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7 Methods for Choosing Better Subject Matter

7 Methods for Choosing Better Subject Matter

Eric Maisel

Dear Dr. Maisel,

Once I start painting I know what I’m doing but I have the hardest time getting started. For instance I’ll set it up a still life and then I find myself asking, ‘Well, what do I want to do with this?’ It feels like I’m really very uncertain about my subject matter choices.

Do you have any suggestions for making subject matter choices so that I’m not always second-guessing myself and getting paralyzed?” – Dale L., Spokane

Thanks, Dale. Yours isn’t an uncommon problem.

For the Sunday painter, an apple (or anything else — a tree, a face, a barn door) exists as an object that, if you are skillful at it, can be rendered faithfully and maybe even beautifully. For the professional artist, the objects of the world are reference points that connect to a vast array of possible ideas, subject matter choices, and intentions. For the professional artist, an apple is not just an apple—it is a starting point. An artist may decide to use an apple in any of the following ways (and many, many more!):

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1. Make It Gigantic

He may be interested in the psychological effects of objects, not in their accurate portrayal, and may want, for example, to fill his canvas with a single apple so as to give it a singular power and presence, the way Georgia O’Keefe painted flowers “as if they were skyscrapers.” Picture a red apple completely filling a canvas all the way to the edges and feel through what psychological effects that image might have on a viewer.

2. Make It The Important Detail

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Picasso often lamented, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that viewers never realized that the peach in the painting they were viewing was not a detail but its very reason for being. “The whole painting is for the sake of that peach!” he would cry. Your painting may include many things but it may be the apple that really matters to you and that you intend to make matter to a viewer — the very reason, in short, you painted that painting.

Next: Alter It Slightly or Completely →


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