|Photos by Saunders Fine Arts.|
Variety in subject matter is essential to any representational painter wishing to further their skills. There are painters known for landscapes, portraits, flowers, nocturnes, dogs, or even "painters of light." Painting only one subject can quickly make an artist's work formulaic and eventually devolve into a gimmick. It's natural for us to find "rules" that govern our approach to painting certain subjects, but in so doing it's also easy to drift away from painting what we actually see. When faced with a challenging subject, we tend to fall back on the rules rather than truly painting the scene before us.
The choice to be or not to be formulaic is a personal one, and many great artists utilize formula to create beautiful and moving works, but it can be limiting. A new formula is required for each and every subject. I know many landscape painters who are afraid to paint portraits and portrait painters who are afraid to paint landscapes. How is painting a landscape any different than a portrait? Aren't they both just a collection of shapes, values and colors laid out in a specific pattern that creates the illusion of the physical world?
It's easy to fall back on the shorthand our brain creates for everything around us. We remind ourselves that eyes are a certain distance apart, flowers are made of petals or that water reflects, but these things do not always visually appear the way we think they should. When we rely on the "formula," paintings can become disjointed, as we might have a clear understanding of the thing we're painting in one portion of the canvas but not in another.
Painting a variety of subjects can improve the ability to paint what one actually sees, as it forces us to confront the unknown which we do not have a formula or shorthand for. Forget that you're painting a face, or a tree, or a flower. Paint shapes defined by differences in value, edges and color. Every subject should be approached the same way.
In my own work, I tend to go through periods of painting different subjects, and when I shift gears the effects are astonishing. Last winter I painted a number of portrait studies at the Coppini Academy of Fine Arts in San Antonio, Texas. That experience provided me with a tremendous improvement in accuracy - which is required to capture a likeness. The nine months that followed was spent painting landscapes on the plein air circuit. It's very easy to stylize a landscape without the painting looking inaccurate, but stylization can also create issues when elements such as architecture are added. The practice of painting portraits made it much easier for me to quickly and accurately capture the landscape before me, whatever it consisted of. Now, I'm once again painting portrait studies at the Coppini, and I can now see the effect landscape painting has had on my portraits. My brushwork is more exciting, colors are more varied and the compositions are far more spontaneous.
In reality, I may be painting a variety of subjects, but in approach the variety is only in shapes, values, edges and colors.