Does art have to be “about” something?

No. Absolutely not. Your art can just be yours. It can be anything you want it to be! That’s the mad, unholy truth of the thing.

So why do people often ask this question?

I think it’s an interesting one. But the “reason for painting a thing” can be multiple reasons, and at any rate is probably something you cannot express in words. It’s more of a feeling, something to keep in the back of your mind.

Frederick Judd Waugh, Crashing Waves II, c. 1920

If you look at other artists’ work and ask this question (what’s this painting “about”?), you will get an answer. It might be, “this painting is about waves crashing against rocks.” Implied in that answer could be something unspoken, like this painting is about the beauty and power of nature, or simply how exciting it is to be close to crashing waves and how beautiful they are – and in any case, now we have a feeling to go along with the motif, and a feeling is what painting is all about.

What is this painting by Winslow Homer “about”?

Winslow Homer, Summer Squall, 1904. Clark Art Institute.

At first it just looks like it’s about “the sea.” But unlike the Waugh seascape above, it’s not about how majestic the sea is or how exciting and awesome it is to be close to beautiful crashing waves in evening light.

Sure, there’s a wave crashing, but there’s a lot more going on besides, and in Homer’s case the wave is not the main actor, just one among several. Homer chose a dull, leaden green for the merging sea and sky. He created a a super-dark empty void rising toward us in the form of the curling wave’s uncommonly impenetrable shadow – what’s that about?

Off in the right hand corner, pitched at the same off-kilter angle as the menacing storm clouds on the left, he placed a small figure in an open sailboat being tossed by massive swells. As an illustrator, Homer knew exactly what he wanted the viewer to see and feel about that tiny, vulnerable human off to one side amid the immense power of the front-and-central storm-rolled rocks, sea, and sky.

Not every painting has to be about something profound, like MAN VS. NATURE (though I would argue that’s actually what makes Homer’s painting a great work of art). Your work might simply be “about” an old barn, the light on an orange, or a place you saw on vacation. That’s fine. Besides, who doesn’t love straight up eye candy? We need more art (a lot more actually!) that humbly wishes only to make the world a more beautiful place.

But reflecting on what you’re going for, even if it’s just “something nice to look at,” can help an artist get out of the restricting mindset of feeling the need to create work that is mostly about how skilled a painter they are.

Remember Degas’ definition: art is not what you see, but what you make others see.

The ability to paint is a skill. What you do next is up to you.

Robin Caspari Clinches Plein Air Salon Top Slot

Oil painter Robin Casperi‘s dramatic seascape The Edge has won First Place in Plein Air Magazine’s May Salon (

In The Edge, Caspari rivets the viewer’s gaze to her focal point – the sharp, jagged right-hand edge of the jutting rock. She reserves the painting’s hardest edge and strongest value-contrast for that central division between rock and foam. Directional lines above and below the center of interest (the rock) keep our eyes circling around and back (instead of leaving the frame).

Everything but that one part of the rock is kept blended and less intensely in contrast. Following the rock’s hard edge upward takes us to a diagonal rock shelf that points us into whirling serpentine forms that cycle us back. Following the lower edge pushes us into a vertical drop of water rushing over what is presumably the “edge” of the tile. The value of the submerged rock here matches that of the diagonal rock above, and the two together have a sort of yin/yang circularity. Through all of this motion and counter-motion, the painting hints at the larger “story” of the dynamic forces of nature.

Robin Caspari, The Edge, oil, 10 x 12 inches

The monthly Plein Air Salon is an open competition that culminates in a lavish award gala with cash prizes for the best paintings overall in multiple categories. Visit the Plein Air Salon website for your chance to enter your work in the monthly contest, from which the finalists for the grand prizes will be drawn.