The Lessons of Subject Matter


A portrait drawing demonstration of mine; just to prove that I still do my homework.

The subject matter we are drawn to paint and how we ultimately portray it is as diverse as the human experience itself. We are each drawn to specific subject matter and even when two of us work from the same subject, we bring our own perspective to the portrayal. This is what makes painting so exciting.

The three broad categories of subject matter are: still life, portrait and landscape. Within these categories, of course, there are many subsets. Each has an aesthetic and sensitivity unique to its character. All of us have formed personal relationships with different subjects through our individual interactions with them, and we are capable of telling a story through this shared human experience. These perspectives form our attitudes and emotions when painting. By arranging and orchestrating the visual elements of the composition and utilizing a myriad of painting techniques, we make it individual.

In becoming a well-trained painter, each of these subject areas—still life, portrait, and landscape—provides a lesson and should not be overlooked due to a lack of motivation. You may not be attracted to the still life, uninterested in the portrait, or feel dispassionate about the landscape, but by practicing them you will polish technical skills that make you a more confident painter. A painting is a configuration of accurate shapes, a representation of lights influences, and a sensitive arrangement of colors. These exist in every representational painting, and for that matter every abstract painting. Individual subject matter is all composed of them. In that regard, everything we paint is all the same. Each subject does provide a heightened lesson, though. The still life teaches the importance of value. Within the confines of a relatively small distance, the influence of light and the manipulation of edge create form. The portrait teaches accurate drawing. The human likeness allows for no error. The landscape teaches color harmony. Natural light and its influence across nature’s palette help us to understand the relationship all colors have to one another. A wise instructor passed this thought on to me many years ago: “To learn value relationships, it’s the still life; to draw, it’s the portrait; and to become sensitive to color, it’s the landscape. Each has something to offer. Practice them often and then paint your passions!”


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3 thoughts on “The Lessons of Subject Matter

  1. Robert Sloan

    I’ve practiced all three of the types of subjects you mentioned, but where would animal paintings fall? Are those considered portraits, if the animal is the main subject? I can see how a mountain landscape with a goat at the focal point could be considered a landscape, because it’d still be a landscape if that was a mountain climber instead of a goat. But if it’s my cat’s face filling 90% of the picture are, that’s a portrait.

    Also, where do imaginative subjects like dragons or fairies fall? Or historical scenes like battles with over a dozen figures?

  2. KH

    This may not be the classical way, but I am finding that en plein air ocean painting is teaching me some mighty lessons in observing and handling value contrasts. A scene with nothing to be drawn, only value relations. A changing light that alters the colours of the whole subject, constantly moving water and a feeling of infinite space. Early morning hours of stillness and ever so subtle values, days with high drama and rolling waves, sunsets where the ocean goes dark and the low light reflected on the water surface creates possibly the highest value contrast to be found in nature. A merciless teacher and slow progress, yet I find my self returning week after week, to a scene on which I have no control. A feeling of oneness that seems more important than any results.
    Richard, many many thanks for teaching me such a solid method for en plein air painting. Truly enriching, and hopefully I become a better person because of it.
    Then, how do I post a blog question?

  3. Pete in St Catharines

    Richard, you are one talented artist! I’ve worked as a Technical Illustrator for over 25 years and my illustrator friends are very limited in their skills. They learned to draw nuts and bolts and to heck with faces.

    However, I agree with you on every count! I’ve always felt, that if one can draw a human face, they can draw anything. But, I’m only just now getting into the painterly, landscape type artwork and colour is my downfall. I’m now learning to ‘see’ again. To see colour and the "… sensitive arrangement of colour".

    Your blogs, here, are indispensable and your articles in the Pastel Journal are all terrific information. No fluff.

    Plus your demonstrated skill and talent are a huge inspiration for me.

    Thanx very much!