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

30th Annual National Juried Exhibition 30th Annual National Juried Exhibition
The Thirtieth National Exhibition and Convention will be hosted by the California Center for the Arts, Escondido Museum, located in Escondido, California, from April 9 through May 16, 2021. Learn More!
First Annual Student Art Competition First Annual Student Art Competition
The First Annual Student Art Competition is from January 15 - February 15, 2021 and will be open to Student between the ages of 14 to 22 only. Learn More!
OPA Spring 2021 Online Showcase OPA Spring 2021 Online Showcase
The Spring 2021 Online Showcase is from March 1 - May 15, 2021 and will be open to Associate members only. Learn More!