The Hunt

"Porch Perch"
Watercolor 22 x 30 inches

The hunt for ‘the next painting subject’ seems like an endless, frustrating task at times.

The art world is filled to overflowing with “pretty pictures” of subjects that seem to repeat themselves over and over ad nauseum.   For example, still life paintings of flowers, or Koi fish, or baskets and bunnies . . . . . . .You know what I am talking about:  The greeting card look.

I can remember that not so long ago, when I began painting, the frustrations for finding “good watercolor subjects” clung to me like an ill fitting suit.   The fact is that there is no such thing as a subject suited to a specific medium.   Most artist learn over time that it isn’t “What” you paint, but “How” you paint it that matters.   It’s true!   It seems perfectly ridiculous that people choose the same subjects over and over because they are “pretty.”   Excellent art is well designed, obviously, but it also carries an emotional mood.  It makes the viewer feel something.   “Pretty” is but one possible feeling that a painting can hold.

So, I ask . . . . . .what’s pretty got to do with it?    Just because something is pretty doesn’t mean that it is good art.   As a professional artist, I have found that it is NOT the subject that magnetically attracts the viewer / buyer.    In short, it is the pattern of light and dark (light and shadow) that arouses that odd feeling in our gut that draws us in (sorry for the pun!) to look closer  . . . .and, perhaps, be so moved so as to purchase the piece.

Painting subjects are everywhere!    They are hiding in plain sight.   If you are a neophyte to the painting world, all you need do is open your mind (and your eyes) to interesting patterns of light and shadow.   It is a developed awareness.    My friend, Mark Mehaffey, is an expert at this.   His international reputation isn’t built on painting “cute” pieces of art.   His paintings reflect his skill at spotting (and designing) very strong value abstract patterns in realistic subjects.   An example would be how the light bounces around in an old alley in Shanghai, China or Reno, Nevada.  One wouldn’t know it was China or Reno.   What is attractive about such paintings is how the darks and lights sit inside the rectangle of the painting’s picture space.

Like gold,  painting subjects are where you find them.   They pop up when you least expect it.   All that needs happen to find them is to pay attention to your surroundings as you move through your world.   Light coming through a window and reflecting off a dining room table top made for a prize winning painting at NWS a few years ago.   There were no flowers, no knick knacks, no table settings . . . . .just light and shadow created by some chairs around the table!

Another prize winner was an open refrigerator and the light streaming out of it dodging around the contents.   All one could make out was some silhouettes of various containers.   It was the light and the shadow that won the day in that painting.   The list of examples could fill a book!!   The best paintings often lie among the most mundane settings or things.   It is the artist who elevates the mundane to something extraordinary that gets the recognition.  

In other words, pay attention!!    Yep!   Awaken yourself to patterns of light and shadow around you.   Set yourself up to NOTICE  . . . . .and, therefore, see the potential offered by shadow patterns.   And, be aware that “pretty” isn’t always the best art subject.   Consider the unordinary or the worn out, over used buildings or objects and how they fit in their surroundings.

I recently gave a workshop in Oklahoma.    The first morning I stepped out of the side door of the church in which we were gathered and was immediately struck by the cast shadows on the old house across the street . . . .and how the old easy chair on the porch was illuminated in that shadow pattern.    Maybe is isn’t something you would put above your couch in the living room, but the patterns sure do capture the eye.    There are hundreds of painting subjects literally sitting and looking back at you.   You merely have to notice them.