"Trust your intuitive self. All answers are within you." Audrey Flack
© 1999 Nita Leland
Artists are frequently plagued with this question. The answer is not so much about what to paint as it is about why you paint. Robert Henri said, "What we need is more sense of the wonder of life and less of this business of making a picture." I think he meant that we should allow ourselves to feel the subject more deeply and think less about how it looks.
What is the subject, after all? The subject is you: your perceptions (interpretation of visual sensations); your intellectual grasp of the subject (your knowledge and understanding of what you see); and your feelings (your emotional response to what you see). Eugène Delacroix said, "Everything is a subject; the subject is yourself. It is within yourself that you must look and not around you....The greatest happiness is to reveal it to others, to study oneself, to paint oneself continually in [one's] work."
Ask yourself, "What am I trying to say? What is the best way to say it?" Define a concept or essence and describe this in two or three words. Communicate this idea through your materials, techniques and design. The design you choose should support your basic concept. The elements of design are line, value, color, shape, size, pattern and movement. The principles are harmony, contrast, rhythm, repetition, gradation, balance and dominance. When elements and principles work together effectively, you achieve Unity, the ultimate purpose of design.
And this brings us to where you find your subject matter and source material. According to Igor Stravinsky, "The faculty of creating is never given to us all by itself. It always goes hand in hand with the gift of observation. And the true creator may be recognized by his ability to find about him, in the commonest and humblest thing, items worthy of note."
The best subjects are found in nature: still life, life studies, outdoor painting. Observe, select, simplify and organize objects in a picture that describes your response to what you see. Use a 35mm slide mount or some other viewfinder to isolate the area you want to concentrate on to help you compose your picture. Add your memories, use your imagination, exercise your creativity and your sense of humor.
If you decide to work non-objectively, you'll use pure design, either organic or geometric. The subject here may be one or more of the elements or principles of design. For example, it might be a painting about color or repetition or movement. Paintings like this can stand on their own or work as a plan for an abstraction with some reference to a subject.
What about style? Style is a natural development, not something you arbitrarily decide to do. It happens naturally. Your style and subject fit together perfectly if you're painting the right subject for you. Choose your own subject matter, not something you've seen someone else do. Your interest in the subject shows in your work. When you copy, your work lacks conviction. Draw inspiration from your close observation of a subject. Use your own sketches or photos, so you feel the ambience of the place and express it with your colors, shapes and brush strokes in your own picture.
For suggestions on subject matter for realism, see The New Creative Artist.
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