Art is a mind game—so much of what happens when people make things takes place in their heads, even before any paint touches the paper or canvas. And like most things people can’t see, it’s much easier to look past them and to get caught up in the tangible.
A lot of people I’ve talked to over the years have said that they have trouble even just thinking of what to paint. And I’ve often replied that yes, thinking of what to paint is actually the hardest thing about the whole, thing—once you’ve gotten all that pesky ‘conceptualisation’ and planning out of the way, the rest is ‘just mechanics’.
(I mean of course it ISN’T, as ‘the mechanics’ are a whole different ballgame, but, you knew what I meant, I hope.)
In any case, I’ve given the matter a fair amount of thought and I think it all boils down to answering one simple question.
Why are you painting?
Once you’ve answered the ‘why’, you’re well on your way to answering the ‘what’—even if you’re just ‘painting for fun’ or ‘for no good reason’.
Given that there are literally an infinite number of things you can paint, zeroing in on the reason behind your painting narrows the field considerably. To put it another way, it’s much like setting your objective, and then defining the steps you need to take it.
If you’re painting because you want to relax, for instance, then depending on your temperament, painting someone wearing a paper bag mask coming toward the viewer with a chainsaw is probably out the window.
But before we take a look at some of the reasons why you might be painting, let’s get this out into the open.
There are two sides, or aspects of art-making.
There’s the material and the conceptual.
The material focuses on the medium and the technique you use. Trompe l'oeil using, well, oil, for instance, or impasto using knives, or wet-on-wet and watercolour and so on. In other words, the material is all about how you paint and what you used.
The conceptual is the idea behind your painting—some people call it a theme, or what you want to express. In other words again, the concept is all about what you paint, or the subject.
So some artists choose or tend to focus on just one or the other aspect in their work, while some focus on both. Those that do both, for example, have an idea and then use the materials and techniques they think would best put that idea across.
Both aspects aren’t necessarily, mutually exclusive and for me, there’s no hard-and-fast rule that says you need to do one or both. Artists are people and no two people are ever the same, so what you focus on in your work is really up to you.
Now let’s take a look at some of the reasons why you might be painting.
Hopefully, in so doing, it may help you ‘think of what to paint’.
1. You’re painting because you want to relax.
Apart from choosing a relaxing subject, think about what medium or technique you enjoy using. In fact, you don’t even have to choose a subject—you could just focus on playing around with the medium and your tools and make something non-representational (what most people call ‘abstract’).
You might also want to consider your expected output, as some people get stressed out when their painting doesn’t come out the way they expected it to—in which case, paint something you know you’re going to enjoy making and hopefully love, afterwards.
2. You’re painting because you want to have something to hang in your living room.
Or any room in your house, for that matter. I guess the easiest way to think of something to paint for this reason is to paint something that either complements your interiors or provides contrast in terms of colour or theme.
If your bedroom comes in shades of blue and grey, for instance, you might paint a seascape, which could look nice in blue and grey, or a still life featuring a dish of oranges, or an orange kitty.
3. You’re painting because you want to give someone a present.
Giving someone something you painted expressly for him is a lot like giving him a sweater you knitted or a cake you baked. I guess the main thing people worry about is ‘will he like it?’ Well, the answer to that entirely depends on how well you know the intended recipient.
But as you select a subject based on what this person likes, you might also want to keep it simple, as what you end up choosing may also depend on how much time you have to complete the painting. If you know this person likes classical music, for instance, you don’t have to paint an entire orchestra.
4. You’re painting because you wish you could give someone a present.
By this, I mean painting because you’re thinking of someone, for whatever reason. While portraiture might be the obvious choice for this and the preceding reason, who knows? The person in question might actually not be fond of or be uncomfortable with having pictures of himself about, or maybe portraiture just isn’t your thing.
In which case you might paint something that reminds you of this person or is symbolic or representative of this person—maybe in terms of personality instead of (or not just) any physical characteristics.
5. You’re painting because you want to show off.
Let’s be honest—some of us paint because we’re proud of what we’re able to achieve through our skill, whether it’s inborn or developed or both. Nothing wrong with that, I say, and in a way, I think, every time we make something we ‘show off’ to some extent. In fact, I’d even encourage this if it means pushing yourself to do better every time.
In which case, I recommend zeroing on one skill and then choosing a subject that would be best rendered through its use. For instance, if you’re very good at fine detail, then you might choose something with individual hairs—that kind of thing. Of course, you could highlight two or more skills but that would mean more work, which is perfectly fine if you’re up to it.
6. You’re painting because you’re fascinated by painting.
While No. 5 is fixated on the ‘how you paint’, this reason emphasises the ‘what you used’. Some of us are transfixed by the materiality or the very nature of their medium, or by individual elements such as colour, texture or line. If you’re one of these artists, then you might choose a subject that best showcases the characteristics of the element or medium you’re exploring.
Incidentally, this is one of the reasons behind the creation of non-representational work, because people tend to look at what is represented instead of the medium or elements if the work represents something. For example, most people would look at the apple in a painting of an apple, instead of the colour red.
7. You’re painting because you’re paid to.
Usually when we get commissions we’re already told what to paint. There are times, however, when the instructions can be a little vague—which can be a good thing because that gives us more room for, well, putting in more of ourselves and less of the person who’s doing the commissioning.
In this case, let the parameters given you by the ‘commissioner’ help you figure out your subject. If you’re still having trouble, try asking this person for more details—which can also be a good thing because that will help to make sure you’ll be giving this person what he wants. For example, “Paint me some flowers”. “What colour? How about gardenias?”
8. You’re painting because you’d like to get paid to.
By this, I mean a portfolio, in which case, see No. 5—because this is where you show people, who could potentially commission you for a piece, what you can do. It’s a good idea to paint things you see yourself painting for others on a regular basis, i.e. if you killed yourself making that 10-foot portrait of Godzilla that one time, then you may want to think twice.
If you should ever be asked to paint a sort of ‘audition piece’ (i.e. we’re picking someone out to illustrate our book)—try to get all the details you can to help you choose or plan your subject. (And boost your chances of getting the job.) That said, might I suggest that some things (such as being true to yourself as an artist) might be more important than landing a commission.
9. You’re painting because you paid somebody.
This time, I mean painting in an art class (where you paid somebody to teach you how to paint). Sometimes you don’t have a whole lot of time to think of something to paint when you really only found out what you were going to do when you got there. And your teacher is the liberal kind who likes to give students the freedom to choose their own subject. (*Points to self*)
One way to speed up the subject selection process is to think about what you like to paint most and then try to find a way to relate it to the lesson at hand. For example, no matter what, I like painting horses. I could paint them all day, every day. Today’s lesson is pointillism, so I’ll paint a horse using that. But a horse is too big, I’ll never finish today. So I’ll only paint his head.
10. You’re painting because you have something to say.
Remember the conceptual aspect of making art? This would be it. Lots of artists have ‘something to say’ or very strong feelings or opinions about things, and use their art to express it. Or, they use their art to tell a story. If you’re one of these artists and you’re having a little trouble thinking of something to paint that will ‘say’ all these things for you, here’s a tiny hack.
Write down (as in, in words) what it is you want to say; if it’s a story you want to tell, write that down too, in sequence. I’m not asking you to write a three-part miniseries, I’m talking short, simple sentences. Then depending on how many pieces you have planned, choose the most salient part/s of your story or concept, and then choose something that symbolises them.
11. You’re painting because you have something to vent.
Much like relaxing, or reason No. 1, a lot of people also use art as a means of catharsis—which is probably a lot better than picking fights or smashing crockery. Letting your feelings out into painting can result in, well, paintings that pack a powerful visual punch.
I’ve always said that drawing upon personal experience when you paint (or write or play) gives it oomph that purely technical works may not be able to convey. Apart from the subject, try placing more emphasis on elements such as line, colour and texture (see our old friends, the Expressionists), as well as technique such as gestural painting, spattering or impasto.
12. You’re painting because you’re joining a group show.
In a way, this is much like Nos. 7, 8 and 9, where the rules of the game aren’t entirely your own (even though in a perfect world, I think, they ought to be). The trick is to be able to balance who you are and what you want while being able to play nicely with others. If there is a theme, try to choose a subject that doesn’t deviate from it too much (‘play nicely’, remember?).
It does happen, however, that the show is one you just can’t not join, but the work just isn’t what you would normally do. In that case, refer to No. 9, and see if you can find a way to relate what you usually do to the theme or the prevailing technique if it’s something you’re into. Again, the important thing (to me, anyway) is to remain true to your own artistic values.
But what if you’re painting because you're having your own show?
And what if you really do know why you’re painting, but still can’t think of anything, anyway? I’ll answer those in my next post. Because the truth of the matter is there is no one-size-fits-all reply to ‘What should I paint?’; if I told you ‘go paint a hammerhead shark’ and you hated the sea (or sharks)… In which case I’d be happy to help you toss ideas around if you’d like.
But no matter what subject, concept or material you choose, make sure you paint something you love (or at least like a whole lot). Even if it’s meant for relaxing, art involves a lot of time and effort—why expend it painting something you hate?