What is Subject Matter in Art? – Is it Important?

What is subject matter in art

At first glance, ‘What is subject matter in art?’ seems self-explanatory but when digging a little deeper there is more than one way to answer the question. Is the subject matter what the viewer sees or what the artist says it is?

The subject matter in art terms refers to the message the artist is trying to communicate with their audience. It can be a statement, an emotion, or an object. It can be representational or abstract.

Let’s start with a few examples of unambiguous realism

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An Example of Subject Matter in Representational Art

If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. There are times when the subject matter is right there in your face. Indeed I think my own efforts fall mainly into that category, the one called ‘the bleedin’ obvious’.

I draw animals, mostly wildlife, if it hasn’t haven’t got fur, fluff, or feathers, I’m reluctant to draw it. Actually, that’s not true, add scales and hides to the list.

As far as my subject matter is concerned it couldn’t be clearer. When I draw an elephant, all I’m asking is ” Do you like elephants?” If the answer is yes, I can say “Good, I’ve drawn an elephant”

There is no message attached except ‘I bet you can’t draw an elephant like this’ or ‘wanna buy an elephant picture?’

Photo-realistic pencil drawing of a baby elephant by Kevin Hayler
‘Bottle Fed’ a Pencil Drawing by Kevin Hayler

I’ll freely admit there is little in the way of messaging beyond the immediate visceral response to a well-loved animal. My hook is how I can draw photographically, and most people love it, especially kids.

‘Woh, that looks like a picture!’

I’m not preaching or sending a message for one very simple reason, no one wants a ‘downer’ on the living room wall. They get enough of the real world on the news. My art is purely for pleasure and escapism, and when I stray, my sales plummet.

My subject matter connects with certain people in an emotional way, but on their terms. If their relationship with the animal is on a deeper level then the work has depth. I certainly couldn’t draw animals in the way I do, without sharing some of their passion.

The subject matter is clear but the message is individual. I look at my subjects from the artist’s point of view, I think of shapes and form, lights and darks. I stress over composition and capturing the personality of my subjects. I want to do the best I can. and be proud of what I’ve done.

How my efforts are perceived by the viewer is another matter. They will project their own meaning onto my work and interpret it in their own way. I’m happy about that. If they read something into my drawings that I wasn’t conscious of when I drew them, does that make it untrue?

Does Subject Matter Exist in Abstract Art?

This is where everything gets tricky. If realism is fairly straightforward when it comes to the subject matter, how the hell do you define the term in abstract art?

The subject matter in a purely expressive abstract painting can only be your interpretation of it. You can take it as it is or be guided by the artist but it has to connect at an emotional level or it fails. There is nothing else to grasp.

An evocative title can lead you along the artist’s chosen path and knowing what the artist was trying to achieve is interesting, but without the background story and context would the art stand alone on merit?

This post is related: This is How to Sell Abstract Art: A Practical Guide For Artists

Color combinations and random forms can have a stunning visual impact but your reaction will be different from your neighbor’s. We will see different things, not just in our imaginations, but in our sense of color too.

If we interpret an abstract piece of art so individually is the title irrelevant or do we need it as the only anchor point?

Read this: How to Name Your Art and Find a Title That Sells

If a painting cannot be defined and interpreted without a title perhaps there’s no subject at all. If that’s the case, a painting is a sensory experience without meaning.

The subject matter of an abstract painting is reduced to a description of its genre and possibly of its medium.

Can a Genre be the Subject Matter?

It can be for sure. There are many types and categories of art that conform to a given theme or style. A landscape is a subject matter even if two paintings are wildly different.

We can break our subjects down into sub-categories but when we hear the word landscape we can expect recognizable features common to all.

The same can be said for still life. We know immediately that the picture will conform to at least one or two suppositions. Every object will be inanimate and the light will be strong.

The subject matter doesn’t have to be specific it can be used as a broader term. I can draw a wild animal and that’s the subject, but wildlife as a collective noun is also the subject.

Is the Subject Matter in Art Important?

It does if you intend to commercialize your work. I have been selling my art/illustrations for many years and whenever I decide to do things for myself and not for the public I lose sales.

The subject matter is insanely important. So important it’s make or break for most artists.

Forget high art that only applies to an elite few who know how to network in the art world. The rest of us must deal with the reality of everyday life. Most people don’t buy art. They buy pictures and that’s not exactly the same.

There is a world of difference between art people admire and art they will buy. A challenging subject might work in a book, a museum, or a gallery, but it will not be welcome in the living room.

People buy subjects that resonate with them in some way. That can be an interest, a hobby, or a memory. An artist who can pull that emotional trigger will sell their work.

You can guess the type of picture people will buy, within reason. While nothing is guaranteed, you do know that if you are at a horse show and the subject of your art is horses, you have a fair chance of hitting a chord with someone.

There are any number of micro-niches to tap into. Where ever people gather together and enjoy a pastime there is a market for art relating to that pleasure.

Stuck for ideas? Read this: How Do Artists Get Their Ideas? 5 Tips For Inspiration

In my case, my art appeals to people who love animals but especially to people who like certain animals. Lots of people collect animal subjects and in my case, my bestselling prints are of elephants. There are many women who collect elephant memorabilia.

Not only are they likely to buy my elephant prints when they find me, but their friends and family will buy them too, as a present.

If you want to make a living with your art, choose a popular niche, preferably an expensive one, and cater to them. Sell prints and/or take commissions.

The Subject Matter in Art – Final Thoughts

The subject matter and consequent meaning of a picture is often ill-defined and opaque, while it can be a pretentious ambiguity, it does at least give us an opportunity to debate the work.

It’s all guesswork. Each person can interpret a picture in their own unique way. You have no choice with abstract art, but even realism can be spun in different ways.

This post is related: Is Art Subjective? Is There Good and Bad Art? Do We Need Critics?

The subject matter is a talking point, it’s a conversation between the artist and the viewer. It’s as deep or shallow as you want to make it, and like all forms of communication, it sometimes succeeds, and just as often, the wires get crossed.

That’s all part of the fun of art. It’s really no different from discussing food, music, or a good book. It’s all subjective, there are no rights and wrongs, only opinions, and round and round it goes.

That’s why we like it.


 Jaguar pencil drawing by wildlife artist Kevin Hayler
‘Leaps and Bounds’ by Kevin Hayler

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