What to Paint: Selecting Your Subject Matter

Careful selection of your subject matter as you decide what to paint is the key to every good painting. That’s what initially draws people to it. For the same reason, one might say it could also influence the selection process of a juror. Most everyone likes to see paintings of children and animals, boats, flowers, places they’ve been to or have fond memories of, scenes from their hometown, quiet meadows, lovely seascapes and landscapes, but also unusual subject matter. Go to any major art exhibit, take some notes, and you’ll see what I mean.

watercolor two children, two children painting, painting of two children

Click Picture to Purchase: "Two Children"

Someone once told me that your reputation as an artist will be based on one major body of work you’ve successfully completed: landscapes, seascapes, florals, portraits, animals… whatever. But at this point in my career, I have several major bodies of work: landscapes/seascapes, buildings, boats and flowers. I also got back into doing a few portraits, which I did rather successfully back in my high school days.

If you don’t know what to paint, you won’t do much painting! I keep a list of things I want to paint, particularly subjects near home, but also interesting stuff I’ve noticed in my travels. I also keep a file of photos and other stuff I think might make good subject matter.

painting of a horse, farm painting, transparent watercolor art

Click Picture to Purchase: "DJ"

Selecting something to paint near where you live isn’t difficult. But when traveling, it’s a different ballgame. If you haven’t been to the location before, you have to invest some time deciding want to paint, often as much time as you might spend doing the very painting itself. My wife and I travel a good deal. That’s when I do my best work.  I’m better able to focus my efforts when I’m away from the many distractions you encounter at home. But it takes time to drive about and decide what you’re going to paint.

When looking about for subject matter, it’s the unusual stuff that turns me on… contrasting shapes, values and textures, brilliant or unusual colors, reflections, highlights, shadows… the movement of the sun across a surface, or other such items that have a way of changing over time.  What’s happening up there in the sky affects what I’m attempting to do… the cloud patterns, colors in the sky across the horizon or way up there above my head. Among other things, I notice the various types of trees and their branches, leaf patterns… the textures, colors, and effect of the sun shining through or on them.

Click Picture to Purchase: "View down High Mtn Rd beyond Lake Lopez, CA"

Keep in mind that what you see in front of you will change for any number of reasons: the path of the sun, weather patterns, tides, and people moving in and about.  It’s important to anticipate such events when painting.  One also has to decide what’s the best time to paint a subject. For me, it’s the morning or afternoon, because that’s when shadows appear. Avoid painting during the middle of the day.  Spend that time eating lunch! When I draw a composition, I try to anticipate what’s going to happen later on in the day… where shadows will fall, and how colors may change.

Early morning and late afternoons provide more definitive shadows and brilliant colors.  Cloud patterns change throughout the day. There are less clouds early in the morning. More appear, and they tend to grow larger, later in the day. Observing what’s going on around you beforehand leads to more informed decisions about when to paint a subject, what to leave out… and include.

Click Picture to Purchase: "Amphitheater at Bryce Canyon"

When selecting what to paint, also keep in mind what you might need for future exhibits… and what others might want to see. That’s why it’s important to pencil in future exhibits.  They provide momentum for your work… objectives to strive for.

Douglas Stenhouse also wrote a book about watercolor painting.

“I decided to write about how I paint, not only to share my observations with others, but also, frankly, to do some self- examination. I wish I had done this earlier in my life! But then, how was I to know I’d benefit from doing so, certainly at a time when I had no aspirations of becoming a professional artist.” 

To learn more about Doug’s Watercolor Painting Book, click here. To purchase a signed copy, use the link below.


Douglas Simms Stenhouse, watercolor artist, transparent water color art, watercolor painter, painting with water colors