What Motivates Us to Choose Our Subjects?

Posted April 03 2015

This article is from guest blogger Sarkis Antikajian and is republished from his excellent monthly newsletter. Learn more about Antikajian and sign up for his newsletter at his website.

As representational artists we would like to believe that we are immune to external factors that may influence our artistic activity such as the choice of subject and the manner it is utilized to  achieve a desired objective.

For most of us the foremost determiner in our choice of subject is its esthetic appeal for us, its intrinsic characteristic that conforms to the criteria of good art requirements, (which in painting includes composition, color, value, and other), and how relevant we believe it is in enhancing our individual artistic growth.

Although as artists we guard our independence, at the same time there is the natural tendency to seek recognition or appreciation. In the back of our minds lurks the commercial side of our profession that may creep into and influence our decision-making as to the subject and what we choose to include in our painting.

We know of the non-conventional artists, whose art willingly is not intended to have esthetic appeal nor is there concern to please the public, and the artwork may even be considered offensive and confrontational. Such artists do not choose to create their art in obscurity. They, too, seek validation of some sort and may seek exposure even if through notoriety.

Not every still life, landscape, or figurative work has equal appeal to everyone. The inclusion of luscious flowers in a still life, for instance, may be more appealing to some than the found objects in a kitchen, around the home, or the unfamiliar, as components of a still life. A cottage or a building brings more interest to a green landscape composed of a clump of trees or a field of grass. And to many, the landscape and still life have more appeal than figurative art.

There are the few art collectors who acquire "art for art's sake" and for others it may be strictly an investment. For both, the subject or the manner in which it is created is irrelevant. But most people collect art to decorate their homes, or to infuse a cheerful atmosphere reflective of their sentiments and personalities.

As individual artists we choose the path to follow in our artistic profession. A few are perfectly happy to narrow their interest to one subject which they strive to perfect. They may be defined as seascape artists, or portrait artists, and so on. Others choose a variety of subjects throughout their career to enrich their artistic life and to avoid stagnation. And some choose to take commissions in which the client is the determiner of the subject and how it is implemented.

It may also be in our nature to take the easy way out, which we would rather not acknowledge, and that may  determine our choice of subject. It is plausible to pick the conventional subject that has been painted over and over for many years by other artists, wherein a path has been laid out for us to follow and the most that we can do is add to it something of ourselves to give credence that the art belongs to us.

Unfortunately we are rarely motivated to paint the complex, unconventional, and the challenging, especially if it is a subject of no esthetic interest to others, regardless of the enormous benefit we derive from it in our development as artists. The tendency is to lean more to the subject that appeals to others.

Then there are the nostalgic scenes such as depicted in the paintings of the late Thomas Kinkade which may be what many people want on the walls of their homes. (It is claimed that 20% of the U.S population own a print or original of his.)

In conclusion, I believe there are no short cuts in achieving artistic excellence. That is why we remain in learning mode throughout our careers.

Those of us who are zealous and committed to go the slow and agonizing path in how we go about reaching our objective of becoming artists, focusing and confronting the challenging and that which enhances our growth, may find an enormous number of works piled up in our studios, out of sight and of no interest to anyone else. In the end, I believe these serve us well and are testaments of our growth. The inadequacy in these works is as important in defining who we are as artists as our beautiful framed art in galleries and shows that are praised and admired by others.