Deciding what to paint is one of the most common dilemmas with which painters struggle. Hours and days can be spent in pursuit of illusive subject matter. In the beginning, we focus on the craft of painting. Our energies are devoted to learning how to handle the medium and the mastery of the techniques required to represent what we wish. Satisfaction is based in our abilities to handle the medium. As technical confidence is obtained, a desire to communicate our individual visions becomes more pronounced. Just like hunters seeking prey, most of us are always looking for that certain subject that will motivate us to new artistic heights. This often leads us to profoundly beautiful subjects. As spectacular as many locations may be, it is often the mundane that becomes our final muse.
When analyzing the subject matter that we’re attracted to, there are two major elements at play: the story (which connects to us on a personal level) and the visual elements (texture, value and color ) which have aesthetic connotations. A waterfall is a beautiful thing in and of itself, but so too are the textures of leaves on a simple tree limb. Charles Webster Hawthorne, the founder of the Cape Cod School of Art, was famous for challenging his students to find something commonplace, even ugly, and paint it with such beauty that the viewer would be moved.
Recently while instructing a workshop in beautiful Bucks County, Pennsylvania, I was confronted with the situation of being surrounded by beautiful subject matter—historic structures, quaint rock walls and charming spring field flowers. As impressive as these subjects were (and many of them may indeed lead to future paintings), I was drawn to a mundane scene looking up a hill at the bend in a road and a power pole. The play of the light and color shifts on the pole in contrast to the silhouetted trees on the hill became the motivation for an afternoon demonstration. This is something that could have easily been found in any number of locations and just happened to be amidst the spectacular scenery of Bucks County. As one of the students commented at the end of the workshop: “I will never look at a power pole the same way after seeing that demonstration.”
All of us are drawn to beauty. Within art circles, defining “beautiful” has been a topic for discussion since artists started placing works on walls for public display. One man’s beauty is another’s ugly. It is subjective. What we choose to paint and how we decide to paint it is what makes us individuals. Sharing this individual vision through our paintings is the gift everyone that paints gives. Rembrandt opened our eyes to the beauty of a beef carcass hanging in a locker, Degas to the frenzied activity behind the ballet, and Millet to the dignity of the workers of the field. Next time you feel there is nothing to paint, challenge yourself with Hawthorne’s assignment and turn the mundane into a thing of beauty.
[pictured above] My “Power Pole” painting from a workshop in Bucks County, Pa.
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