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May 28, 2007

Subject Matter in Art

A second and third post have been added on this subject: Subject Matter in Art - Part Two and Subject Matter in Art - Part Three.

"The curse of us all is to do what the world calls beauty - not to look with our own eyes frankly on the world." -- Charles Hawthorne -- American artist and teacher (1872-1930)

Rembrandt van Rijn - Slaughtered Ox - 1655 - oil on wood - Musée du Louvre, Paris

If you've wished you lived in a more picturesque place so that you could draw or paint some really pretty pictures, perhaps you should forget about that idea. You may be luckier than you ever dreamed if you live in the most mind-deadeningly boring place that can be imagined, as so many of us actually do. Tracts of houses with a basketball hoop over the garage door of every one of them (but yours, maybe), narrow, busy streets, or big wide busy streets, your ugly apartment building backed up against a wall that's the back wall of a K-Mart parking lot ... you know, the typical kind of place where "real people" live. There are many of us (believe it or not) who don't spend vacation time painting in the Tuscan countryside, but instead just stick around home, such as it is, hoping the neighbors don't drive us to drink with their loud "music" and lack of ability to keep their dogs in their own yards.

It's not easy to come to the conclusion that you're in just the right place to produce artwork that is fine and certainly distinctive, but your chances of making art in these circumstances, in fact, are probably as good as those of anyone, anywhere, if not better because you absolutely must be inspired in order to do so. Whether or not you can create beautiful artwork is up to you, not your subject. Are you tough enough, and creative enough, to grab onto the opportunity that you didn't know you had living in a very ordinary kind of place - and make it work for you? If so, you can do it.

Just don't trust your family, friends, and neighbors to judge the artwork you produce. Trust yourself and trust those who don't look for "prettiness" in the artwork they admire, but for "truth" and "beauty." And make sure that you truly feel that way, too. Start looking for the subjects you have strong feelings about, even if those feelings include "utter boredom" and a great desire to escape. Look deeper than that, though. You have to see things as an artist does, which means you don't just see things but also feel them deeply. And be aware not only of your feelings and thoughts about the subject but also of the aesthetic challenges and delights in it.

It is important to keep in mind, of course, that you cannot be sloppy, boring, and tasteless (some descriptive terms that popped into my mind immediately when considering typical man-made scenery in the area where I live) in making your pictures, which you might think would be perfectly appropriate for the subject matter. In fact, you must try harder to be careful, thoughtful, high-minded, aesthetically involved ... and so on, and never let boring subject matter cause you to make boring pictures - ever. You must bring your "artistry" to the ghastly sights that you confront, and show something beautiful or wonderful, or at least fascinating, about them. Something that transforms them without lying about them, and in fact incorporates the very ugliness that is so appalling.

1942 Chevy truck in Junkyard - One of my own old-vehicle drawings - Please don't compare it with the Rembrandt painting above!

The "job" of an artist is to show others what he or she has seen that most other people cannot see unless it is pointed out to them in a way that makes them really "feel" it. Everyone can see the beauty in a sunset, or a mass of flowers in a beautifully-manicured garden, or sailboats on a lake, but can they see beauty in what's around them all the time, in everyday things? It certainly would help people stuck in the very same kinds of situations as you are to appreciate their surroundings more (and thus enjoy life more) if they could see even just a hint of beauty in what they had only seen as ugly and even depressing before.

"He [the artist] must show people more - more than they already see, and he must show them with so much human sympathy and understanding that they will recognize it as if they themselves had seen the beauty and the glory. Here is where the artist comes in." -- Charles Hawthorne - American artist and teacher (1972-1930)

The Ash Can school of American artists was conceived of by Robert Henri in Philadelphia around 1891. You can tell by the name given them ("Ash Can Painters") that their pictures were disparaged because of the down-to-earth subjects they preferred.

At http://wwar.com/masters/movements/ash_can_school.html (title of page: Ash Can School Art), there is a good description of the Ash Can School.

On this page: http://www.artcyclopedia.com/history/ashcan-school.html (at the Artcylopedia site, which I visit practically every day, sometimes several times) there are pages for all of the artists associated with the Ash Can school. Just click on their underlined names to get to their pages where there are many links to different websites that show their drawings and paintings.

"Take the ugliest object or subject and make it beautiful. Do not look for pictures in nature, get a problem." -- Charles Hawthorne

William Wray is a contemporary artist who brings out the "beauty" (feeling, understanding, truthfulness, beauty - not "prettiness") in his paintings of "ugly" subjects, such as, just for example, a paper factory, a liquor store at night, a storm drain, and views in a cement factory (there are several other subjects, too).

These paintings are not the slightest bit glamorized. The style is appropriate to the subjects...not fussy, not "pretty." These are so good. Maybe I think so partly because I recognize this kind of scenery, having lived in the general vicinity for many years - but, still, that doesn't disqualify me entirely from judging the effectiveness of these scenes because I know what it's like, and I can tell you that what he says about these things seems like the truth to me. This is what it's like, believe me.

When you get to the first page of his site, click on URBAN LANDSCAPE to see the ones I like best. The regular LANDSCAPES are not generally "pretty" subjects, either - They are good, too. He doesn't leave out the telephone poles, for instance, but the paintings are all the more poignant for these "ugly" realities that are incorporated into them. His "Urban Landscapes" really give an artist hope, and belief, that there are subjects -- unique, interesting, "soulful" subjects, right out there in the drab and dreary "real world" that most of us live in.

Imagine this scene - It would work! And as strange as so many people are, the way they dress and odd things they do these days, they won't even notice you. Imagine yourself sitting (uncomfortably, awkwardly - It adds to your "feeling" of the place) in your car with your paints and little canvasboard (or tablet and pencil or charcoal) at the edge of the chewing-gum-stuck, crippled-starling-visited, hot and miserable (or cold and miserable) BORING and mind-numbing, depressing run-of-the-mill mini-mall parking lot and having a lot of fun. What you find to paint or draw is up to you - A Radio Shack with pigeons sitting on the sign over the door for instance? If you have strong feelings or thoughts about something, show people,via what you paint or draw, just what they are - disgust, delight in little things, appreciation for (or just amazement at) incongruities and clashes of colors, the abandonment of shopping carts in any old place, and thousands of other things - You can find something interesting to say about the ugliest subject that you can imagine. That's where the challenge is, and where you can really show that you are an artist, not a maker of "pretty pictures."

And people will see the truth in your picture; don't make it pretty where it isn't, or it will take that absolutely essential quality away.

"One of the greatest things in the world is to train ourselves to see beauty in the commonplace. Out of a consideration of ugly tones grows a real beauty - a freight car or a wash line of clothes may be as handsome as a sunset. Discover beauty where others have not found it." -- Charles Hawthorne

NOTE ADDED JANUARY 21, 2008: I've added another post on this subject (Subject Matter in Art). Click here to read the new post.

NOTE ADDED APRIL 11, 2008: A third post has been added on the subject. Click here to read the third post.


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