View Full Version : Why do you paint the subjects you paint?

06-21-2013, 10:51 AM
So - I bought some WC boards, to play with and try varnishing, and am having a happy time painting a gloriously incompetent still life...:D

It got me to thinking - many folk here have their 'specialty' subject, maybe landscapes, florals, portraits, urbans, etc ( there are, of course, many who paint almost anything really well - although, I think, they too will often have a 'favourite' subject area?)....and I wondered :

a) Why people pick the subject area they paint the most - is it just a gut feeling and knowing that this is what they 'want to do', that this is what they 'care' about painting...or is it because they feel they paint it 'better' and so concentrate in that area, possibly right from the start ?...
I suppose it boils down to ('chicken and egg' style) ....are you better because you have the love for that subject area...or is it that you are more motivated and practice it more so therefore become better.... or a combination?

b)Which then led on to - 'Should' someone be able to paint in more than one subject area, in the interest of rounded painting skills?...even if they have little interest in some subjects and will always prefer to do those they love?

I'm just curious about people's thoughts on this - and why they paint what they paint


virgil carter
06-21-2013, 12:13 PM
Suzanne, you raise interesting questions. I'm sure that there will be many different answers, since painting is such an individual expression.

I think the goal of painting is to find one's own preferred personal expression; not to paint like someone else.

I am motivated to paint by subject matter that I know and love. For me, that tends to be landscapes and urban/townscapes. I like the contrast between natural, organic objects and geometrical, man-made objects. I never run out of interesting subject matter to paint, whether from life or from source materials such as my sketches and photos.

My approach to painting is not to be realistic, but rather to explore ideas, emotions, thoughts or feelings I may have about my preferred subject matter. I have little interest in painting subject matter other than landscapes and urban/townscapes. I look at subject matter as I do at books: why read a book you don't enjoy or one for which you have little interest?

Everyone will have their own preferred subject matter and approach to painting, as they should. You should get a lot of interesting replies.

Sling paint,

06-21-2013, 01:59 PM
Yes, gut instinct. My hand knows what it wants to do and when it wants to do it. I can tell myself that it might be a good idea to try painting a tree or something. But what really happens is I discover that there is a piece of watercolor paper with a sketch drawn out and initial washes applied, and I scarcely know the process that made that happen.

06-21-2013, 02:44 PM
I take lots of photographs and usually compose them with a possible painting in mind. I lean towards landscapes and architectural scenes but have painted portraits and florals. I rarely do still life. I also love sketching plein air.


06-21-2013, 04:41 PM
They say "Paint what you love" and with most people I think this is true. My love is florals but I've done landscapes, still life's and portraits too. I love trying any and all subjects but in the end I seem to be happiest while painting flowers. I paint them with my camera too ;) and have flower gardens in my yard at home. I've found that if I am painting a subject that I really don't like then that particular painting won't usually turn out to be one of my favorites; but trying different subjects stretches my skills and makes me grow as an artist. It's all good. :D

06-21-2013, 08:27 PM
I am drawn to painting people, more than anything. I was a lifetime face doodler before I began painting, so I guess I was always studying, in that respect. In a portrait, I see a landscape of gesture and emotion, and a story.

06-22-2013, 05:31 AM
It does sound like it's mostly heart /gut doesn't it - if you love something in particular you will paint it more and, probably, better?

As for 'not favourite' subjects - I like Virgil's analogy re books - why read a book if the subject matter doesn't appeal - (although at my stage of painting I think dipping into a few different kinds of 'books' is probably better for my 'general education', even if my heart isn't really in them!).

Thanks for taking the time to answer - I'd love to hear more opinions if anyone would like to contribute.

06-22-2013, 05:53 AM
Definitely, my heart, and my passion for the subject.

06-22-2013, 06:01 AM
I often take photographs and paint from them, and I also paint plein air -- so it's often subjects in my world -- lighting on a flower, friends, people in the mountains, squirrels or birds, clouds and mountains playing hide and seek, the many moods of the lake

sometimes the "subject" is the lighting, sometimes the subject is a mood, a few times it is an illustration of a Bible verse,

sometimes I paint something because i think a friend or family member would like it, sometimes I'm compelled by the uplifting music of the texture of a cloud, sometimes I just paint from one my photographs because I think it would be a successful painting

I usually avoid still lifes because they don't move me.

06-22-2013, 07:36 AM
Great questions! I paint dogs because they resonate with me...and I get paid for it sometimes. There is always a fun challenge to find and convey the soul/essence of the animal spot-on. Truth be told, I seem to have the goal of making people cry (from happiness)--because so many report doing so when they receive their dogs' portraits. :angel:

I sometimes (not often enough) paint flowers and glass and reflective things because they interact so wonderfully with light and I enjoy the challenge of sorting out the visual puzzle and trying to represent it in watercolor.

Landscapes and people portraits are two other things I am trying to learn to do better because they also offer interesting challenges. My goal with landscapes is to simply be able to produce adequate (by my reckoning) works, mainly in sketchbooks. With people, I would like to get comfortable enough to say "yes" when I am asked to paint a dog and person together in a portrait.

The more I learn about value, composition, and the characteristics of my paint, the less the subject seems to matter ... Good paintings happen when sound design choices are made and skillfully executed, regardless of subject matter.

06-22-2013, 08:02 AM
It is a really great question, Suzanne!
I have painted many different subjects, but nothing motivates me like portraits do. I feel like I connect to a person more than I do to a landscape or any other subject. And I totally agree that if you are painting what you love your painting will almost always be better!

06-22-2013, 10:06 AM
What an interesting thread, Suzanne! I look around me and I'm overwhelmed by the beauty and variety of subjects that I want to paint.

I love painting florals. Their colour and complexity fascinate me. When the sun lights up one petal, it shadows another. The vibrancy and texture changes dramatically as blooms begin to fade and they're also fascinating!

I love painting still lifes because I find the forms of my elements to be sensual and interesting as the light plays across them, casting and forming a variety of shadows and patterns.

I love painting portraits of both people and animals... getting their eyes done, they begin to *speak* to me... My husband gets a chuckle from this because I talk to the portraits until they're finished!

I adore the landscape around me... for some reason, though, I can't seem to give up the control that my other subjects demand and my landscapes are awful... just awful... so, I don't paint them often. Perhaps if I stepped out of my comfort zone and practiced more, I'd improve.

Now, don't laugh about this...

I love painting exercises and colour charts! That's right... It has helped me so much in understanding how to implement my techniques or how to predict the outcome of colour mixes or even the order of washes. Sometimes, they even make pretty cards that I can give away!

Ok... I think what I really love is painting! For the most part, the subjects don't really seem to matter as much as the process itself.

06-22-2013, 11:12 AM
I think you've got it there, Char, it is the process that appeals to me on top of the emotional connection to the subject. I love the way watercolour spreads on the paper, and the (sometimes!) serendipitous effects that appear. I understand the need to control that, but I'm not there yet! I find gouache easier to control in that way, but at this point prefer the 'excitement' of handling the watercolour.

I do need that emotional connection, though, and landscape is my first love, trying to capture in 2D what I feel in the outdoor setting. It comes down to light, I think, always trying to capture that moment when my surroundings are illuminated to single out the features that appeal to me the most. Certainly that was the case with photography, I am still struggling to find my voice with painting.

06-22-2013, 05:40 PM
This has been so interesting to read! It's heart all the way it seems isn't it - what makes you 'feel'...whether applied most in one area, or spread over many. It does make me wonder why one person may be drawn to eg. landscapes...another to portraits...but I think that would be a far bigger, complicated, question...and perhaps one with no clear answer.

Char I did smile at your 'exercise confession' - but we've seen the wonderful results in the depth and care that you take in your paintings, and taking a leaf out your book would be no bad thing (for me anyway!).(Speaking of which I've just ordered 'Making colour sing', as I've read your recommendation of it so many times, and I think/hope I'm more ready now to see and grasp what it deals with. It will increase my watercolour library by 25% lol!)
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this you all - lovely to read of such love and passion for your painting!

06-22-2013, 10:48 PM
Sterling Edwards, in one of his videos, explains that exploring and learning is what drives him. He paints lots of different subjects and has moved into abstract as well. He claims that once you've become good at a technique then subconsciously your looking to advance on the next one. When you get to where your well versed then it becomes a chore or boring or a matter of income, the fun of exploring is gone, the excitement of creating art isn't there so you move on to the next goal. Could be style, methods and techniques, subject matter or medium that next excites you.

I happen to agree that the learning process is probably the most exciting to me.."WOW I actually did that!". The subject matter is driven by the expectation for success for me at this point. Portraits, ugh, have tried a couple that were miserable, flowers, yikes sooooooo much blending lol....urban, straight lines????? landscapes, how many greens are there anyway.

I see a subject and I want to put paint on SOMETHING.. NOW! Whether or not I do comes down to. am I intimidated by the complexity of technique or subject.

I have a folder with over 50 photos of what I want to paint. Sometimes I even do.... others its something I've run across on the net or a scene from a video... I guess with me it is totally whimsical and spur of the moment choices on the subject to work on. As long as I'm not intimidated. ;)


06-24-2013, 05:30 AM
Thanks for your thoughts B - I understand what you mean re when something is too intimidating ( for me that would be landscapes!), and the 'wow I did that', which is still a thrill to me too, if I feel I've painted something with the result I had hoped for (rare!)...but also how aims may change with time and growing experience.
As others have said re the 'process' , each painting is a challenge I think (certainly to me), and probably always will be, but then that's part of why I do it too. I can see that when some area of painting comes 'into the comfort zone' that's may be when the expansion starts...whether subject or technique just to keep that thrill and challenge alive?
As Carole also said, it's interesting how, if you've 'specialised', that what you learn on one chosen subject matter will translate into others - encouraging too so that any expansion needn't necessarily mean back to square one!
Thanks for your thoughts - these were just mine about what you've said.

06-24-2013, 09:25 AM
I don't paint subjects. I paint "the effect" ( term used by Sargent), that is, contrast of light against dark, intense color against grays, warm against cool. I just march outside and plunk myself down and look for the effect. I find this very liberating and efficient as far as time is concerned. I didn't used to believe it was possible to do this, but I am constantly surprised that a good picture comes out this way.

I first heard of this when reading and John Singer Sargent who used to do this same thing all his life. He learned it from Carolus Duran, his teacher, who used to march his students around the studio and have them stop on command, like musical chairs, and make a painting out of what was before them. Needless to say there was no subject, so they had to look for the effect.

Bonnard also didn't like to use a center of interest in his paintings. He was more focused on warm and cool contrast. Take a look, there can be a person in one of his paintings that just blends in so that you hardly notice.

By the way, when you do this, people can see "things" in the painting, but it's the story of what light does to those things that I paint.


06-24-2013, 10:42 AM
Well I like to paint things close up, flowers and still life being my favorites. I like the details. I look for interesting light patterns, textures, or point of view. I have been trying to take on more landscapes, although I do not find them as interesting. No portraits, although I have done a few in the past.


Green Explorer
06-26-2013, 05:31 PM
When I go out and about I am constantly on the look-out for suitable subjects to paint. When I see something I take photographs of it and then bring it home with me. Sometimes I also take reference sketches while I am out. I then play around with the photos on the computer, seeing which one would work best. I then print them out and make final sketches and then start painting.

In other words, my subjects are dictated by what I see. I have no interest in painting places or things I haven't seen myself. When I paint I like to recall the place I was in, particularly if this was on a holiday or a vacation. I find the act of painting usually "takes me back there", like an extended meditation.

I love painting but only really enjoy painting landscapes and buildings of places I know.

06-29-2013, 09:25 PM
Something about the subject just attracts it to me.

09-16-2013, 09:36 AM
Hello Scotty, I paint especially from the light emotion I feel. But sometimes it also could be a challenge either for drawing or painting, rather somethoing that would bring me to train or discover new possibilities.
Most of times its landscape, portraits, nudes, but rarely still lifes or flowers.

09-17-2013, 12:19 PM
I like to paint things that nobody else thinks are beautiful.

I like to paint old things that have a story.

I like to paint things that otherwise would never see the light of day.

I like to paint things that other folks haven't painted before (big struggle here).

I like to paint things that God hasn't already perfected.


09-17-2013, 01:24 PM
How great to see more people adding to this ....and what a big variety of 'drive' each of you have behind what makes you paint what you do.... I really do find the differences fascinating! Thanks for taking the time to tell your tale

09-17-2013, 02:53 PM
Whenever I see a patch of light that needs killing, I get to work :evil: Someone should restore balance to the universe :D

09-17-2013, 05:51 PM
Whenever I see a patch of light that needs killing, I get to work :evil: Someone should restore balance to the universe :D

LOL! Yup, I'm doing my part, too!

Somewhere...right this instant...there is something beautiful in the world that needs a good debacle-ing! THIS is a job for... *dramatic pause, heroic stance*...

Mediocrity Man!! :smug:

09-19-2013, 03:12 PM
You know that friend that laughs loudly and hugely in the cinema a few minutes after everyone else? (well, I have one!).....at the risk of being that person because I've just read this:

:lol: :lol: :lol: