16 November, 2011

Subjective Subjects


Some of the content of this post was brought forward from a previous tips post, and updated with new material.  Also published at pastelsblog.blogspot in December, 2010.

It was interesting to see a great pastel artist list his focus on a narrow range of subjects in a book I read recently. The book is a dated one by Albert Handell: Pastel Painting Workshop. He likes the Southwestern landscape with arroyos and pueblo-style structures. He does trees, rock boulders and waterways. In his figurative work, he likes vignettes and portraits.

Why be narrow in subject matter?

It is good to be aware of what your subject matter is before you go off to the field to paint on site. Why be narrow in subject matter? My own feelings are that you may delve into a subject as deeply as you wish, and may never run out of inspiration. If your goal is to "draw things", then you may wish to pursue every possible subject one after the other. But, if you are wanting to produce paintings with depth and with good technique, then limiting yourself to a handful of subjects will provide you a greater opportunity for depth.

Limiting your subject matter will put you in good company.

Limiting your subject matter will put you in good company. Van Gogh stayed with agricultural landscapes in France that revolved around trees, waterways, fields, buildings and bridges. He did portraits and still lifes, but he stayed with common themes. Degas stayed with interior and theatrical figures, such as orchestras, singers and ballerinas. He did nudes at the bath. He also liked the horse track, and some industrial interiors. Daniel Greene stays with the portrait, but in his figurative work he focuses on painting his wife, artist Wende Caporale, in the New York subway with tile mosaic backgrounds. Of course, he does other works, but his series work is a method of staying focused. Harvey Dinnerstein does self portraits where he is painting bare chested, and Andrew Wyeth stayed on the Helga series for a number of years. His Helga series kept true to his own ouevre of rural interiors and moods.

Limiting my subject matter helps tremendously in finding compositions.

My own oeuvre features trees, forests, rivers and the prairie.  Sometimes rural buildings are featured, and rarely do I bring in the sky, horizons or light.  It's interesting to think of what I purposefully omit.  The horizon is too much landscape - too boilerplate.  Light is not much of a part of my environment, especially where I grew up on the Washington coast.  The sky is better left alone, unless to add a pushing or pulling event, or to set the color concord. 


Linda Roth said...

You are so right about limiting your subject matter. But two years ago when I started my blog, (to nudge myself back to painting regularly after years of not), I really had no idea what my subject matter(s) were. I figured with time,they would become apparent. And they did over the last few months. Wiser, I now feel much more relaxed in the studio.

I really enjoy your work and your blog. Thank you.

SamArtDog said...

Thanks for another thoughtful post, Casey. I've been wandering in the wilderness, waiting for some wild thing to seem to be enough. I should just pick one and sit and stay. At least for a bit.

Interesting what you said about limiting yourself, in terms of horizon, sky and/or light. I never missed them; your wonderful color is enough.

Casey Klahn said...

Thank you, Linda and Sam. It was instructive for me to see how A. Handell readily admitted his subject limits.

Ewen MacDonald watercolouristanbul said...

Thanks for your thoughts and your works, I'd agree that in limiting subject matter one learns to 'see' the previously unnoticed...

Casey Klahn said...

Thank you for your kindness, and for reading, Ewen.

Sonya Johnson said...

Very interesting and thought-provoking post, Casey. I am not sure I've ever given the idea of limiting one's subject any focused thought, but it makes sense on several levels. And, I do think it is something that probably happens spontaneously over time.

Your comment about not including the sky in your paintings made me go look at this season's PA work (and studio pieces done during the same time), and while last year, close to 100% of my paintings had sky, this year, 1/3 had none at all. As someone who is an admitted cloud and sky junkie, this is a most interesting trend!

Casey Klahn said...

It is very valuable to take out your paintings and compare them to one another. I am very happy to read you are doing this, Sonya.

Jean-Baptiste Pelardon said...

This post - well, all your posts, but this one especially… – is absolutely fascinating! 'Limiting' read as 'Expanding without limits'. Fascinating and inspiring. Thank you.

Casey Klahn said...

Thanks for reading, Jean-Baptiste.

Adam Cope said...

Hi Casey :-)
Interesting post, with your usual succinct brevity, making for light & easy internet style of reading.

I think that creativity should expand the possibilities, not limit them. It's said that our task is to find out what & how we want to paint... & modernism insists that we don't serve up the 'same old same'.

I too paint simular themes. I have a reputation for my french vines paintings

I note that galleries & people responsible for cultural programmes list artists as ' landscape' or 'contemporary' etc. So we are pidgeon-holed very quickly & anyway most art made quickly falls into one or other of the categories.

BTW, the chinese image for development is the bamboo, which grows by sections, finishing one off before starting another ie growth by limitation.

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