Subject matter

17

Dear Artist,

A question I’ve been asked is, “What is often a problem for me is choosing subject matter. How do you go about it? Is it because you are often inspired by what you see?”

olwyn-bowey_still-life-with-a-thrush

Still life with a Thrush
oil painting by Olwyn Bowey (b.1936)

It’s interesting to note that many of us simply “feel a painting coming on.” Subject matter can be almost secondary when you feel the urge. Relegated to a minor role, “It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.” But by and large we generally start with “something.” My experience has been that professionals have to learn how to get gold from all of their mines:

Re-invent your inspiration: Re-live your high points by going back to your reference: books, photos, sketches from travel or studio performances from the past.

olwyn-bowey_chinese-lanterns

Chinese Lanterns
oil painting by Olwyn Bowey

Get into the “set” habit: Sets are the most effective way to exploit and grow with a subject. Subject repetition brings nuance, variety, inventiveness. It’s not boring.

Vacuum your head: It’s those innocent baby-eyes we’ve been talking about lately. Look cleanly at the world around you. Shake off the old shibboleths. Say “Wow!”

Push paint: The mere act of beginning to work fires the imagination. Subject matter finds itself and you will move mountains to get further at it. It’s a high.

Kiss your lover: When we embrace our true passions (artifacts, animals, action, anecdote, atmosphere, allegory, anticipation, etc., etc.) we are soon invited to a tryst.

Persist: Nothing works consistently all the time. Be patient with yourself. Take your time. Regroup. I’ve found so much value in entering the studio and asking the simplest darned question: “What do I want to do today?” A few minutes of pacing — and then the penny drops.

olwyn-bowey_b.1936

Untitled
oil painting by Olwyn Bowey

Best regards,

Robert

PS: “One always starts work with the subject, no matter how tenuous it is, and one constructs an artificial structure by which one can trap the reality of the subject-matter that one has started from.” (Francis Bacon)

Esoterica: It’s a matter of getting to “yes.” You’re selling yourself on some possibilities. While you may not know the destination, you have at least a glimpse of the way. Subject matter may only be a glimmer, but it gives courage to your convictions. In the words of Olwyn Bowey, “I think I can make something out of this.”

This letter was originally published as “Subject matter” on March 26, 2002.

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17 Comments

  1. I always start with an idea, and before you know it, I am developing something totally different. I just go with the flow and see what turns out. It is always a surprise. Especially, when I pour paint, I am in awe, and think, how did this happen. This is why I don’t sketch, or I am not a plein air artist. I love being SURPRISED!!!

  2. I am drawn to color and the passage of light. My problem is not finding inspiration, but it is in having so very much of it. Perhaps because I am a lover of nature – and so each season brings a new joy. I think that taking a little time to slow down and pay attention, can bring delightful results with inspiration. And, of course, put the inner critic aside, and just paint!

    • I agree with you Paula , it is a good idea to slow down and smell the roses . there is so much inspiration . it is good to sometimes slow down and see what we are painting rather than painting everything we see

      • YES MY MIND WORKS IN SETS, AS A PORTRAITIST…PEOPLE WHO SERVE ME IN SOME WAY, LIKE A WAITER, BARTENDER, OR A PARTICULARLY FRIENDLY AND PRETTY GROCERY CHECKER, MY ASIAN HAIR STYLIST, THE FEMALE POSTAL CARRIER THAT DOES SUCH A GOOD JOB FOR ME……..ALL GET THEIR PORTRAIT DONE BY ME…..EVEN THE TV WEATHER GIRL, THE FEMALE NEWS ANCHOR, AND YES MY MAYOR WHICH IS DOING A GREAT JOB, GET A GRATIS PORTRAIT, LIFE SIZE OF TH EIR FACE…….I KEEPS ME HAPPY AS AN ALMOST NINETY YEAR OLD ARTIST, THAT IS WIDOWED, AND NEEDS LOTS OF NEW FRIENDS….HA HA….GEORGE IN SAN DIEGO.

        • George, that is so cool. And it is exactly the type of thing I want to do.
          ‘Mary’ has been serving breakfast from 6 AM to 9 AM at the Quality Inn in Billings, Montana for over 20 years. Once a year when we pass through, her welcoming smile and great bacon and eggs always bring joy to our hearts. She is just one of those people. I took a photo of her awhile back and it is my intention to paint a picture of her in that little kitchen nook and give it to her.

          You have just become my muse.

          Cheers, Verna :-)

  3. Lots of wisdom in these comments. At the best of times, I squint my eyes at the canvas and the image appears, whether pre-conceived or not.

  4. That is another fine one from the “Keys” master.

    Thank you Sara, for sharing!

    Since Subject matter upsets people and artists suffer if they fear a lack of it, I made the famous “O.Henry story” my own:
    At lunch with a friend one day, the friend marveled at O.Henry’s ability to find neat subject matter – “How do you do it?” Waving his hand as if to say “it’s everywhere”, he picked up the menu in front of him and wrote the outline for “Springtime a la Carte” on the spot.

    And that is the thing: to make that spark of surety in it , an always and forever thing – so much a part of you that you would not be you without it. It has nothing to do with confidence or vanity – but with the understanding and appreciation of the FACT of Subject matter and the artists’ ways with it.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BejVFJMnrvo enjoy the story audiobookstyle

    Thank you again.

  5. Thank you, Sara! As an experimental artist, I have the most difficulty sticking to a plan for a series of work or a variation on a theme, similar to Tatjana. I realize that the painting I’m working on may fit this mold or may not. The more “letting go” the easier it is to find the subject matter, albeit, random at times. My most interesting subject matter finds was merely lines that were already created on birch wood panels. To this, I was able to stick with the idea and create some variations in a series.

  6. Thank you, Sara! As an experimental artist, I have the most difficulty sticking to a plan for a series of work or a variation on a theme, similar to Tatjana. I realize that the painting I’m working on may fit this mold or may not. The more “letting go” the easier it is to find the subject matter, albeit, random at times. My most interesting subject matter finds were lines that were already created on birch wood panels. To this, I was able to stick with the idea and create some variations in a series.

  7. The wonderful British painter Pamela Kay talks of returning every year to the same subject matter as a form of intimacy. I love this idea. The first primroses, the unfolding roses, the ripening of cherries and apples is greeted each season as a dear friend who has been missed and whose subtleties of character will become more deeply revealed with every loving attention. Thus a “series” can span a lifetime.

    There are two ponds within two miles of my house that I could probably get a couple of hundred paintings from without much effort.

    Thanks, Sara, for continuing these posts.

  8. Shelley Ashfield on

    I often look up song lyrics and read comments by the songwriter re: the thought process behind the song. I continue to be surprised and amazed…who would have thought that Devo’s “Whip It” was inspired by the novels of Thomas Pyncheon? Likewise – an exhibit of Horace Pippin’s work at the Brandywine Museum really got me thinking about what provides inspiration. Allowing ourselves to think about what we care about, without getting too hung up on whether it’s a proper subject, suitable as merchandise. Same with Van Gogh – paint, write a letter, paint, write another letter, another journal entry. For too long, I’ve just “read” the pretty pictures in the magnificent coffee table books I own, and forgot to read the marvelous essays tucked around the pictures. Eye-opening, and starting me on my own journey of thought-process.

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