Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Matter of Subject Matter

All paintings have a subject, but all subjects are perhaps not equal.  Subject Matter, ‘what the painting is about’ is one thing that seems to separate artists into: those that ‘are’, and those that ‘wanna-be’.  Artists know what their work is about and can tell you - a ‘wanna-be’ paints a picture.

It’s not how well you paint that makes you an artist, it’s WHAT you paint, and what you communicate through how and what you paint. 

In an earlier post, I have suggested that ‘real’ art (the stuff that makes it into ‘real’ galleries) is not about recording things or showing off technical skills, so what is it about? 

Paintings do have things like landscapes, flowers and people as their subject matter, and other paintings have unrecognisable content - colours, shapes or symbols, that we don’t understand.  Art can be a record of what we see and a technical exercise, but it is also the artist talking to the viewer.  The tone can be conversational and humorous or petty and cantankerous.  Some works are opinionated speeches or tirades.  Some are cries of confusion or frustration.  Some works shout, some whisper.  There are as many kinds of paintings as there are conversations, as many kinds of paintings as there are people.  Paintings are made by people, about things that are of interest to people and for people.  Some art work is full of intense emotion that we can sense even when we don’t know what it is all about.

Many people look at an art work, expecting it to be a beautiful picture, a picture of something that the artist has seen, (or even imagined) almost like a postcard.  I think an art work is like a postcard, but not the picture.  It is like the writing on the back where the person says something, tells something, sends a message, comments or relates an experience.
Some paintings are more like a sum than a letter, a place where the artist works out a problem and leaves the working out on the page.  This is confusing to a viewer who expects a picture and can’t figure it out or understand the method.  We usually appreciate this kind of art more when we know about the artist and his ideas.

A work of art is the way an artist tries to express what he is thinking, and/or feeling.  If I believe this, then I need to look for my own meaningful subject matter in my own thoughts and feelings.  (Sketchbooks, notebooks, diaries and journals are good places to find these.)

Some of my 'thoughts and feelings' in my notebooks, sketchbooks and journals.

So, What Can I paint?

When we look for our own subject matter, we need to look at our interests, for things that fascinate us and make us feel something, subjects that we want to talk about. Just as we harp on certain topics in our conversations, or we dwell on things in our thoughts, we will turn to certain subjects and topics to harp on in our paintings.
Our own subject matter is not something that we will find outside of ourselves, like a good photograph to copy.  We need to look inside and get to know ourselves and let that out in our paintings.  We have to work hard to understanding ourselves and what we want to say, and then work hard to be able to say it.  This is a long process. It may take a long time to get it right.  We may never get it right, but it should be fun trying.

Quote of the Day
"In a large measure becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive."
David Bayles and Ted Orland in Art and Fear 


  1. Hi Kerry, I think much of what you say here is true, but I'm trying to get my head around the idea. To quote again your opening lines:

    "All paintings have a subject, but all subjects are perhaps not equal. Subject Matter, ‘what the painting is about’ is one thing that seems to separate artists into: those that ‘are’, and those that ‘wanna-be’. Artists know what their work is about and can tell you - a ‘wanna-be’ paints a picture."

    Would you agree that art is by its very nature subjective? So regardless of the fact that not all subjects are equal, the art itself appeals subjectively to different people. In other words it is the artists skill for bending the subject matter in such a way as to make people view it in a different light. I don't think you can separate an "artist" from a "wanna-be" on this basis unless you draw in the commercial value of the artwork itself, and this can be influenced by marketing and contacts within the "art world" as much as by talent. But then you could say that the definition of "art" should be measured by how much people are willing to pay for it and that is in my opinion an inaccurate gauge of an artwork's true value.

    A good piece of art created by a talented artist is intrinsically and aesthetically appreciated by almost anybody regardless of the subject or the price it will fetch when sold, but there are many examples of "bad" art in existence that people are willing to pay large sums for just because the "artist" has all the right contacts.

    This said, most "bad art" tends to be faddish, while "good art" will always hold its value or appreciate with time.

    Whatever the thing is that makes art appeal on a mass scale though seems to be very tricky to pin down, and my guess is that its a confluence of skill, luck and timing in various proportions, and I suppose if one must add the commercial aspect to this then your link to the marketing dimension is key to a modern (as in this day and age) artist's success, whereas a wanna-be may be artistic but fails to capitalise on potential buyers desire with a poor marketing strategy regardless of the subject of their art...

  2. Wow! Thanks for this comprehensive comment! Perhaps I have not made it clear that what I have to say here is directed at the novice or beginner artist who is often so intent on making a beautiful picture that she loses sight of the importance of the subject.