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?”
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.
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.
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.