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  • Writer's pictureJules

Can a painting be about anything whatsoever?

Now, I know what you might be thinking: of course! You can (and should) paint whatever you want! That's what creativity is all about, breaking rules, challenging social norms and painting whatever you like. And maybe I used to think that too, but increasingly, I'm starting to think otherwise.

You see, the medium with which something has been created, changes its meaning to the viewer.

If there's something bizarre or unusual that's actually happened in real life, it doesn't seem to make the cut for a painting. It seems to sit better as a photograph.

Equally, if a photo seems to capture the ubiquitous nature of something, it's more likely to make a compelling painting. Painting is like shorthand for an emotion; a heuristic.


This flamingo, excellently photographed by Wendy Hodgkins Corniquet, is doing such an unsual action that you really have to look closely to see what's going on. It's impressive because it's real. If this were a painting, you'd have a different reaction. The emphasis would have changed from: "What an interesting thing for a bird to do!" to "Why has the artist painted this bird in such an unusual position? What does it mean?"

Flamingo with neck outstretched standing in water
Flamingo shaking water off its neck

Equally, these incredible images titled 'RIVER VEINS SERIES' from Tom Hegen are so very interesting because they are real photographs. You can marvel at nature and wonder how these things exist, whereas, if this were a painting, the emphasis would be on the pattern itself, or the process used to create it.

blue water frozen in veins
Image of water flow from Tom Hegen

It would seem therefore that painting represents emotions and are shorthand for something recognizably resonant. If you do paint something weird, it's probably likely a metaphor for something else, rather than the subject being strange.

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