Neutral subject matter


Dear Artist,

There are three main types of subject matter — positive, negative, and neutral. While there are loads of hybrid possibilities, I’ll describe three extreme works so you get my drift:


“Big Raven” (1931)
oil on canvas
by Emily Carr

Positive: Cats playing with a ball of wool. This is sentimental, feel-good imagery that is lightweight, light-hearted and life-enhancing. Some might call it “art lite.”

Negative: A posthumous rendering of the victim of a serial killer. This “important” work draws attention to a social issue. This is “serious” art.

Neutral: A generic tree floating in a cloud of light and paint. By leaving the literary sub-statement incomplete, and avoiding too much reality, an engaging image is produced. While somewhat vacant of meaning, this sort of subject may also have a positive effect on viewers.

Abstract art is generally neutral. By avoiding subject matter, abstraction may engage the sensibilities on a more sublime level. Elements such as colour, pattern and texture become the subject, and while abstract art may “suggest” something — by not directly coming out and saying it — the extremes of positive and negative are avoided. It’s the middle ground.

Many positive subjects such as landscape, still life and wildlife also can be segued into the neutral or negative zone. Recently, a friend was presenting her seagull paintings to a gallery. After looking them over, the dealer said, “I don’t think we can use these — seagulls make a mess on people’s cars around here.” The dealer was picking up on the negative aspect of the seagull subject. He must have thought his clients would too. After some thought, the painter realized that the seagull motif might be all right if it was merely neutralized and part of a greater design. Less seagull, more art. I’d like to tell you her hunch paid off, but that has yet to be seen.

While I’m not advocating the wholesale neutering of subject matter to make art more popularly digestible, I am suggesting that artists should be aware of these dynamics. It’s not subjects, negative or positive, that we need to render, exhibit and sell, but feelings. We’re in the feeling business.

Best regards,


PS: “The subject means little. The arrangement, the design, colour, shape, depth, light, space, mood, movement, balance, not one or all of these fills the bill. There is something additional, a breath that draws your breath into its breathing, a heartbeat that pounds on yours, a recognition of the oneness of all things.” (Emily Carr)

“The most deadly picture is a picture of nothing at all.” (William S. Burroughs)

Esoterica: What to do about figurative work? The human figure may be art’s highest manifestation. In my books it’s the toughest, and one of the most rewarding. Neutral it’s not. Being too general is to lose the most vital of human characteristics — personality. Being too specific lands the figure in the realms of photography and portraiture. Imagine, the very idea of stopping and holding people’s souls.

“To me Art’s subject is the human clay,
And landscape but a background to a torso;
All Cezanne’s apples I would give away,
For one small Goya or a Daumier.” (W. H. Auden)


Abstraction and mystery
by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA


encaustic/oil painting
by Alan Soffer

Representational work is usually a narrative, with its theme reminding us of something personal that we may have experienced. Abstraction tends to lead us into philosophical thought and a higher level of life’s mysteries. I know that Anselm Kiefer settled on using images so people wouldn’t miss his point. It’s hard to trust what the reaction will be to your work. What can we do but follow our instincts?




Approach not neutral
by David Nielsen, Calgary, AB, Canada


“Moraine Lake I”
original painting, 30 x 36 inches
by David Nielsen

I often joke with my friends, family and clients about my pieces:

“I started a new painting today.”

“Oh yeah? What is it of?”

“Y’know, rocks, trees, lake, mountains.”

The subject may be neutral, but the approach is anything but. For me it’s about the act of painting, the decisions made, the rambling thoughts, being out there… Art as experience. Or is it a focused, physical meditation? They are not really landscape paintings, rather painting of landscapes. Either way, how lucky we are to paint!


High energy neutral (not neutered)
by Carla Sanders, Hope, ME, USA


“Iris Nouveau”
oil on canvas, 24 x 18 inches
by Carla Sanders

Thanks for this article. It explains some of my dissatisfaction with recent commissions. Attempting to make imagery that the client requests shifts me into neutral, and the work lacks feeling. I have to find my own energy and feeling place in order to make something that attracted the client to place the order. It is always about the feeling: how the work makes THEM feel. I can’t control that. I just know I have to be turned on to make a piece that will excite someone else. The state of being excited is a high energy neutral (not neutered), and where it lands on the positive/negative meter is the observer’s part. I’ll be thinking about this one for a while.




Subject: feeling of outrage
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA


“Pieta” (1499)
marble sculpture, 68.5 × 76.8 inches
by Michelangelo

In a college seminar my professor was discussing subject matter in art. Like you, he made reference to a murder victim as the subject of a painting. “Too obvious and loaded,” was the general reply. The class was dismissive of the idea. The professor insisted, “No, no. This is one of the most frequent and popular subject matters for hundreds of years.” We just all sat there, and then the slides began to show up on the screen. The Pieta, Crucifixions by a dozen painters, Bosch, and on and on, for about 40 minutes. Just recently Botero, that South American painter of comical bulbous figures, has exhibited torture scenes from Abu Graib, here in the Bay Area. He used the same bulbous style for which he is known, but his shift from the comedic to the censorious was completely amazing. Outrage is also a “feeling.”

By the way, sea gulls have ruined far more paintings than car paint.


Connections not based on subject
by Elin Pendleton, Wildomar, CA, USA


oil painting
by Elin Pendleton

Abstract art is not “generally neutral” unless the viewer comes to it with a bland personality and no life experiences. It isn’t the subject that drives the art market, unless you are talking about a dumb market that has no upper-level experience with an art appreciation course. I’m teaching three sections online of just such a course, and the connections that students make to artwork is NOT based solely upon subject matter, as I ask them to bring their own raw experience to their writing.


Style of presentation
by Richard Clark, Vancouver, BC, Canada

As much as you may wish to categorize art in three categories to make a point about personal interpretation and subject matter, there are these concerns found in your paragraph that represents your view of negative:

At the beginning of the paragraph the painting’s subject is called negative, and at the end it is called serious. Negative and serious are not the same thing. I am reasonably sure you do not think that serious art is negative; however, that’s the way the words in the letter are phrased. No doubt you make a valid point in the letter about an artist’s need to be mindful regarding the interpretation and impact of subject matter. (Note: quotation marks imply some posturing around the use of a word, to imply a raised eyebrow.)

You are no doubt an expert painter. I, on the other hand, am an amateur painter, but I am an author/writer, educator, and therapist; I make my living with words and emotional interpretation; you with paint. Your valid point regarding interpretation (although admirable in intent), was rendered weak and lost its impact because of this style of presentation. There is a better way to present interpretational perspective. If you are interested, send me a note.


Harmony of Feng Shui
by Alex Nodopaka, Lake Forest, CA, USA


Graphic Construct
by Alex Nodopaka

Any artwork ought to achieve a feeling of harmony similar to the pseudo science of Feng Shui whose Chi’s must flow simultaneously in eight directions to evoke a positive feeling in the viewer.

There’s only one type of ‘serious art’ and it deals with clinical documentation. Anything else is artistic license and illustrative interpretation that incorporate the well-balanced geometries of dark and light and fields of color.

As to seagulls, their white droppings on rocks and pavements are expressionist abstracts.


Beyond decorative!
by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA


“Cloud Burst”
oil painting, 14 x 16 inches
by Mary Moquin

I am not certain that Kandinskywould agree with you regarding abstract art being neutral. Actually, I’m not quite certain what you’re trying to get at here. The quotations you have selected to share at the end of your letter suggest to me that you’re not inferring we should put too much stalk in this whole concept. I am certainly not going to neutralize my work to potentially appeal to a larger audience. On that note, I thought I’d share a note I received regarding my work. A well intentioned friend of mine with some connections referred my work to a publisher. The publisher wrote back: “Love this work… however, the work is too intense… too highly emotional for our buyers. This is really good work, but it’s too visually complex, not decorative enough.” I was highly complimented. Thank God my work goes beyond ‘decorative’! Paint your passion, the rest will take care of itself.


Artistry over subject
by Theresa Bayer, Austin, TX, USA


“Rats, my good fellow. Not cats.”
watercolour & ink on paper
by Theresa Bayer

My most memorable experience with subject matter was when a woman bought one of my small sculptures at an art fair. It was of a cat. She told me that she absolutely hated cats, but that the artistry of the piece was so excellent that she had to have it.

My most common experience has been that people buy according to subject matter, and that some do not differentiate between subject and style. Many times at an art fair someone would say to me, “Oh, your work looks just like So-and-so’s!” Later I’d go over a few tents down to look at So-and-so’s work and the style would be completely different, but it would be of the same subject matter, and of the same degree of positivity.

To me, and I’m sure to most artists, the artistry of a work far outweighs subject matter or style. We see the subject as a means to an end, the end being excellence in artistry.


Trying to express feelings
by Barbara Sutherland, Scarborough, ON, Canada


“Bergs with Floes”
oil on canvas, 30 x 36 inches
by Doris McCarthy

I am presently working on a series of paintings about the home of my mentor, Doris McCarthy and many feelings are coming through in the compositions. The meaning of the objects that have history, the warmth and love which fills the old home, all mixed with the loss I feel growing as I know one day this incredible woman will no longer be in my life. The feelings, as you say are the thing… the real thing I am needing and trying to express. I ask myself if it is better to just feel and paint or does one achieve a stronger result for the viewer by “orchestrating” a composition very deliberately to evoke the feeling at hand. I am having trouble working that out… as I don’t like to think and contrive too hard for fear of not creating anything that is “from the heart” and “an authentic piece of myself.”


Thought makes the content
by Carolyn Good, Mission, BC, Canada


oil on canvas, 25 x 30 inches
by Carolyn Good

It’s the thought that makes the content. Not the subject matter! In fact a painting’s subject matter is the thought of the maker, his/her vibration… except it’s subtle and many people can’t verbally speak about it. The soul sees it, though.

Abstract work can be very negative in energy or thought. So can serene pictures… It captures the thought, and the most elevated souls eventually rise to the top… or so it seems. That’s what we love about the greats — not the technique, but the timeless thought and the vibrations emitted…




Imagination and formal design in abstraction
by Veronica Stensby, Los Angeles, CA, USA


watercolour painting
by Veronica Stensby

I just started experimenting with abstraction and non-objective painting with the help of good teachers. It is a liberating experience and now I feel the ability to create WITHOUT a photo reference (I know that’s a crutch, too). Using the imagination and formal design is both harder and easier. Abstraction can require just as much planning as traditional styles of painting. I love the process of looking and seeing what emerges from the viewer’s mind as well as the artist’s.


Seagull appreciation
by Michaele Freeman, Victoria, BC, Canada


“Jonathon of Oak Bay”
pencil drawomg
by Michaele Freeman

Regarding the seagull… See attached my pencil drawing of a local seagull on his roosting rock… complete with “mess,” which is HIS mess and a part of his place on this earth. My thought was “what a beautiful creature he is.” The dealer didn’t appreciate the beauty in the beast, the soaring of the seagull, the whitest of whites… I, in my positive way, saw all those attributes in Jonathon of Oak Bay. The viewing of a painting comes from within, not just from what the eye sees.





Positive and negative reactions
by Clint Watson, San Antonio, TX, USA


“Mujer con Nina”
oil painting, 28 x 22 inches
by William J. Kalwick, Jr.

There’s probably no such thing as truly “neutral” subject matter. No matter what you choose, some people will enjoy it, others will despise it. Even abstract. As Geddy Lee from Rush said, “Even if you choose not to decide… You still have made a choice.” Having said that, here’s a recent excerpt from my blog that illustrates exactly your point of positive and negative reactions:

Last night, my wife, “P” and I attended The Night of Artists event sponsored by the National Western Art Foundation. Arriving a bit late at the packed venue, we immediately began enjoying the art. P seemed to enjoy taking a leisurely pace, talking with acquaintances, sampling the wines. I, being a man and relishing my “hunter” mentality, preferred a mad dash to find my favorite pieces of art. Needless to say, we opted for the leisurely approach.

After enduring two hours of socializing, mingling and glancing at the art as time allowed, we had seen all of the art and I had identified three or four favorite pieces. We happened upon what might, arguably, have been my very favorite, a painting of three Guatemalan Women in a marketplace — Nahuala Market by William J. Kalwick, Jr. P commented how much she enjoyed the painting above the jewel I had discovered… a nice, but ordinary street scene.

“What do you think of that one?” she asked, pointing at the street scene.

“It’s OK.” Then, timidly, “I kinda like the one below it.” (pointing to Nahuala Market)

“You can’t be serious. Why would you want a painting of people working? Do you want to be reminded of work? Who would want to do that type of work anyway?”

The painting called out to me as an example of artistic excellence. The women were perfectly positioned on the canvas, creating a balanced effect. The bright colors of their garments stood in glorious contrast to the deliberately muted warm grey background. No amateur had painted this piece. In addition, even though all three women wore colorful native garb, two of the three toiled in shadow while the third, placed directly on the golden mean, continued her work uninterrupted by our presence, mostly in shadow as well, with only her face and headdress in the light. The artist had masterfully executed these factors to create a focal point that led my eye into the painting and made me want to stop and stay a while. I struggled for a way to express all of this in a succinct way that would answer P’s question…

“I like the painting because THEY are doing the work and it reminds me that I don’t have to…”


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Neutral subject matter


From: tata — Jul 08, 2009

what is the subject matter of a painting?






Red Saltbush

woodcut/linocut/stencil painting
by Ouida Touchon, NM, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes Vona Marengo of Worcester, MA, USA who wrote, “While this is an interesting idea, I don’t completely agree on the abstract being neutral. My thinking is color is very emotionally charged and therefore it has great power for the viewer! To me that isn’t a neutral state of being neither for the artist nor the viewer. No I am not an abstract painter! JMHO! (Just My Humble Opinion)”

And also Louise Gloslee who wrote, “I paint loose and quasi-representational. I feel now I don’t have to be any one else just my own personal style of painting is a pos contribution to art. Thanks for reinforcing that in your letters.”

And also Dave Wilson of White Rock, BC, Canada who wrote, “When you say ‘we’re in the feelings business,’ I hear someone who is trying to speak for me, which is the antithesis of why I love ‘art.’ I love art because it’s my place to BE out loud. Paintings are a different form of ‘song.’ Some songs have message and content. I like Bob Dylan, not the Monkeys.”

And also Jane Brenner of Santa Rosa, CA, USA who wrote, “All good art is abstract. The abstract qualities are those that make the difference between illustration, literalism, banality. If one thinks of the paintings of Pollock and de Kooning, one can hardly think they are ‘neutral,’ or is there something I’m not getting?”

And also Elizabeth Concannon of St. Louis, MO, USA who wrote, “Abstract is not without meaning. ABSTRACT art (paintings, dances, songs, poetry, prose, etc.), generally in my experience, carries an idea or feeling or emotional response by using symbols or design to give voice to a question or an answer or just refer to an issue, place, time, thought, feeling, etc.”

And also Gail Guenther-Mazer of Towaco, NJ, USA who wrote, “Vacationers come through and LOVE the seagulls because they remind them of that place. People LOVE horse, dog and wildlife pictures but never think about the ‘debris’ left from all these live subjects. If her seagulls were engaging enough, I would think they would sell. Of course this is just my opinion.”




Leave A Reply

No Featured Workshop
No Featured Workshop

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.