Subject matter


Dear Artist,

Jane Super asks, “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.

Best regards,


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.”

The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thank you for writing.


Passion for women
by Nicholas Pearce, California, USA

18 years ago when I moved from being an illustrator to a painter I was faced with the problem of what to paint. At first I did high realism paintings of the light on the water in an attempt to abstract reality but they were still illustrations. Then one day, when I was looking through Robert Bateman’s book I realized that he painted nature because he was a naturalist. So I had to figure out what I wanted to look at and paint. In other words who I was. I realized that what I love to look at and feel an affinity to the most in this world is women. Since then I’ve made a career out of painting women, nudes, portraits, dancers. I never tire of the subject and can’t imagine spending the time and effort painting anything else. I was surprised at the reality of my passion for painting women but I’m certainly glad to have realized it. Of course it’s not the subject that’s important but how we paint it, and how we paint is directly related to our passion.


Mental notes
by June Raabe

I am constantly making mental notes, a scene, the light, and the effect of shadows on snow. I sometimes write ideas down. This week I have several ideas. I was washing off a beautiful set of crystal champagne flutes, when I thought “how neat the shapes! Painting glass is always a challenge, how many different ways could I pose these glasses? How about a crocus in one? A row along a window sill, a gathering of the glasses in different postures?” On the go also is a large painting of tulips, two attempts and I haven’t given up. I took the photo a year ago and those tulips still fascinate me, their shape the bold red and white stripe of their colors. By the end of the week I HAVE to have a painting done, matted, framed, titled etc. for an upcoming show. It’s not started yet. It’s a busy week and so I am scrambling with ideas. Maybe the snow covered stairway, with the shadows? You are right sketch-books are invaluable, and I have no shame, I go back and use old, old sketches to start me off on something new. Sometimes I get a catchy title in my head and that is the starting point… like “will the real egg please stand… (up)” I collect stone eggs and old egg-cups, another source of inspiration. Looking in art magazines also gives me ideas of “what to paint,” bearing in mind I don’t want friends to say, “I KNOW where you got that idea from!” It is amazing what we find fascinating and what also fascinates viewers. I once painted washing line of bathing suits and towels titled “After aqua-fit.” My reward was a young man looking at it framed, fascinated and saying how much he liked the picture. It didn’t sell, but who cares, someone responded to it and my emotions while painting it.


by Sherry J. Purvis

It is not what you are painting. I finally figured out that I can sabotage myself into believing that I have to be inspired in order to paint. Not. The real inspiration comes from the actual working. It’s like my mind is overflowing with the possibilities. The biggest problem I have is finishing the one I am working on, when my mind already has something new to do. It truly is difficult to stay in the moment. There is a way to connect with subject matter and draw from infinite sources. Find a subject you like, such as florals, still life, figurative, whatever. When you have found your area, decide to experiment by doing the same basic subject, but in different colors. Let color be your guide to discovery. I am currently involved in still lifes. Though, they are not my favorite subjects, they certainly lend you to the creative process. I painted two in acrylic, now I will do 2 to three in pastels. I am always wowed by the change in medium and find that by switching in mid stream one flows over into the other. Simply put; don’t let subject matter keep you from painting or creating. There are a thousand different excuses for avoiding the process. This is just another one.


Be far away from the standard
by Catherine Yakovina, St. Petersburg, Russia

A lot of feelings and thoughts are expressed by different symbols in art. It gives the standard understanding of different subjects for many people. For example we know that the smile of the person should express the gladness. It is not so always. I think the main thing for artist is the imagination. The main thing for artist is possibility to be far away from standard expression of different feelings and thoughts. We should find something new by ourselves. Every new door presents new space. We should not think much time about the subject of art work. Art work will show the way by itself. It is like the unknown river. We can not imagine the way of the river if we sat down inside the boat. We should not think about the opinion of critics and viewers, or the rules. It can kill the freedom of imagination. Artist need in own space of feelings which is always the truth for artist. It is not important that this truth can be a different truth for different people. Nevertheless if artist is not good person then artist can bring evil by art works in the world. I think the freedom for support of evil by art works can not be allowed. The calm is important for artist. Being sure is important for artist too. The world, dream, feelings, nature give much deep information. Artist should express it for art work.


To choose or be chosen
by Warren Criswell, Benton, Arkansas, USA

The getting started methods you suggest don’t work for me. I can’t choose a subject — the subject must choose me. At least that’s the way it seems. For all the activity involved in painting, there is something oddly passive about it. It’s almost as if one is being manipulated by a mysterious inner self which has its own obscure agenda. When I consciously choose a subject and know exactly what I’m doing from start to finish, the result is usually not very satisfying. The paintings of mine which really knock me out are those I do as a puppet. Creativity in general may require a certain disarmament of the ego.


Subject matter in Brittany
by Phil Levine, NY, NY, USA

Brittany was the last region in France to join the Republic — about 500 years ago. That will tell you something about life there. The Breton people still see themselves as a region apart from the rest of France. Even the national autoroute system stops at the borders of Brittany. There is a mystery and beauty that is so real and unpretentious, a people who appreciate and welcome foreigners without reservation or judgment, a coastline that can be rough and stormy or quiet and bucolic. I love to paint there. Growing up by the sea I have a particular affinity for Brittany. When I paint in Pont Aven, or Concarneau, or the Gulf of Morbihan I’m in heaven. I’ve also discovered a new painting location: inside any of the great cathedrals and churches. I have never been denied permission and sometimes in the heat of July and August it’s real nice to set up my easel in a church where it’s cool, the light is constant and the mystical feelings are pervasive. Last year the minister at the church in Peucadeuc (pronounced pluck a duck) gave me permission to bring my whole group in there to paint. The mayor offered a room in city hall if it rained and we needed indoor space for painting.

(RG note) France enthusiast Phil Levine is the organizer of my Brittany workshop this coming September. He also has workshops conducted by Ann Templeton, Charles Sovek, Gregg Kreutz, John Lencicki, Ellie Weakley, Cathy Goodale, Paul Gould and John Pollard in other parts of France. A new article by Phil Levine:”Plein Air Painting Overseas” with useful travel information can be seen on “Wet Canvas” at


“Why do you make art” survey
by Laurie Seskey

I’m a senior BFA major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. I’m compiling a collection of responses, 30 words or so, from artists in answer to the question: “Why do you make art?” I’m including different levels of experience: students, professors, nationally and internationally known artists. I’m also including responses from exchange students who represent different cultures, unique experiences, and methods of art education. I’m interested in an artist’s motivation, subject matter, influences, personal goals, and anything else you feel would be relevant in answering the question. I am assembling the input on April 10, 2002.


Contest entries

 The following are a few more of the 350 or so entries that have come in since the contest was announced. They are not necessarily finalists in the “Free Painting Workshop in Brittany with Robert Genn” contest.


“Sun trap”
watercolour painting
by Tania Bourne


by Maureen Bader










“Coyote shirt”
linoprint by
Stuart James Burgess, Bruce Peninsula,
Ontario, Canada


oil painting by
Victoria Veedell, New York, NY, USA










“Fuchsia in birdbath”
oil painting by
Linda Hoard, Washington, USA









You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 97 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.

That includes Sally Webster, of Scotland who wrote, “Sitting looking out of the window thinking I want to be an artist, just doesn’t work!”


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