top of page

What To Paint




What to paint can sometimes be a huge stumbling block when an idea has to be plucked out of the air to kick things off.

Do you ever get that blank, empty feeling when you gaze down at a fresh sheet of paper? No matter what you do, you can’t seem to make a start. I guess it’s the artists equivalent to writer’s block and I’ve tried everything – cleaning the studio, cups of coffee, long walks, but nothing seems to overcome it except picking up a paint brush and painting something – anything!

It’s amazing how, once you decide what to paint and make a start, the ideas begin to flow.


So find something in the studio, in a dusty corner of the garage, or in the kitchen drawer to serve as your painting subject. Once you start to sketch and examine the object, all sorts of possibilities will surface.


Make your work amplify some aspect of your painting subject. It might be the objects function, its history, the materials it is made from. The main thing to keep in mind is not to simply describe or copy, but to discover and expand on an aspect of your painting subject that will cause the viewer to see it in a different way.

What to Paint – Here are a few examples
“Paganini to the Pogues”

At first glance this painting subject appears to be just an old violin. When the the details in the lid of the case are examined, the instrument’s history becomes evident.


Passed from student to student in an exclusive girls school from way back in the 1920’s. The formal disciplined names from the early years give way to unruly scrawls, jokes and comments in the later years.


The abstract marks and contrasting diagonals suggest the dynamic life and contrasting range of music the instrument has produced.

The violin strings were masked out with fine lines of masking fluid, applied with a pen nib before paint was washed on. The body color was built up with several layers of transparent, wet in wet washes.

Paganini to The Pogues - What to Paint © John Lovett


“One Shoe Off”

This painting subject of a well worn sandshoe way past it’s use by date would seem an odd choice, but when carefully examined and exaggerated, becomes an engaging painting.


The loose treatment and casual, sketchy lines contrast with the detailed stitching and intricate textures to give an heroic feeling to a seriously neglected piece of footwear. The realistic texture of the laces and intricate stitch marks contrast with the loose, almost accidental, application of paint. 


Understated areas with little or no detail force attention to be focused on the areas of detail. A paper texture mimicking that of the shoe adds a sense of realism.

One Shoe Off - What to Paint © John Lovett



Leaf Textures may look fairly ordinary, but, by manipulating tone, color and contrast, a centre of interest is created. This controls the path of the viewers eye not only over the surface of the painting, but also back and forth into the picture plane. Contrasting tones and flat, opaque Ultramarine Gouache constantly pull the eye back to the centre of interest where the strongest tonal contrast is located.


Exaggerated tonal contrast and a limited palette give these binoculars a hard clinical appearance. Although the painting subject is made up of an arrangement of curves and circles, I have avoided using any curved lines in the painting.


Relying on changes in tone to suggest curves, adds to the cold, functional character of the binoculars. A small splash of Alizarin, in an otherwise cool blue painting, pulls the eye back to the centre of interest where maximum detail is concentrated.

What to Paint - Binoculars © John Lovett
“Wandering the Shoreline”

One of a series of paintings based on junk washed up and left on the beach at low tide. Found objects and observations placed within the framework of a wooden case tell the story of a long walk along an empty beach. Cool grey washes were used to lose contrast in some areas of the painting, controlling the eye movement and establishing a focal point.

What to Paint - Ideas from wandering the foreshore

What to Paint

Next time you are stuck trying to think of what to paint, find an object and see what sort of an interesting story you can squeeze out of it. The object can be bland and mundane, but if treated in the right way, can become a fascinating painting. These experiments can often lead to a series of paintings. The wooden case idea got me started, first of all on a series of musical instruments in boxes, then the wandering the shoreline series, plus a number of unrelated objects in wooden boxes. If you produce one painting you are happy with, pursue the idea and see where it leads. The more you try painting different subjects, the less what to paint becomes a stumbling block.


For more ideas on what to paint see Exploring a Painting Subject. 



Author: John Lovett

bottom of page