Last month I wrote about the artist’s leading question—“Why?” That question addressed the reason an artist works at all. This month I will address the secondary question that an artist should ask about any painting in the planning stages: “What?” Not so much “What is it?” but “What do I want to express?” In other words, “What is it about this subject that makes me want to paint it?” “What is my purpose for painting this piece?”
The answer can legitimately incorporate any (or many) of a number of reasons. In order to focus effectively and achieve the goal, the artist is wise to select only one primary and overriding response. This will influence how the subject should be approached. The others are secondary.
If, for instance, my subject is a flower, as in “Fuchsia Spray” (#110305) above, my purposes may include pure representation (“flower”), symbolism (what the flower represents, if something beyond its literal meaning), narrative (a story the flower suggests), aesthetic/description (some specific element of the flower, such as the lighting on it, its delicacy or solidity, line, color, form, or relation to another object, that I want to call attention to), a mood or feeling that I want the viewers of my painting to experience, or some other purpose entirely.
These purposes may overlap: Soft lighting on a drooping blossom may suggest restrained hope, set a pensive mood, describe fragility, and in conjunction with other objects in the painting suggest story or make a social statement. But one purpose should be primary.
As I approach the painting, everything, from composition (where my primary subject is positioned and how it relates visually to all other elements in the painting), to lighting, color choices, and even brushwork should be used to achieve that primary purpose. The purpose should influence what I choose to exaggerate or deemphasize. Every other element I include within the painting, or expected elements that I intentionally choose to omit, should support my artistic goal.
Even if it’s just an experimental study, the purpose should still be clear–for instance, “to achieve a sense of depth through use of color variations.” If, in the process, secondary purposes (such as aesthetics, narrative, or mood) are also achieved, so much the better.