How Does the Subject Matter?

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For seven months now, I’ve been painting the view of the southwest corner of a rural pond, over and over, in light and shadow, as seasons change. So far, I have painted about 45 oil paintings, each requiring 5-10 sessions, and that has taught me a lot about the question of subject. I’m intending to complete a full 12 month cycle of paintings, representing different times of day, month and season, all the same size and all the same view. After 30 years of painting, I am finding that this kind of deep investigation is the most rewarding.

If you make paintings with recognizable subject matter, do you every wonder WHAT you should paint? Do you ever question the true meaning of your subject matter?

Over the course of painting dozens of paintings of this pond, I find myself asking: What, really, is the subject? Is it a thing or a collection of things? Is it light and reflection? Is it change and movement? Is it a feeling? What is my painting about? I have learned that in fact I am painting several things at the same time and that the question “what am I painting” is rich, layered and complex.

Fall has come, the colors move me, they are melancholy and beautiful. I am painting the colors and the way they make me feel. I am also watching the water as its level drops. I am painting the drying up of the pond in this fourth year of drought. I draw the shapes, which are so interesting, so varied, yet so much like one another. They have a language that speaks of the function of everything, of the way things work. Shapes reveal truths and hold secrets. Sometimes I think it is the shapes that are my subject. I’m looking for the secrets of form. I am looking for the bones, the skeleton, what lies beneath and is the underlying truth of the thing. I want to understand what I am seeing.

I also see relationships: of things to place, the sun and wind, the water gently rising and falling. A place deeply observed will tell the story of its making: the animals and people who plant and mow and trim the trees, and swim and nibble and participate. They all leave their marks, prints in the mud of hoof and paw and talon and tennis shoe. Perhaps my subject is these relationships and my painting is revealing the story of this place.

The afternoon light falls across the trees and fields. I see a symphony of dots and dashes of bright color and am drawn to the light. I am dazzled by how all surfaces give voice to the light as they reflect it. Sometimes the scene before me appears as a kind of screen or unified field, like a tapestry. Sometimes it seems that the real nature of what I see is more this unified field than it is shapes or building blocks, forms or structures. The forms are separate and so the search for the truth of each form becomes the search for difference and distinction. But today I see that distinction is the illusion, just a game my mind is playing to try to make sense of a shimmering filed of light and color. Is it the surface that really matters and is that my true subject?

What about the physical security that I require to sit and paint outside, and the time required to do the work of art? What about the availability of refined materials? In some sense my painting also represents my privilege. In truth, the whole life of the artist is present in art works, the choices that I make, in addition to all that I see and the particular way that I see it. In this sense, every painting is a self-portrait. Perhaps ultimately I myself am the subject. As a teacher of mine named Keisho Okayama once said, “art gives evidence of being human.” Fundamentally, perhaps our humanness is always our subject?

How do you think about subject matter in art? How do your ideas about your subject influence the choices that you make while making art and your approach?

4 thoughts on “How Does the Subject Matter?

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