Choosing a subject for your next painting can be incredibly challenging. . . but if you find yourself at a loss for what to paint, don’t panic! Today I’m going to share a few ideas and directions to explore that should help you find your next great painting idea.
1. Paint your current life
When I started painting in watercolors, my kids were still very young, and were a big part of what was going on in my life at that time. I couldn’t switch my focus so easily, so I ended up just painting quite a few portraits of my kids. (Obviously, painting portraits from a photo is easier than doing it “live”!)
Now they are older and more independent, I still paint their portraits once in a while, but I’m also excited to be exploring a variety of other subjects.
More recently I came across a few amazing paintings: one was of an artist’s mother on her death bed, and others were scenes from the life of an artist with his handicapped daughter. They were uncommon subjects, but there was something very personal and compelling in them because they were exactly what the artist was going through at the moment they were painted.
It takes courage to paint and share such personal subjects, but the result is often a strong emotional connection with viewers, so it’s definitely worth it!
2. Paint what you are passionate about
What is your passion? Perhaps you feel strongly about ecology, feminism, politics. . . or something else?
Painting your passions is just another way of communicating your ideas, by means of visual language to try to provoke a reaction in the viewer. You will always have passions—so paint them!
3. Paint what is around you
Even if it seems mundane, there is poetry in everyday objects.
It’s easy to feel like some subjects are too ordinary to paint, but actually any subject can be rendered in an interesting way. That’s the whole point of painting (or drawing) a still life! Once you get a solid composition and color scheme, ANY subject can become a work of art.
4. Paint something abstract
As you paint, focus more on your mood, feelings, and things like lines, shapes, textures, composition, balance, and transparencies. . . You can try to connect to emotions such as serenity, anger, happiness, excitement and see how those emotions translate into brushwork or lines and colors.
5. Try a painting exercise
There are many painting exercises you can do which will free your mind and help you come up with something new. (For example, you could try continuous line drawing, gesture drawing, drawing with a coffee stirrer dipped in ink, drawing without looking at your paper, or drawing with your non-dominant hand.)
One of my favourite exercises is to make a few abstract backgrounds with watercolor on paper, letting the colors mingle and make shapes on the paper. I let it dry, and then study it, attempting to find shapes on the paper. (You may even want to try looking at it in candlelight, or with music that inspires you to get your creativity going.)
Our brain doesn’t like random things and will always try to make sense of shapes, which is why you can sometimes see figures in an abstract pattern on tiles or wall paper or any kind of abstract pattern. I will then trace what I see with a pencil or a marker, and add a few more details. You’ll be amazed at the result! It is a bit like a Rorschach test for artists.
6. Have fun when you paint!
Sometimes artists feel the pressure of selling their work before they even paint it. . . but the problem with that is if you start to paint what you think people will like or will buy, you are losing an important part of the process: having fun.
So once in a while, make a painting just for the fun of it—take a few risks, have fun, and see what happens!