Module 8 — Themes and Motifs

When we talk about what sort of paintings we do, we often describe our favorite subjects, and perhaps something about our style: “I paint colorful, contemporary florals,” or “I paint soft, moody landscapes,” or “I paint quirky pets with a lot of personality.” 

That’s exactly what you want for casual conversation, but when you are thinking about the directions of your own work—or when you have to write the dreaded artist statement—it can be useful to look for the larger, deeper, or more abstract themes in your work. Things like “I’m fascinated with the way nature recovers and reclaims places that humans have damaged or abandoned,” or “The thing that gets me excited about a portrait is when I feel like I’ve hinted at the subject’s inner thoughts.” Or maybe something even more abstract, like “I keep coming back to the theme of resilience.”

Often, we’re only half-aware of these recurrent themes until we look back over work from a longer period of time: a year, or two, or ten. 

It can also be interesting to look for recurrent visual motifs: favorite patterns or textures, certain ways of making marks, color combinations that you use often. In other words, not the just subjects, ideas and emotions that drive your work, but also the ways of working that appeal to you and show up without you even thinking about them. Recurrent themes and motifs form a big part of your unique creative style. 

Module 8 Thinking Prompt—What Are Your Creative Themes?

Both themes and motifs may be consciously chosen, or you may discover them in hindsight when you review a body of work (or both). In this module, you may want to gather as many of your recent paintings as possible and lay them out to look for patterns. 

What themes seem to keep emerging in your art? 

Try to go beyond the overt subject. Whatever your favorite subjects, what is it about that subject that keeps you engaged and makes you keep wanting to come back and explore further? What stories are you trying to tell? What effects do you want these paintings to have on the viewer? What are you trying to help people see with fresh eyes?

What does this tell you about the recurrent themes in your work? Are there underlying mysteries you are exploring for yourself? Do you use painting as a way to urge people to action? Or look more closely at an unappreciated source of beauty? Or to have a particular effect on a mood of a space where you work hangs? 

Have the themes in your work evolved over time? Have there been times when you made big shifts to consider new themes? Was that a conscious choice or driven by a change in your situation or an event? Do your themes come primarily from long-standing personal fascinations or external events and experiences? Or do you have a process for choosing them and pursuing them deliberately?

Module 8 Activity Prompt—Library of Motifs

Themes are the ideas and stories that underlie our work, motifs are the patterns, symbols, and other visual elements that we find ourselves repeating (often with variations) in our work. Together, they define a big piece of what we call our unique creative style. 

Are there visual motifs that you notice keep recurring in your work? Particular ways you tend to make certain marks or suggest certain common elements in your paintings? Patterns or effects that you tend to use often? Visual elements that appear often, even if they’re not the subject?

Do you ever develop these into more exaggerated or stylized forms? Or emphasize them as a dominant feature in a painting? Use them as a border or decorative element?

Are there motifs that you’ve purposely adapted from elsewhere: nature, architecture and culture, other artists?

Start a “motif library” in your studio notebook to collect any visual motifs you notice emerging naturally from your paintings and sketches, and in the world around you. Then, if you like, develop a few into more stylized or exaggerated versions. Would any of these be useful as decorative elements or borders for sketchbook pages, greeting cards, or even paintings?

Module 8 Journaling Together Video

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