The Familiar Can Kick-Start Creativity

Still lifes used to bore me to tears—they seemed nothing more than a classroom exercise, practice in painting cylinders and ovals, light and shade. But when I began to look at my life through my “artist’s eyes,” I began to see the beauty inherent in everyday objects—in my home, in the things I’d collected and inherited, and in my memories. Suddenly, the bounty of row after row of gleaming jars of canned tomatoes on my old iron wood stove was more than a study in light and shadow, but a record of hard work, the harvest, the homely beauty in the things I dealt with every day.

The things that mean something to you, whether because they’re beautiful in and of themselves or because they have meaning as family heirlooms or memories or whether they show the lovely practicality of a tool made by a truly gifted craftsman, are all wonderful painting subjects.

Here’s an exercise: Take a moment to look around your living space. Pick out whatever it is that means the most to you—what would you grab if the house were on fire (assuming the kids and pets were safe!)? When you decide on that, pay that one thing all the attention you would some rare treasure unearthed from an ancient civilization or a magical realm. See it as a pearl beyond price. Notice how the afternoon light plays across it or makes a hallowed backlight. Look at it from different angles—an extreme perspective, perhaps.

Now, paint it and see if what you produce doesn’t speak to you. Once you begin looking at things with this kind of attention, it’s amazing how many subjects there are, just begging to be painted. It’s impossible to be bored and left without a subject—you will never run out of meaningful things to paint.

Mark Gottsegen teaches art at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

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