Sunday, January 13, 2013

"How Important is it to really know your subject"?

I am often asked the question, "Is it important to really know the subject you are painting inside and out."  First let me say that it certainly does not hurt to know the subject, but artists can paint subjects that interest them without knowing very much about them, if anything at all......except for the fact that they are interesting visually.  One could know everything about a subject, or even be an expert on the subject, and not be able to depict it as well as one seeing it for the first time.

"In for the Night", 16x20 oil on linen, private collection.

In my opinion, observation skills and a visual interest in how something looks with light on it is what is most important.  A personal example might be that I love to paint boats and water, but I know very little about boats except which end is the bow and which is the stern.  From observing, I am aware that the shape of a lobster boat is different than that of a shrimp boat, or an oyster boat, etc.  I have a passion for painting boats because I like the shapes and the way they look in water.  That is only one example of many subjects that artist choose to paint that do not require expert knowledge to do reasonable representations of them.

"The Paradise Horseman" 11x14, oil on linen, private collection.

"The Watering Hole" 17x31, oil on linen

Another example might be Equine paintings.  I'm sure many who paint horses are in fact experts, and some even specialize in that genre of painting.  Being an artist that paints eclectic subject matter, it is one of my favorite subjects....but again, I do not believe it is a prerequisite to know horse anatomy by name, if one has observation and drawing skills.  My passion, or interest for horses started as a young boy.  I always had horses growing up, and loved them then and carried the interest in that subject with me until now.  I know a little about them, but I am by no means an expert....and for me, it never was about being an expert on this subject!  It is about the way they look.....the strength, and beauty of their movement....a noble beast.

"After the Bath", 12x9 oil on linen, private collection.

"Young Girl", 12x16 oil on linen, private collection.

By the same token, one can do a very reasonable rendition of the human form without ever taking an anatomy class....of course anatomy study does not hurt, and I certainly would never discourage anyone from studying the human anatomy.  Any knowledge gained can be helpful.....particularly in checking one's self if there is an issue, but it is not an absolute requirement.  Artists have done a very good job over the years without studying anatomy, if their observation skills are strong.  I believe the artist should be interpreting their observations and not simply copying them.  Copying is for cameras.  Another problem with relying  on knowledge instead of observation is, if one is observing the subject, and something looks vague, fuzzy or not clear as in a shadow should paint that image as they see it, and not use their intellectual knowledge of the subject and make it a clear statement.  It will not look appropriate to that particular situation.  Example....something dark in shadow value, if made to light and sharp will jump out of the shadow.  Another foreseeable problem with using knowledge of subject rather than observation is that one could fall into a formula, and everything starts looking the same.  If one is using anatomy knowledge for example, all figures should not be exactly alike.

I have even heard this in reference to portrait painting.  One artist (A) who meets his subject for the first time can do an excellent portrait, and even possibly stronger interpretation than one artist (B) who has spent time with and painted that same subject again and again....if artist (A) has stronger observation my opinion.

One could compile a never ending list of subjects that this might apply to.  By no means am I implying that one should not learn all one can about the subject they choose to paint.....if that is one's interest.  This is only my opinion on this subject, and does not necessarily reflect any universal opinion or idea on the subject.  I do find this an interesting topic, and I do believe strong observation skills trump knowledge of a subject as it relates to painting.

Again, thanks for listening to my Cajun ramblings.


  1. Hodges, I couldn't agree more! Honing observation and drawing skills is more important than being able to name muscle groups with the same ease as a Surgeon! But I do think it's important to know your subject-- as a Land/Sea scape guy, I want to know what lies off the edges of my canvas, so I can convincingly portray the snippet I'm painting-- If you know what I mean. Beautiful paintings, BTW. Thanks!

    1. Kevin, thanks for the comment. I'm not sure I know what you mean by what lies off the edge of your canvas, but I do think we are on the same page. I think it takes more than just emotion and knowledge of a subject. In my opinion, the best combination for creating a piece of art would be an emotional response to the subject, combined with high observation and technical skills. Emotion is important, but not enough....and the technical can be empty without the emotional aspect. Thanks again Kevin.