How to choose a subject in art painting + 4 tips

What to paint? Choosing a subject in art painting is often a lifelong struggle. Writers are always advised to write about what they know, but what should artists paint? If  painters  only painted what is in front of them, art history wouldn’t evolve much.

I think every painter recognises this search and knows the challenge of it. But once you get on this track you will notice that it’s an endless quest that never stops, thats the exciting thing about it. 

I think you can compare this quest to life, you grow, experience different things, get inspired by other people’s lives, try things out, mature, change your ways, maybe even transform, and throughout all those experiences you will find your style. I think in art and in painting it is also like that. 

A subject in painting can be many things. But there are several “basic” subject which appears often throughout the history of painting. The “Global Artchain” conducted a survey with more then 800 galleries in the UK and came up with the most popular subjects in painting, these results are still relevant today. Here is a list with the most popular subjects we can find in painting.

The most popular subjects in art painting

  • landscape painting (including impressionist and abstract landscape)
  • still life
  • portrait and human figure
  • nature and wildlife
  • abstract
  • nudes

All painters are influenced to some degree, by those who came before them. 

Subject in art painting and art-history in a nutshell

In the past, academic tradition conveniently chose the subject in art painting for you. You could do portraits, religious or historical scenes, genre paintings, landscapes or still lives. For example a court artist, like Van Dyke or Velazquez, painted the monarch and his entourage, they could only work in that narrow circle. If you were employed by the church, like Caravaggio, the Bible supplied you with stories.

From the 17th century during the “age of enlightenment” and then during “romanticism” in 18th century artists were already  searching to change those conventions. But the real break through came when “modern art” arrived in the late 19th century. The term is associated with art in which the traditions of the past have been thrown aside in a spirit of experimentation.

Modern artists experimented with new ways of seeing and fresh ideas about the nature of materials, functions of art, and the choice of subjects. During “Modern Art” the first stones for “Abstract Art  » were set. 

A good example of that period of transition is Pablo Picasso with his painting titled “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907)

And it was Pablo Picasso that would strongly influence Jackson Pollock when he exposed in MOMA New-York in 1939. 

Jackson Pollock lived and worked in the period that New-York became the artistic epicentre of the world. He belonged to the movement of painters of “abstract expressionism” and was the first to make a connection between “Art Collectors” and the New-York School of Art.

With his “action painting”, the subject in art painting was completely put aside and didn’t matter anymore. 

The subject of “Action painting” becomes the physical attitude of it. All figurative suggestions are discarded here and the vital energy which animates the body of the painter constitute the engine, the resource and the meaning of the work.

Today  Jackson Pollock is still one of the most important painters that influenced “Contemporary Art”.

How to find your subject in painting + 4 tips

It may happen that you aren’t inspired or have no idea about what you would like to paint next. It also happened to me several times. I had different periods before I found “my style” but before that there was a long time and I painted many different subjects before finding the “style” and the “subject” that fitted me. 

I first painted landscapes, then portraits, then flowers, then trees, then animals, then portraits again. What I remarked was that, beside my “style of painting”, the subject was the second important “key” to choose  what I wanted to express to the world. You choose a subject in art painting and then work on the way that you paint it.

4 tips to help you find your subject in painting

  1. Try to “visualise and feel” the subjects in your environment : the desire to paint comes from what you “feel in your stomach”, and this is different for everybody.
  2. Share and show your artwork : showing and sharing your paintings to friends or other painters can be very encouraging, inspiring and gives you new ideas. But it is important that your spectators are kind, any negative criticism can have the opposite result.
  3. Draw for pleasure : it is important not to force yourself painting, painting should be a joyful or relaxing moment.
  4. Art books and exhibitions : if you are lucky to have a library in your neighbourhood which has good art books, go and take a look once in a while to inspire you what other artists do. Check on the new exhibitions in your town

Conclusion

Mondrian spent decades painting windmills and rivers before he found form with geometric abstraction. The American painter Philip Guston tried socialist murals, allegories of children’s games, and years of abstract impressionism before he eventually hit upon the tragic-comic near-cartoons of contemporary life that sealed his fame for the future.

If you don’t know where to start to find your subject in art painting, take Leonardo’s advice and look at the stains on your walls: there you will find endless new forms to jump-start a painting.

These stories remind us again about the freedom you have as an artist. How many roads you can take and how wide the creative universe can be. This is something so precious that only you can have. 


  • Discover that painting is within everyones reach
  • Get free tips to improve your painting style
  • Learn about the joy and magic of the creative process

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