What Shall I Paint?

In my art classes I try and help students as much as possible get to grips with the technical aspects of creating successful paintings. However the choice of subject material is very often up to the students themselves. I find that some people are quite clear about what they want paint and others are less so – they know they want to paint but not exactly clear what to do.

What often seems to be the case though is that students will often produce better paintings when they feel inspired, moved or at they very least interested in the subject they are painting.

So spending a bit of time in the week, or evening before a class, finding and preparing a subject for the class is definitely time well spent.

Here are some suggestions of ways to prepare for the class.

Working in a series or to a theme

Claude Monet often worked in themes – in this case his famous Haystacks

Whatever you decide to paint, it can be a good strategy to pick a theme for a term. This means you don’t have to re-invent the wheel every time you come to class, you already have a rough idea of what your going to do, and just need to find something within that theme.

A theme could be a broad as ‘objects that begin with A’ or as narrow as a single a photograph painted in 12 different colours/styles/sizes. Suggestions for themes is endless but a few might be:

•Local History
•A holiday destination
•A single colour (like Picasso’s blue/pink period)
•A season
•Current Events
•Artists (Van Gogh,Caravaggio,Walter Sickert)

Or even a bit more modern/poetic themes:


The advantage of a theme is that it can grow and develop, new ideas might emerge and so a theme can branch off. Most of my work has been around the themes of fruit, rivers and Suffolk. A simple theme is capable of sustaining continued investigation.

Under the Wave off Kanagawa – taken from Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji

Once you have got a theme you have two main strategies for exploring it in the class:

Still Life Painting

Still Life painting is an excellent vehicle for learning the fundamentals of painting,including drawing, tone, colour and composition.

If you want to practice still life in the class I have some suggestions to help you get better results:

•Bring in your own lamp and an extension cord. This one works
well http://www.argos.co.uk/product/4312134
•Bring some cloth or something that can function as a backdrop
•Work small. Most ‘painting a day artists work 6” x 6” (keeping the same size
format is almost a theme in itself) – I Think 9”x9” is a bit better..you can get a lot of boards cut cheaply at B&Q.

Working from Reference

So you have picked your theme but aren’t sure where to get good images? Obviously the list is endless here but a few suggestions:

•Magazines (appropriate to your theme)
•Cards/Post cards
•Second Hand Books – (great for reference)
•your own photographs

The Internet – There are lots of ways to collect images online, including sites like Pintrest, Flikr and google image search.

Screen Grab – you can use a programlike faststone capture
http://www.faststone.org/FSCaptureDetail.htm– once installed you can snap pictures from youtube and iplayer. Most tablets and Ipads have this built in. Nature Documentaries and Films are full of good reference,

Do them in batches – get a theme find say 10-12 images you like, print them yourself or send to staples to print and hey presto! You have already prepared for a whole terms painting..with room to change if something grabs your attention.

The trick is to keep looking and thinking about painting – the world is full of subjects that you might want to bring to life!


David Hockney’s – Dog Wall