which may be broken down into more specific concepts (for instance, the plant’s gem-like translucence, in the case of “Bouganvilla Spray”). Whether or not a viewer’s assessment of the artist’s concept is “accurate” is largely immaterial; the purpose of trying to identify it is to make us think more deeply about what drove the artist’s decision-making throughout the creation process. The recognition and interpretation of many concepts rely heavily on the viewer’s background and experiences, which will never align perfectly with those of the artist.
This means that the artist’s job should usually be more to evoke a response from the viewer than to recreate a specific experience. The viewer‘s responsibility is more in assessing his/her personal response to the painting. If the viewer interprets it according to the artist’s intent, most of us would agree that the artist has succeeded. But in many cases, we can never know exactly whether that conceptual assessment is accurate; we can only guess.
(This is not to say that successful expression of concept necessarily equates to technical mastery–it does not! After all, a child’s expressing, and the viewer’s understanding, of the descriptive concept of “family” can be successfully accomplished with very simple and imprecise stick figures.)