Just Add Spice

When I teach art, I often hear complaints from my students that they don’t have anything to paint because they live in ordinary neighborhoods. I believe, however, that often the most ordinary things can be the most extraordinary paintings.


Prairie Thistles is a scene of common wild thistles. Two unusual aspects of this painting are 1) the decision to backlight the scene, which creates a halo-like effect around the blooms, and 2) the utter simplicity of the scene. (Private collection.)

Forget about the dramatic vistas. You can paint or collage or abstract anything around you. It’s your interpretation of the subject that’s the point. For instance, Claude Monet painted the light on haystacks; Edward Hopper painted diners; Gauguin painted women lounging. Even portraits like those of Mary Cassatt with women and children are considered extraordinary paintings because of how the artist interpreted her subjects. At the time Cassatt was painting, there was nothing more mundane than a mother washing her child’s feet or simply holding her child. In addition, Cassatt painted at a time when women weren’t allowed in on the figure-drawing classes, so she made do with what she had.

Here are seven ways you can make the mundane seem interesting:

  • Pick an unusual point of view: a sharp angle, a bird’s-eye view or “shoetop” view.
  • Light the scene with extreme light: foggy, bright, night-time.
  • Use colorful shadows to exaggerate your lighting choice.
  • Choose an unexpected shape to your painting support, such as very horizontal or boldly vertical. Even square or round could add a new twist.
  • Be bold with your style. Try something new.
  • Go wild with texture and color.
  • Don’t be afraid to break some rules.


Fruit With Bennington is a traditional still life. Two elements that help make the painting interesting are the low, table-edge point of view and the narrow elongated proportion of this composition. (From the collection of the artist.)

Here’s a still life assignment to get you going: Pick three vessels, one piece of fruit, one tool and something composed of fibers and create a still life. Select one light source and an unusual point of view, and paint or sketch it. (You’re thinking creatively already.)

And if you’re inclined to go outdoors, try this:
1) Go to a place that’s behind or at the back of someplace you’re familiar with: the alley behind your market; the back of your yard, looking at your house; the seashore looking back toward the docks and the shore. Now compose your painting from there.
2) Pick a shape for your painting that isn’t intuitive. For instance, do a vertical for the seascape, a round shape for the backyard scene or a horizontal for the alley. Figure out how to resolve the compositional challenges to make a dramatic, unusual subject.

Don’t get stymied. Work through these low ebbs in your creative cycle. Give yourself a challenge and push on through.

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