Finding your artistic themes

Concepts in practice based on the book Painting Abstract Landscapes (Read the book review here)

Choosing a theme is central to Gareth Edwards’ process. In his book Painting Abstract Landscapes, he gives some suggestions on ways of finding your artistic themes.

He suggests ” a close coterie of “friends” either dead or alive. Artists, composers, poets: anyone whose work you have built a connection with during your artistic development. ”

The idea is to have a resource of work that inspires you and that you can refer to for inspiration and learning.

Themes are emotional, psychological or poetic. An example is Turner’s work with light and its effects. Gareth Edwards’ themes include  elegy, lament, transportation,  ascension  and yearning.  

Seascape with storm coming

Seascape with Storm Coming JMW Turner

Your emotional response to your subject is the under painting you need for direction in your work.

Keep all your themes in mind as you start your paintings, so that all possibilities are available at the start. As the work progresses you will make decisions that lead towards finding your artistic themes.

To identify your themes look to the things you collect, music you listen to again and again over the years, favorite authors and poets and of course favorite artists. Look past surface attractions and search for the deeper meaning you find in these works.

Write it down, make lists and get familiar with the patterns and themes that emerge.

Naming your inspiration: Ideas for finding your themes

List your favorite books. What are the common themes among them that resonate with you? What emotions or psychological concepts keep popping up? Write them down.

List your favorite songs. What common thread ties them together? Consider the rhythm and beat. Lively or somber?  Write as many descriptors as you can.

Name your favorite artists and artworks. Compare the artwork to find common elements that appeal to you.  Is it the use of tone or color? Dramatic compositions or sublime vistas? Also recognize your emotional response and if possible identify the art elements that provoke your response.

Now, take these very specific words and nurture them. As you work through the material that inspires you, consider how a song, a poem or a story are like a painting. What is left unsaid but still weighs heavily on the listener, the reader, the viewer? For more on poetry and art read When an artist meets a poet.

Make a list of the specific words you used to describe your emotions and reactions to favorite songs, books, poems and artwork.

You could group them if you choose, but I used single words for the next step, which is to make a mood board for your word. This is a really interesting exercise that forces us to identify how to express our themes.  Some descriptors I have identified for my work:

Remnants,  passing time, nostalgia, regeneration, community, ecosystem, ancient rhythms and haunting. 

You could use an app such as Canva to create your mood board or use materials from your studio. I chose to make my board using materials from my studio because I wanted to explore texture in my board, and I like the hands-on work of creating.

I chose some lines from the poem “ Spell of Creation” by Kathleen Raine which embodies regeneration and provides a cadence within which to create a feeling with color or shape. I mixed a color palette that would give me a range of dark colors so that I could explore decay and light colors to express regeneration.  I will use the concept of contrast to play decay against regrowth and also use the power of line and shape to reinforce and balance my theme.

Creating a mood board for my theme was fun and thought provoking. It is a great way to organize and refine my thoughts and also leads to ideas for creating paintings using this theme. It cements the concepts for me so that they become more than theory, I have a practical way to express emotion!