I have been watching realistic painting demonstrations on YouTube. In one of them, Cesar Santos recommended that artists try to answer three questions about their paintings: “What is my situation in the world? Why do I paint what I paint? What can I do that is powerful?” These seem like great questions for any artist to consider. In what follows, the first section is my interpretation of what Santos meant by the artist’s situation in life. The second and third sections are my attempt to clarify for myself what is my intention at the heart of what I am doing with my choice of subject matter. I sometimes feel slightly vapid in selecting subject matter unconsciously, rather than with a clear intention. For this reason, I was attracted to Santos’ questions. The third question, what makes a painting powerful, is the most challenging for me.
Your situation in life: Painting is a culmination of your life experiences. All of the things, people, and places you have known contribute to it. Whether you are young or old, financially comfortable or struggling to make ends meet, these things shape your perspective on the world, and influence your choice of subject matter. Your painting’s content reflects what is important to you and what concerns you. To some extent, you cannot help but paint about contemporary life, because you are immersed in it. A figure painter may set his or her subject and background in a past period of time, but may unconsciously choose a body type that reflects contemporary ideals. Even a landscape painter is documenting that the sun shines at a certain time of year or that the fog rolls in on June mornings and that trees and streams exist—that humans haven’t yet “paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” as the song goes. Non-objective art could be an exception, yet even shape and color choices seem to have fashions anchored to a period in time.
You can find your inspiration in the patterns of daily life going on around you. As you observe the day-to-day background of your life, you might find subject matter that peaks your interest and invigorates your imagination. You become aware of, and sensitive to, the things around you.
Why I paint what I paint: I want people to respond to my paintings with “awwwwe…,” but without the paintings being trite. I like my paintings to reflect the majestic and beautiful in life. Such paintings are reminders of the finer elements of human experience. In contrast, one of my former life drawing professors likes to paint the faces of men on skid row. Some of his paintings are eight feet tall, consisting of a huge unkempt, weathered, and sad face staring out at the viewer. My teacher would go to Los Angeles and ask men on the street to let him sketch them, making several sketches and offering to give each man his pick of the sketches to keep. My professor ruefully reported that these men invariably seemed to select his best sketch. How did they develop such good taste? I didn’t ask my teacher why he painted these sad sack men, because it seemed likely to me that he was making a social statement, reminding viewers that this aspect of life exists along with the impressive achievements of humanity. In reality, those struggling to survive are vastly more common than are outstanding achievers.
Why I paint what I do is a different question from why do I paint at all. I would probably answer by saying that I want to leave some worthwhile products behind after I am gone. In the meantime, I enjoy my paintings and others do too. I also like challenging myself to find out how skilled I can become. I routinely get myself into predicaments as I paint and seek ways to resolve them. It’s deeply satisfying to finally break through the impasse.
What I can do that is powerful: My former professor’s paintings were certainly powerful. I was even tempted to buy one of his small paintings, because there was something so soulful and, well, beautiful in the eyes gazing out from a mass of wrinkles and a mane of wild, filthy hair. Ultimately, I decided that it would be too much of a downer to have that piece in my home, both for me and for my house guests. I’m not sure such paintings are meant for a home so much as an office space, college, or museum. I first saw my professor’s paintings in the library of the college where he and I worked as faculty members. An entire wall was filled with half a dozen of the eight-foot tall versions of his paintings. The experience of seeing them was unforgettable. I freely acknowledge that my paintings are less powerful.
My painting, “African Mother in a Yellow Dress,” has received a more positive response than any other of my paintings, followed closely by “Almost Shirtsleeve Weather”. Since one of these paintings was completed at the beginning of my art instruction and the latter represents the current state of my painting skills, I have to conclude that it is the content that is gripping more so than my skill in portraying the scene. Both are mother-daughter paintings, in which one of the two people in each painting is looking directly out at the viewer, unsmiling. Both paintings provide a background that supplies context. These similarities also hold true for my paintings “African Mother in a Blue Dress” and “Green-Eyed Madonna”. These two paintings were the most popular at my solo show in 2016. “Blue Dress” came in first as the popular choice and I had a buyer for “Green-Eyed Madonna,” although he backed out later. My painting of “Jane Goodall with an Infant Chimp” also has a similar format, with Jane looking away and the chimp gazing out at the viewer. This painting has an indistinct background that provides a minimal context. Even my painting of my Siamese cats, “Tai Lounging on Tae” has a similar format, with Tai “unsmilingly” gazing at the viewer while Tae looks out a window.
Another of my mother-child paintings, “Double Devotion” packs a punch because the mother in that one has a large tattoo on her arm. Neither mother nor child is gazing at the viewer, which reduces the impact of the painting. This isn’t one of my popular paintings, although I like it. I was inspired to paint it, after seeing a mother lovingly cradling her toddler, while sporting a full tattoo sleeve. Mike and I were attending an outdoor summer concert, and I responded to the tableau by feeling slightly repelled but also attracted to the sight. I thought this would make an edgy painting. I didn’t photograph the scene, out of respect for the mother’s privacy, so I essentially had to make up my own composition.
In each case, there was something that attracted me to the person and scene. Many of my portraits depict a relationship between mother and child that suggests tenderness. The painting “Sweet Dreams” also depicts a tender moment, with a small boy taking a nap with his cat. This is a double portrait, like so many of my paintings are. A trio of figures is supposed to be a magical combination in the art world, but I seem to go for a pair of subjects every time.
In summary, I was attracted to Cesar Santos’ questions because I haven’t had a conscious purpose directing my selection of subject matter. I was somewhat chagrined to discover while answering these questions, that I often don’t choose my own subject matter. It seems that my situation in life is likely to seep into my paintings even if unintentionally, so perhaps I should think of myself as representing the current era and have a good look around me to see what is worth capturing and commemorating. I like to create paintings that inspire and remind people of the most delightful aspects of human life. Finding what makes a painting powerful still eludes me to some extent. I have tried to work backwards in my thinking from the responses my paintings have had to learn what sorts of compositions resonate with people.