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What Should I Draw?

Mandy Theis

Thursday, 27 May 2021

“What should I draw?” is a common refrain from students in my art classroom. After years of answering this question, I have found that the answer is different for each student.

As artists develop their skills, certain drawing subjects are more attractive to them than others. For some students, painting people is their JAM. There is gesture, and movement, and anatomy!

To others, the same subject tortures them because people as subjects are constantly moving. I have had students ask the model not to breathe before. These students want to be able to capture the figure perfectly in exactly one position. This is not really possible when drawing from life because, as it turns out, people need to breath. 

My advice to all atelier students: do not torture yourself with drawing subjects you detest. Find the subjects that are the best match for your artistic personality and gifts.

That is not to say that you shouldn’t learn how to draw a wide variety of subjects, especially as you are developing your skillset. It is extremely important to seriously attempt drawing a broad variety of subjects before making any binding decisions about what your artistic calling is.

Bargue plates, for example, may not always be the most interesting to new atelier students, but they are extremely efficient at helping students develop a strong drawing base.

Once techniques are mastered, however, there comes a time to decide on what exactly it is that you want to draw and paint.

Still Life with a White Mug, oil on canvas by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, c. 1764; in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. 33.1 × 41.2 cm.

The well-known French artist, Chardin, was frequently admonished by his peers to paint more serious subjects than his beloved still lifes of humble dinnerware and fruits. It was believed by the ruling art elite that truly great artists must be history painters who create multi-figure grand canvasses.

But Chardin always painted what he found most admirable, and what suited the techniques that he loved most. And if that subject was a handful of pears, so be it.

Chardin’s clear affinity for chromatic color notes, scumbled layering, and dissolved edges creates a charm that delights viewers to this day and has secured his place in the art history canon. Those “grand” and “serious” and “real artist” history painters? Do you know many of them on a last-name-only basis?

I believe much can be learned from Chardin’s persistence of still life painting at the height of its unfashionableness. Most importantly, how to be true to your individual artistic spirit.

I know a wonderfully talented contemporary painter that makes the most delightful still life paintings. They are imbued with all kinds of nuanced story-telling, and no detail is ever overlooked. This type of painting requires a thorough and patient mindset. The technique requires many passes with a tiny brush. What might appear to be a tedious way of working to me, brings delight to my friend.

I, on the other hand, am a very impatient and brash artist. I like to capture the gesture of something in an exact moment, and there is no time to spare before the magic of the gesture might fade away. I like to paint flowers as they are constantly moving and following the light. I want to paint the whole bouquet at once, as the bouquet as a whole encompasses its own unique gesture.

Painting of daisies in progress by author Mandy Theis

If I want to paint at the level of meticulousness of my friend, I would either have to paint one flower at a time, replacing the flowers in the bouquet as they fade, or replace the bouquet all together with silk flowers.

I can’t stand the thought of painting from fake flowers, whose gestures are never genuine, but whose presence would be required for careful, detailed painting. I adore the gesture of a bouquet as a whole too much to isolate all the parts by painting flowers one by one. Therefore, my technique has evolved in a way that allows me to paint an entire bouquet at a non-meticulous level over the course of the life of that bouquet.

It should be noted, however, that I had to learn how to draw and paint meticulously in order to acquire the skillset I needed to draw and paint more freely. It is very important to me to have the “meticulous painting” tool in my tool box for the times that I do need it, like putting a fine finish on the vase of the flowers.

When studying atelier skills, learn everything you can at a meaningful level. Try drawing everything you can in order to discover what you, as the unique individual you are, actually like.

Be true to yourself. If you find you are drawing something because it is what you are supposed to draw to be a “serious artist” (multi-figure work come to mind), channel your inner Chardin and pursue drawing what resonates with your artistic soul. Maybe you are a master of creatures. Or waves. Or hands.

As long as you draw what calls to you, your audience will always sense it. They will appreciate your chosen subject more deeply by seeing it through your eyes. After all, sharing your inspiration with others is the true gift of great artists.



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