Subject Matters

“After all, the error rests in the mistaken idea that the subject of a painting is the object painted.” – Robert Henri

My current painting in progress is an automatic can opener from the 70’s or 80’s. I found it while being taken through the basement of the Big Dipper in Spokane as they were preparing it for reopening. When I saw it I exclaimed, “That would make a wonderful painting.” Troy whom I was with, said I could take it if I like and when I replied “ok,” he looked at me rather quizzically.

The can opener has been in my car since February along with a rusted old metal oil can, the calcified jawbone of a dear and a package of sticks my friend gave me. Finally, after months of gestation, that can opener is proudly posing beneath the lights while its likeness takes form on my canvas.

But of all things, why an automatic can opener? (2021 Update: Image Below)



When it comes to the issue of subject matter I almost always paint ordinary objects; portraits aside. Flowers frequent my canvas along with withered leaves on skeleton branches. Simple subject such as stones standing in profile and objects found in garages, boxes in the crawlspace or discarded among debris become the vehicle of my expression.

I believe that I am most equipped to convey my individual nature by painting that which lacks an emotional connotation in its own right. What does a lone pomegranate and a discarded motor have in common? Neither is particularly poignant as an object on their own, yet a painting of them supplies an emotional quality. That quality cannot be the result of anything intrinsic in the object itself as the object is meaningless. It is just an object. There is no story or idea described or sentiment present in the object itself. Rather, the artist’s responsibility of supplying an emotional or spiritual quality in the medium alone. The paint, its color, texture and facture (the way the artist places it upon the canvas) becomes the sole vehicle for communicating the transcendent quality. In fact it is that which makes a painting transcendent of its literal nature tethered to a subject.

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"Gauguin's Chair" Van Gogh 1888


This is a unique quality of painting. A painting can communicate an emotional quality by appealing to a political or sentimental idea. The artwork of William Holman Hunt or Adolphe William Bouguereau are excellent examples. Technically impeccable and expressing an idea of morality or sentiment. The expression is primarily in the idea or story though and neither artist is fully capable of harnessing the uniquely expressive quality of the medium itself to display the individual character of the artist. They are no Van Gogh. Ideas can affect the mind and touch the heart, but neither artist surrenders a brushstroke to the eye on the surface of the canvas.

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"The Thank Offering" William Bouguereau 1867

To paint something mundane is to confine myself to the medium alone as my form of expression. There is nothing moving or sentimental about an unplugged automatic can opener. The only tool I have at my disposal is the paint and my own authenticity.

“There isn’t a person, a landscape, or a subject that doesn’t possess at least some interest – although sometimes more or less hidden. When a painter discovers this hidden treasure, other people immediately exclaim at its beauty.” - Auguste Renoir
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