Painting the Perfect Subject

Is there such a thing—the “perfect” subject to paint– on any given day?

Like song-choice for a musician, the subject an artist chooses to paint carries his/her personality, abilities and message to the viewers who will see it. Possibilities abound: perhaps a 300-foot tumbling waterfall, the sun poised on a dramatic orange horizon, or that striking profile of a most beautiful model. What really makes for a “perfect” subject?

Outpouring, Horseshoe Falls

”Outpouring, Horseshoe Falls” 36 x 48

Let’s see what some other artists say on that “subject:”

“The subject itself is no account; what matters is the way it is presented.” (Raoul Dufy)

“Content is more than ‘subject matter.’ It is all the feelings and ideas you bring to your painting.” (Rene Huyghe)

“There has to be that magical ‘urge’ and excitement to paint the subject, or it just will not work.” (Randall Sexton)

“Just because it is there, doesn’t mean you have to paint it.” (CJ Rider)

Is there such a thing—the “perfect” subject to paint– on any given day?


“Rachel” 14×11

When I’m seeking a subject to paint, it is often an outgrowth of my attitude or mindset that day, or week. It might be inspired by an idea I have been carrying around for awhile. Or it just “happens”: some transcendent impression of a greater reality is conveyed to me that urges me to explore that. With my best paintings, it seems that the subject reaches out to choose me–it demands that I paint it. But over the years, painting in plein air or the studio, observing subjects from the farm, figure or in the field, I have learned that it’s not the subject itself that will be painted—it’s what I want to say about it, and how I will say it, that will result in the greatest impression on the canvas and for the viewer.

When choosing what to do next in their college courses, or in their personal lives, or in their careers, I have told my daughters, “choose to W.I.N.” Ask yourselves, “What’s Important Now?” –then do that. That is an aid to stay focused, look at the Big Picture, and avoid getting frustrated or sidelined by details.

Fiat Lux

“Fiat Lux” 16 x 16, oil

When selecting subjects for painting, I choose “W.I.L.T.” Before I begin, and when it comes to sorting out the significant from the stuff, the lasting from the lesser, the memorable from the minute, I remind myself that I most need to focus on “What’s Important Long-Term?” A painting that will be remembered will be invested with the love of the artist for life and living, his passion for his subject, and a clear message about his reactions to it. It will be obvious that he has made choices, and prioritized certain elements from among all that he could have painted. The result is stunning, spectacular, or, in a more intimate way, personally striking. There is a new and unique connection between the artist and his audience. How might we more consistently do that as artists, to create that electric connection?

Fortress Cove

“Fortress Cove” 40 x 30, acrylic and oil

The artist making a memorable painting has decided to create a certain interpretation of a particular subject. His or her excitement about that subject drives every decision in the creative process. “How” the artwork is done grows out of the purpose for that artwork, the artist’s desire to produce the clearest translation of his idea, which will produce maximum visual and emotional impact. A forgettable painting has usually been done before, and its subject is one that is usually obvious. Without a unique vision for a subject, and/or a deep emotional response to it, only its obvious appearance is visible to the artist–an exterior that is visible to everyone. But a memorable painting is full of life, and speaks of the artist’s priorities and passion in expressing that same subject in a unique and insightful way. My hope and dream is that those who see my work will remember it because it is purposeful, passionate and personal.

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.” – Antoine de Sainte-Exupery

Upcoming OPA Events

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  • Tom Watson

    Rick, I enjoyed reading your article, and in general, I agree with you. But, let me play the devils advocate for a moment. I have come to believe the general public often does not share a painter’s taste and choices of subject matter. I have created paintings that nails the subject that inspired me in every way I wanted it to, both subjectively and objectively. Yet, the public (not necessarily the collector) may only show mild or little interest in the painting, while other painter friends respond very positively to it. And, I have painted what I consider mediocre paintings in their technical quality as well as subject matter, yet the subject is appealing to the general public. It seems that subject matter carries a lot of weight in attracting attention, perhaps even more than how well it is painted. I have sold a lot of plein air paintings right off my easel, because they were familiar with the subject and it perked their emotions and conveyed a nostalgic response. I have also been commissioned to paint a certain subject the client wanted, which did not particularly inspire me. But, they loved the painting. This has always puzzled me. It seems to blur the distinctions between how a subject is painted and the content of the subject. I love doing paintings that include telephone and power poles, discarded farm trucks, barns, large old abandoned agriculture sheds and machinery, etc. but they aren’t big sellers for me. However, the traditional idealistic landscape scenes that I am less enthusiastic about, almost always gets the compliments. What to think?
    Tom Watson OPA

    • Rick J. Delanty

      Tom, thank you for this thoughtful comment. You and I both know that the public for art, buying or otherwise, is not going to be 100% enthralled (or even attracted to) the subjects that we paint, no matter what they are. That is a given.
      Some are aficionados of particular styles, media, and yes, even subject matter.
      These art-appreciating “specialists,” regardless of formal education, art training, or level of experience or acquaintance with art-viewing or acquisition, will consistently gravitate toward what is familiar and “personal” to them. Unless one is collecting art “for investment purposes,” it is a psychological and emotional tenet that one will appreciate or acquire art that inspires a personal connection.
      The creation and appreciation of art is personal, and it is a choice

      What I am seeking to address in this article is the choice any artist who cares deeply about his/her work makes, regardless of audience. Graphic designers and illustrators most often create for a client, whereas the fine artist has the privilege and opportunity to create for the most personal of reasons. For the fine artist, the audience-at-large, of necessity, needs to be secondary: the primary audience is one’s self. And if that is the case, to be able to create the “finest” art, it would be desirable to choose a medium, process, and subject about which one is passionate. My fundamental point is that if the work is created on the highest level, the chances of others appreciating it as well are increased. How can we as artists create on a high level if we are not passionate about our subject, and about what we are doing?

      That’s all I’m saying, that we cannot possible direct anyone to buy or appreciate our work. But that work will be more successful if we direct our own choices in such a way that they optimize our own satisfaction with the result.