When a person suspects they may have mastered ‘how to paint’, they begin to ask the more complex question: ‘what to paint’. This is a dilemma, not because all possible subjects have been exhausted, but because there is a growing realisation that making art is perhaps more complex than just making pictures. The search begins for subjects to paint, and essentially, for meaningful subject matter to base the paintings on.
When we look for something to paint, we try and emulate artists that we admire. We look at their paintings and copy their subject matter. We try and find our own meaningful subject matter in this way. I think this approach is flawed, because we don’t always understand the work that we are looking at.
Some people think that art is like a postcard. They think it is a picture of places or things that the artist has seen. If art is a visual record of visual experiences, then a good work would be one that describes places and objects accurately and artistically. There are countless beautiful, moving examples of art that have as their subject places and things, but art is seldom just a recording of these.
Some people expect art to show the artist’s virtuosity, how well and true to life the artist is able to paint, and when these people make art, this is what they do in their own work. Many artists delight in honing and flaunting their skill, but a good work of art is seldom just that.
If art is not about recording things, nor an opportunity to show off, then what is it about?
I think that art is essentially an artist trying to express one of two things: What that artist is thinking and/or: What that artist is feeling. If we accept this, then we can try and incorporate this understanding into our own search for meaningful subject matter for our own work.