A Painter's Guide to Choosing a Subject


“There are no lines in nature, only areas of colour,
one against another.” — Édouard Manet

For a painter, finding a good subject matter can be a daunting task. In this post, we’ll discuss a few ways you can find good subjects for your project, and how to make the best use of Crocart’s paint-by-number editor.

1. Visualize your idea in detail

When you’re about to start painting, you’ll most likely already have an idea of what you think is a good subject. But before you actually start painting this, unless you’re very experienced, it’s usually worth first visualizing yourself in the process of painting it. For instance, what effect are you hoping to achieve with those clouds? What about that drapery? Can you see yourself managing to capture that beautiful transparency?

Spend the most time around visualizing how the main center of interest will look and how you will achieve your desired effect. This doesn’t have to be restricted to only a small portion of the painting; in fact, it could take up most of the space. However, regardless of its size, this will be the element that gives the painting its “raison d’être” and how this turns out will most likely determine how you ultimately judge how successfully you have delivered your vision of your painting.

2. Elect the center of interest

When you use the Crocart editor, you might find yourself trying to find the right balance between focusing more detail on your center of interest and less detail everywhere else. That’s because Crocart detects shapes with contrast and it is usually a sign that the viewer’s eye will go through the same exercise, which isn’t really desirable.

To overcome this and to find the right balance for your painting, carefully choose and modify your subject, and make firm decisions about what to leave in and what to leave out, what to suggest, and what to show. If you are painting from a photograph, you can use photo-editing software to blur out certain areas before printing it. That will help steer you away from busy backgrounds and too many distracting details. A heavy blurring of the areas of lesser importance will also greatly improve your results with Crocart, signaling that less details should be sketched in that particular area. For portraits, close-ups are ideal as they will allow you to paint resembling and powerful pieces very easily.

You can find great tips about how to simplify a composition in this article [1] by Johannes Vloothuis.

3. Recenter the focal point

The focal point is a location in your composition that mechanically attracts the viewer’s eye because of a high contrast, intense colors, patterns, directional shapes, etc. (read more about the focal point vs. the center of interest here [2]). You can ensure the center of interest is also the focal point by choosing or altering your subject such that the eye is naturally drawn to it by its structure and perspective, and by pointers in its surroundings.

Just as you “reallocated” details in the previous step, balance the structural elements of your image to direct the viewer’s eye towards the center of interest. If you’re painting from a photograph or using the Crocart editor, it will mean choosing a subject that helps you translate that balance.

Edges will be your first tool when structuring your painting. You can read this great article [3] by Matt Abraxas about edges and how to use them to guide the eye of the viewer. It’s especially important to be aware of the role of edges when starting from a paint-by-number sketch, since it helps you locate the edges, but you still have to translate them from a hard and found state to their natural state.

4. Tell the story

In viewing a painting, on a technical level, all our eyes catch is the contrast between colors and intensities of light, which is exactly what a photograph conveys. But a lot more than just light is perceived by the human mind, and it’s thus a key element of art to convey that portion of the experience (read more about some of the common mistakes made when painting from photographs [4]).

“If you don’t know where you are going,
any road will take you there.” — Theodore Levitt

By focusing your image on the center of interest, you open a channel into the viewer’s mind, which then makes it possible to communicate the desired story behind your painting, whether that is a sensation, a duration, a movement, a feeling, a thought or so on. Without that story, your viewer may feel like they are staring at a blank book.

A good way to understand how to inspire a story is to study how we ourselves are inspired by the works of others. When you observe the scene in the painting below by Edward Potthast, you can follow the narrative of how the mother and her child are spending their afternoon at the beach.

Look closely and you may realize how you can feel the weight of the sand because its color shows it’s damp, the thickness of the fabric of the woman’s dress because of the folds it makes, the sound of the wind because its strength shows through in the clothes, the luminosity of the sun reflecting on the wet sand, the smell of the sea because of the green of the algae, and probably many other cues deeply engrained in your personal experiences and sensitivities.

"At the beach" — Edward Henry Potthast

At the Beach — Edward Henry Potthast

5. Grow your own perception and expression

During your practice, as you are successful at suggesting increasingly complex subjects, scenes, feelings, and even emotions, you will be able to visualize your painting with increased sophistication, which will help you make better decisions about what to hide and will guide how you structure your images more deliberately to enable you to engage more meaningfully with the viewer.

Study and practice are the only proven ways to improve perception and expression. Whether you study photographs, nature, or your own mind, whether you practice on paper, on canvas, or with people, you will always go through the same cycle of expression that countless artists and literary authors have used for millennia: think about your idea, pick the words, build the sentences, and make them into your story.

Reference works

[1] http://www.artistsnetwork.com/articles/art-demos-techniques/art-composition-tips-how-to-simplify-a-busy-painting
[2] http://www.artistsnetwork.com/medium/watercolor/focal-point-center-interest
[3] https://www.arttutor.com/blog/201407/hard-soft-edges-guiding-focus-your-painting
[4] http://www.artistdaily.com/blogs/artist-daily/how-to-avoid-the-pitfalls-of-painting-from-photographs