Finding Subject Matter

Subject matter! What do I look for? What do I do now?

In my experience of over thirty years of art instruction, I've found that many people come into an art class just to see if they can learn drawing or painting skills. After a few weeks, they are generally amazed to find that they can draw, paint, do collages, printmaking, etc.

As their skills develop, a question arises--what should I draw or paint? With new skills and techniques at the ready, many students feel confused when it comes to choosing their own subject matter.

They say, "You've given me projects, set things in front of me and told me how to approach it creatively. Now that I can do that and I'm ready to fly out of the nest, what do I look for? What do I want to paint or draw? I'm confused!

At this point, I have to admit, I am gratified by the enthusiasm and attitude of these students! They are armed with skill and good to go--to where??

I talk to each of my students, question them about their goals, interests and what inspires them. What fires them up to make them want to get the paints or pencils or whatever out to start working?

I made some videos to show my students how I look for subject matter, using myself as a guide to discovering what in the world ignites my creative self.

At the time I was working on colored pencil drawings of trees and found these videos helpful for recording textures, shapes and colors of, one of my favorite places, the Carolina Beach State Forest.


If you are thumbing through a magazine and a picture jumps out at you--tear it out and save it (maybe not if you are at the doctor's office.) What is fascinating about the picture? Why did you pause and stare at it? The image is a candidate for subject matter in your artwork.

I have several folders that hold pictures I've taken from magazines, photos, print outs from the Internet. Periodically, I will look through them, especially when I am stalled on my artwork and need to be refreshed by a new way of working or a new perspective.

Nourishment for the creative mind is like dining in a restaurant that very few people go to. The fare is mysterious, evasive and curiously satisfying although the flavors may be strange. It is this way, I feel, because so much of the creative act is driven by subconscious cravings, desires and memories that are often metaphorical--like a picture of a bar of green soap reminded one of my students of pleasant summers at a camp in Michigan...

A tearsheet collection reveals your interests!

Here are some pictures from my tear sheet collection. A small percentage ever translates into an artwork, but my collection is reliably one of the best ways of jump-starting my work into another skill, perception of direction....

As you can see, I often favor natural subjects, like my garden, flowers, but also my dog Charley (and I have done several paintings from these images.)


Much like tearsheet folders, Pinterest works beautifully for collecting a wide variety of images that can amaze, excite and inspire.

My boards to date include: My artwork and videos, and also a dazzling and ever expanding collection of images that I continually collect and that might, in the future, become inspiration for paintings, drawing or printmaking!

These boards include the work of other artists, images from websites, facebook and twitter. The Internet is indeed, a vast resource for subject matter. One should never be in want of inspiration!

I encourage my students to use Pinterest as their digital tear sheet folders. It is easy to arrange images according to subject matter, categories or areas of interest! 

Click here to view my Pinterest collection of images

Here are some great resources for finding your own subject matter and content. Just click on the Amazon logo to view!

Real Feedback

Hello Lois -

Thank you for your gracious site. I will have to save up for some of the supplies needed so, I won't be able to start right away.

I live in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I have wanted to take art lessons and here in Sioux Falls, they don't have any for those of us who aren't college educated. And mainly the community only caters to families. So, others like me get left out. I greatly appreciate your sincere love for art and willingness to work closely with those who partake of your classes.

Much sincere thanks - Gina Elberger



Came across your site while browsing and was really impressed. Can you please send me "BEGINNING ACRYLIC PAINTING LESSONS" link.

Thanks in advance,

May God Bless You. Nidhi Jaju


Hi there Lois, I've just found your web site, and am intrigued. I am very familiar with colour as an interior decorator..but have always talked about having my own studio to paint, do woodworking, sewing and pottery. Right now, I'm hoping to develop my skills as an artist. I have done several pieces in oil, and have branched out to acrylic.

I've taken only one lesson (abstract with acrylics) and would like to hone my skills with oils.

Looking forward to your Intermediate- Lesson one Refresher. I found your article on Launching a successful career as an Artist- very helpful

Thanks Penny


Hi again Lois,

So sorrry, I neglected to answer your questions. How I found your site was googling for 'free art lessons'. I am not in a situation where I can afford classes right now but hopefully when we sell our house I will be able to make a donation to you. The why is obvious ; )

Thanks again, I really do appreciate it and you will have good Karma!

Kindest regards, M in Michigan


Hi I live in spain, and i saw your website while I was browsing free instruction sites. thank you for giving free lessons

x janet


My name is Paul Merrills. Thank you for your help and your suggestions to make my painting more real looking. If you need to see some of my paintings, I am willing to send you some pictures via email that you will possibly be able to determine if there is any hope left.

Thank you so much for your interest in helping me. I live in Indiana south of Fort Wayne, about 20 miles in a town of Decatur. I have been desperate to learn, but not being given the information I needed in my mind, I have kept searching and found your website. I think it is a blessing, but what confuses me is why would you do this for free. The old adage is, if it is free it cannot be worth much, but that does not seem to be the case here. You are welcome to use me or my name or what ever you need and I am also, as I mentioned before would pay you to answer my questions. I have looked into what you have sent and there are several lessons. Detailed so this part should help me. I want to do right, I have been interested in learning the right way, as I see you have a degree in Art and have been teaching for a number of years, so I know that you are able, but am I. What happens when I pick a canvas, I am lost. Others show me their work and I am happy to see it, but cannot see the big picture and then when I do, It usually is so complicated that it makes it difficult to paint. My starting point in a photo or outdoors leaves me looking at many different things and cannot pick out what is needed, even though the picture I see is captured my eye, running water, stones in water, winter scene. I have even gone to Bob Ross method, but does not allow creativity and that is what I want. I want the feeling of walking into the picture and going back, I hope that I have not bored you and will start on using your method to try and then I will send you some examples of that, plus some others that I have done. you are so kind to do this and I am sure you must be busy, Are you retired now or do you work still. As I have read this, the (I) seems to be dominating the conversation, but hope that you will understand that I am not that way, but fearful right now. I got all the brushes, many sets of pastels, acrylics, canvases by the boxes, many of the most expensive brushes you could buy and John Sanders brushes I thought were expensive, but only the best. Everyone in my past family, my grandfather, dad, sister and others have all done pictures, but I always look at them with a critical eye and wondering who am I to be so critical of their work. I have been in the sign business since age 15 and have done very well with it. I do still enjoy helping my children who are runnign the business. I do the bending of their neon glass and find that enjoyable. I do wood carvings, as mentioned portraits, and use to do stain glass, but sold all that recently. and I still do wood working building furniture, etc. Thank you so much Lois and look forward to working with you.

Paul Merrills