​On Painting Sentimental Subjects

The other day I shared a recent painting that depicts the garden outside my parents’ home. This garden is a sentimental subject to me. To you, it’s a garden. To me, it’s part of my childhood home. I grew up with this garden outside my room. I know where it is in relation to the house. I know the work that has gone into it and how it has changed over time. I have watched my parents gardening in it and my old dogs run through it. Things like this can change our perspective of a subject and, in turn, how we go about painting it.

Here’s another example that you might be able to better relate to. Picture a close family member. Say your mother, father, or child. You see them in a different light to me or anyone else. You know them and their personality and this might influence how you go about painting them.

How should we deal with this?

We could try to tune out any bias we have towards the subject. Or, what I prefer to do is to lean into the bias. Show how you see and experience the subject. That’s the point of art after all. To tell stories and share our unique views of the world.

Below are some examples of what this might mean in practice:

  • Say you’re painting a portrait of your brother or sister. They are joyful and cheery and that’s how you want to convey them. Lean into these ideas with light pastel colors and sharp, clean accents (see Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Two Sisters).
  • Say you’re painting a landscape that you’re particularly familiar with. It’s part of a holiday location you frequently visited as a child. You could push your experience with the landscape by highlighting subtle details that only you or someone who was there would know about. Like a hidden path down to the lake or an old swing hanging from a tree.
  • Say you’re painting a still life of a desk or cabinet in your home. One of the objects is a childhood trophy that’s particularly meaningful to you. Of course, it’s not as meaningful to anyone else. We didn’t win that trophy, so we might not see the trophy in such a prominent light. Leaning into your bias might mean adding a gentle emphasis on the trophy and its glimmering highlights.

Anyway, just something to think about next time you paint a familiar subject.

Dan Scott