Tuesday, March 29, 2016


What makes a good subject choice for a painting? Sometimes one's artistic process holds the answer to this age old question.

After more than a decade of painting, I'm still not always certain what will be a good subject. Sometimes the things that draw my interest fall flat with my audience. Nonetheless, I've deciphered a few clues over these years and I'll share some of them with you here.

First, if I'm on a "photo safari" in a city, there are often fleeting moments of light and shadow that just take my breath away. In an era of digital photography, I may return home from an expedition with hundreds of shots. I'm old enough to have begun my career with film (and slides for juried show applications - yuck!) and being able to work with infinite electronic files is liberating. Many of these are multiples of the same motif, taken with different exposures and slightly different angles. But the compositions that really arrested me for the moment while I captured them become the reference photos that I look at first when I offload my photographs.

Follow My Gaze 16 x 30 oil on linen.


One such example of something that attracted my immediate interest was the photo for this new piece, "Follow My Gaze." I originally caught this subject in the heart of Copenhagen, Denmark while visiting there a couple of years ago. I never forgot this moment, this play of light and shadow. But it didn't immediately resolve in my mind's eye, so I sat on the source material until just recently.

What makes a good subject choice for a painting? Well, another clue is that you have to be able to pre-visualize the final result of where you're going with a piece. And that was the challenge here. I didn't see the final resolution of this subject in my mind. It didn't come easily to me, like some subjects do. The only remedy for this is to discipline oneself and to take time to execute some initial studies before diving into the actual piece.

What makes a good subject for a painting? Sometimes the answer to this lies in the initial studies. When I taught classes for the Art Alliance of Central Pennsylvania, I used to tell my students, "If it ain't working small, then don't bother making it big." Small, thumbnail studies are a great way to jot out your thoughts and to solve any composition problems before committing to something larger and more intimidating.

Study 1 on oil painting paper.


Here, you see a couple of initial studies for "Follow My Gaze." These studies were done on small pieces of Arches Oil Painting Paper. I began my artistic career with watercolor, and the feel of this product is very familiar and comfortable to me. It lends itself well to playing around with an initial study without any pressure. And if things don't work out? On to the next! It's a tiny commitment of time and resources that is well spent if it translates into a better finished piece.

Study 2 on oil painting paper.


Finally, it's worth noting that what makes a good subject is what makes your heart sing. As I admitted earlier, some of the ideas that draw my interest don't always translate when I take the finished pieces to art shows. But it's crucial to remain true to oneself and to paint the ideas and subjects that are most meaningful to you. Even though it took me years to resolve this subject in my mind's eye, I never forgot it, and by trusting in my artistic process I was able to create it.