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From Whence Subject Matter?


I teach a class on March Mondays for a group of painters in South Orange County, California. They meet every Monday morning and have a different teacher for each of the months that they meet. They are an uncommonly welcoming and wonderful group – eager for new experiences, new approaches and they treasure their time together.
I have taught, nudged and watched them over the past 5 years during our month together and this last week talked “turkey” to them. It was done with love and concern for their growth as artists but let’s face it, that sort of conversation is fraught with peril. To my delight and thankfulness, they took what I said to heart and thanked me for my candor. What did I say?
Number one, I reiterated my cautionary comments of last year when I told them that by receiving so many views, so often from a group of instructors was tricky business. Having space between and ample time to work is optimum. They then have a chance to take what makes sense for their own work and release that information that does not. Lacking that, they needed to be very choosy about what they chose to include in each teacher’s offerings. Most of these folks paint on Mondays only, which complicates growth by itself.
Then I shared my observation that most of the group used source material from others, whether it was sketches or photos or magazine photographs, the common occurrence was the use of material that was not their own. There is nothing wrong with using other resources as long as permission is granted or if the image is only a jumping off spot for a new work. But too often, the painters were copying someone else’s composition, color choices, value patterns, etc. All the important decisions are made. We have “no skin in the game” if we choose another’s viewpoint. Working from the work of others is fine if it is for the purpose of learning but the issue of copyright looms if the work is a copy of another work and then is offered for sale. Drawing and interpreting is much easier and more pleasurable if the subject has meaning to the artist.
The above is especially true of artists finding their way to their own voice as painters. Subject matter that is familiar and enjoyed frees the artists to “play” with new approaches, color schemes, compositional motifs, etc. With their enthusiastic reception of my comments, I am optimistic and looking forward to see what they do in the future.  

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