How to Decide What to Paint

Flowers framed by a camera viewfinder.
Use your camera to frame a composition. Get in close. Try horizontal and vertical format. Lisa Marder

You've gone out and purchased all your supplies to start painting.You have some basic paint colors, a palette, canvas or paper to paint on, brushes, rags, a palette knife, medium to thin your paints and clean your brushes, and a table or easel as support.  There are a lot of wonderful things you see that you think you want to paint, and you're ready to go! Now what? How do you decide what to paint?How do you narrow down your choices and focus on one subject?


It is not easy to decide what to paint. Even the famous American Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) maintained that "Every picture one paints involves not painting others."

Here Are 3 Tips to Help You Decide What to Paint: 

1.  Look at different possible subjects from different perspectives.

Take time to look around and see what catches your eye, what excites your vision, what touches your heart in some way, what speaks to your soul. Move around to see your potential subject from different angles and perspectives. It can take time before you find your subject.  Do you want to paint your garden? A landscape? A bowl of fruit? An interior? A vase of flowers?  No matter what it is that you want to paint, decide on what it is about it that is drawing you to it. Is it the colors? Is it the way the light falls on it? Are there interesting textures? Consciously asking yourself questions like these and answering them will help as you make artistic decisions during the painting process and will help make your final painting more powerful.

2. Use a viewfinder or camera.

Use a viewfinder or a camera to help you isolate your subject and determine the format (size and shape of your painting surface) and best composition.  You can use old slide holders for this, or a pre-cut frame out of mat board, or two corners of a pre-cut frame that allows you to change the dimensions.

You can also use your hands to frame the subject (make an L-shape with both hands with your fingers).  There are also viewfinders you can purchase, some with grid lines like the ​​Da Vinci Artist Viewfinder to help you transpose the image to two dimensions.  There is also a useful tool called a ViewCatcher, made by the Color Wheel Company, that allows you to change the dimensions of the frame and lets you isolate and more easily identify a color as you look at your subject. For this reason, it is helpful for your viewfinder to be either white, black, or gray.

3. Look hard at your subject.

Once you've decided what you want to paint, spend some time looking hard at your subject.  Squint to help you see the values.  Close one eye to help flatten the scene so you can see more easily how it will look in two dimensions. Look at the negative spaces.  

Remember that looking at your subject is as important as looking at your painting.  The best paintings are those in which the artist is visually excited by the subject, feels a connection with it, and is able to capture its essence.

Sometimes, though, it is hard to be inspired. That happens to all of us from time to time. The key is to look around and keep a sketchbook or visual journal.

Then when those times come when inspiration wanes, you will have something to look at to get those creative juices flowing again!