Friday, February 13

What is a Motif?

Today’s Image
Pastel on Paper
14 x 11 in (35.6 x 27.9 cm)
Copyright 2007

I thought I’d write today’s blog on selecting the motif of your painting. Because I spend a good amount of time thinking about this, I figured other artists probably did, too.

If you read the Artist “Factoids” column on the right-hand side of my blog (over there to your right), you see that I describe motif as “the main idea in an artistic composition." As one artist described it simply, ‘it's what you're painting.’" I suppose in the broadest sense, a motif can be the style and subject of the painting that you're creating (or usually create). For example, you always paint flowers, or still lifes, or mountain peaks.

Most acclaimed artists did not paint just one motif throughout their careers. Claude Monet, as you probably are aware, didn’t paint waterlilies until the latter part of his long career; before that he painted the French countryside, cathedrals, and shocks of wheat at different times of the day, among other things. Edward Hopper painted both New York cityscapes and the houses on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

At the other end of the spectrum, according to my artist friend, the motif is simply what you’re painting that day. In this definition, you may think your motif is beaches, but it would be the particular beach your are painting is your motif—for example, the beach at Waikiki, Hawaii—as opposed to just any beach.

So, what is a motif? Here’s an official definition from Merriam-Webster (the dictionary folks) Online Dictionary: 1: a usually recurring salient thematic element (as in the arts); especially: a dominant idea or central theme; 2: a single or repeated design or color. So, can it be both a recurring theme and dominant idea in a painting and simply the subject of your painting that day? I vote yes.
If nothing else, maybe this will help you discover and decide what the motif of your next painting will be.

To put this in some context, I myself have several broad motifs: southwestern US landscapes, adobe structures, and also coastal scenes. The motif in Today’s Image combines both southwestern US landscapes and adobe structures. The particular motif is an old adobe church situated near a graveyard. I have painted many paintings using these motifs, but I still have a lot to discover about them.
I want to explore new motifs as time goes on although I don’t yet know what they may be. I think that’s part of the creative process that makes art a new experience every day.

Do you have a motif?


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