Choosing A Subject To Paint

In learning to paint, what kind of subject one might choose to paint depends on a number of factors: the kind of medium to be used, the degree of complexity one can reasonably handle, the size and kind of support one has in mind, and so forth. Clearly, subject matter which will appeal to one person may not do so to another.

That seems obvious, but we do need to progress in our art, and the development of skills and insight will not be furthered by restricting oneself to a limited range of subjects. For example, while there is an infinite variety of still life forms, always painting still life subjects will have a relatively limited effect on our development to the extent that a wider range of matter will not.

So it is useful, on at least some occasions, to discipline one’s self to attempt other forms of subject matter, which might not immediately be attractive. It is also instructive to ask oneself why this or that kind of subject is not attractive. Very often the answer will revolve around certain kinds of difficulties we have. If we always avoid such problems, these things are always going to form constraints of greater or less severity on our artistic capabilities. In some cases, even if there is a subject, which does attract us, we may be put off because it involves one of those areas which we have difficulty with.

One way round this kind of problem is, of course, to force oneself to do exercises on those subjects, so that a whole painting, and perhaps much time and effort, does not depend on its outcome.

A major problem can center on the complexity of a subject. This obviously depends to some degree on what kind of approach you take to painting and the extent to which, say, a realistic representation matters. Inevitably, even in the latter case, the majority of paintings, for example, leave something out. At least in the early stages, it is advisable to omit some parts of a potential image. For instance, a group of flowers may look very attractive, but when one gets down to the detail of recording individual flowers, their stalks and leaves, the picture can become incredibly complex.

So start with just one or two flowers and their leaves, etc. very effective paintings can be produced in that way and it is by no means necessary to have masses of things in a picture. Similarly, flowers in a vase will be easier to reproduce if the latter is a simple vessel rather than, say cut glass or one with complex curves. Outdoors, focus on just a single flower, whether a plant or part of a bush. And don’t worry about detailing the background; use one or two colours to merge together in a kind of out-of-focus way.

Certainly, in a quite complex subject one can choose to leave certain things out and simplify others. There is a good deal of skill and judgment involved in selecting what to include and exclude. Make the wrong choices and the painting may look unbalanced or unconvincing. Do not be worried if you make mistakes in this respect – we probable learn more from paintings we throw away than those we keep! So again, it is better to start with a simple composition and even exclude elements of that before trying to reduce complexity in an intricate subject.

Take a landscape for example. It may be advantageous at first not to include details of trees, bushes, fields, etc. Instead, start by drawing a line for the horizon. The try to represent a cloudy sky: include some blue but then clouds of varying degrees of darkness. When that looks something like, try to produce an area of land which is no more than grass or heath. Do not divide the picture exactly in two. Some really excellent paintings have been accomplished where there is almost nothing but sky.

One of the easier aspects in which to reduce complexity is in the background. Photographers often do this by selecting speeds and aperture values, at which to shoot which will sharpen the focal area of a picture while blurring the background – sometimes to a degree where it is impossible to see what the background consists of. In a painting, the same is accomplished by selecting colours and tones for a particular background, which enhance the subject matter we are really interested in. Thus colour and tone may be all the background consists of, nothing actual. A white flower, for example, may be placed against a very dark background of deep reds and/or browns, according to ones choice. Complexity in itself is not a necessary condition for a quality painting, so start by keeping everything simple.