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Unusual Painting Subjects

It’s easy to fall into the trap of always selecting subject matter that appeals. Landscapes, portraits, flowers, boats and water - sure the results can be interesting and the subjects are satisfying to work on, but sometimes, choosing an unusual, unappealing subject can produce exciting results.

Most workshops I try to include at least one subject that falls outside of what is generally considered appealing. This subject often results in groans of complaint until students actually start painting. It is amazing how being somewhat detached from the subject lifts the burden to produce a masterpiece and allows for risk and experimentation to take over. Rarely have I found students grumbling at the end of one of these “less appealing subjects”

Watercolor painting of Blowfly
Watercolor painting of simple calculator

These two small paintings fall well into the category of unusual subjects - a blowfly and a cheap pocket calculator. By emphasising the grubbiness of the fly and the mathematical confusion of the calculator certain traits of the subjects are amplified. This produces interest beyond merely copying the subject.

Watercolor painting of front end loader
Watercolor Painting of Yellow Bulldozer

Heavy machinery makes a wonderful subject. The interesting proportions, weathered patina and undecorated, practical nature of the machines allows for a no nonsense, almost mechanical approach to take advantage their functional purpose.

Watercolor painting of Allis-Chalmers Tractor engine

This is the big orange engine block of an Allis-Chalmers Tractor.

When presented to students it was met with all sorts of groans and complaints, but, after half an hour painting, the complaints changed to sighs of satisfaction as everyone went crazy with the wild color and interesting details. Everyone produced amazing results.

Watercolor painting of old red delivery truck

Old trucks are also a lot of fun to paint. This one appears to have been a delivery truck for the Davis Brothers, but has been retired for many years. The bright red paint, rusty patina and solid functional look make it an interesting subject to paint.

Watercolor Painting of cement truck

This big old concrete truck from Brooklyn looks almost indestructible. Stains, blotches and rust marks are unimportant, the ability to move concrete from the batching plant to the job site is all that matters. To keep attention in the focal area around the cab I roughly scrubbed gesso over the mixer and back wheels, softening them and reducing contrast in this area. The stronger green and areas of alizarin also help hold attention around the area of the cab.

Red Ship painting

The deck details on this rusting red hull, although not generally appealing, make a great subject. The strong, cool darks and fine detail hold attention in the focal area, while the rough application of gesso breaks up the back half of the hull, encouraging attention back to the focal area of the cabin. A low vantage point gives the old vessel a monolithic appearance.

Watercolor painting of rusty ships cabin

The abstract arrangement of walls, portholes, gangways and rigging make this concentrated detail of a rusting ship an interesting painting. Contrasting sharp detail with areas of simple suggestion give the painting much more impact than rendering everything with the same intensity. .

Watercolor painting of a Guinea Fowl Head

Birds and animals can also make great subjects. Not the cute cuddly kind, but the strange and unusual. This Guinea Fowl was fantastic to paint - great colors and textures and an amazing distorted head with wispy hair and wild feral eyelashes. The idea here is not to make the animal cute and appealing, but to amplify the crazy features.

Watercolor painting of Turkey Head

This turkey had a great head, full of texture and color with a stern, determined look that really meant business. Exaggerating these features makes the birds attitude the subject more than the animal its self.

Consider moving away from the safety of comfortable subjects with your next painting. Choose a less than appealing subject - something you would not normally consider, then look for the main defining features. These will sometimes be physical features but can also be features to do with attitude, purpose or history. Exaggerating these features can be a lot of fun and, because you are not worried about producing a masterpiece, generally end up yielding surprisingly satisfying results.

Author: John Lovett

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