Choosing a good subject is the first step of a successful painting. Your painting starts when you have chosen a subject, not when you put down your first brush stroke. But if we're being subjective, there is no wrong or bad subject. Only what it means for the artist. Yet many artists either overthink or don't think about on what to paint, and why they paint. This is what I want to talk to you about this week - subject matter. For me, there's why, and there's how. This week I'm going to tell you why I paint what I paint.
It was back in 2005, there I was in an oil painting class of my art college. I was one of the best painters in my class. The teacher gave us the freedom to pick whatever we want to paint for our final. I picked my wife who was my girlfriend back then as the subject. I remember I had a photo of her taken when she was the bridesmaid of her cousin's wedding. She was all dressed up, with make up and hair done nicely. Seem like a perfect subject/model to paint. So I painted her. I worked hard on the painting. And at the end of the class, I got a B. I am usually not the one who cares about grades. But that B bothered me. I was one of the best painter in the class. My teacher Aaron likes me. I found no reason not getting an A. I talked with him after the last class and asked him why.
He said it was the subject matter that didn't get me an A. I begged the differ. I argued that isn't artist suppose to paint what they're passionate about? Why can't I paint my loved ones? Aaron didn't answer me directly, instead he answered my questions with questions.
"So what did you guys do after the wedding?"
"We were tired so we went back to hotel"
"and what was she doing at the hotel?"
"well... she changed back to her casual wear, washed off her make ups and sat on the sofa to rest"
"Why didn't you paint her resting on the sofa with her casual wear?
was she no longer attractive without the dress?
was she not beautiful enough without the makeup?"
Aaron's questions left me in silence. I realized what my problem was without him saying another word. I didn't trust that my painting can convince other people that my wife is beautiful. I choose to paint her dressed up with make up so that people will be attracted by her. However that's not what my heart feels about her. I don't have to paint her dress up for special occasion, posed for the camera in a beautiful scenery. I find her beautiful in the little moments of everyday life. I could've just paint those moments and trust my painting can translate the beauty I saw in my eyes and felt in my heart.
That 5 minutes conversation I had with Aaron changed me forever. Same thing goes with other subjects: scenery and people alike. I starting to paint what I see everyday. Moments that stood out for me, moments that people tend to neglect and moments that defined us: a barista passing out coffee with a friendly smile, a typical raining day in Seattle, my wife waking up in our bed, my favorite restaurant. These are all great subjects for me.
My vision as an artist is to help people appreciate everyday life, celebrating little moments. If my painting let you start finding beauty in a raining day, enjoy waking up to see the morning sunlight and smile back at a barista who made you coffee this morning, then my art touches you. And for that reason I will continue to paint things that seems ordinary. Because I trust my ability as an artist, and I trust you as a viewer.