oil painting of a landscape with trees and grass depicting the subject matter in art

What is Subject Matter in Art and How to Choose it for Artwork?

You are a painter. You have no idea what to paint, and you’re frustrated that your art isn’t going anywhere. Finding something you want to draw, called subject matter, would be best.

Artwork is most successful when the artist emotionally connects with the subject. The question is, how do you find inspiration and choose the proper one for your paintings? But before that, let us first understand let us understand some basics.

What is the Subject Matter in Art?

The “subject matter” refers to a work of art’s main idea or message. In other words, it is the artist’s primary concern or what the artwork is “about.” It is important to note that while subject matter can be drawn from real-world experience, it does not have to be.

It can also be based on the artist’s imagination or invented for purposes of fiction. In addition, an artist can convey the art subject through a wide range of visual elements, including line, color, shape, texture, and form.

Considering the aesthetics of art is crucial for both artists and viewers alike.

Artists can choose any subject matter for their paintings, drawings, or sculptures. The artist’s connection to their subject, whether an object, person, place, event, feeling, or idea, holds the greatest significance. This connection can stem from inspiration, personal experience, or thorough research.

Artworks can be categorized into two main subject areas:

Representational Subject Matter

Old pencil drawing of a young lady with scarf on her head the lady being the subject matter
What is the Subject Matter in Art?

The representational subjects in the art are based on the real world and include objects like landscapes, portraits, still lives, etc. They are things that the artist has seen and can recreate on canvas, paper, or any other medium.

Non-Representational Subject Matter

The non-representational subjects in the art are not based on the natural world and include shapes, colors, patterns, etc. They are things that the artist creates from their imagination.

How can you choose the Subject Matter of an Artwork?

A subject matter for your artwork could revolve around varied topics such as a place, a person, an event, or an emotion.

Remember a few factors when deciding on your artwork’s subject.

What are you passionate about?

A main painting a young lady with brush in his hand on an easel
How to choose the subject matter of an artwork?

Passion is an emotion that can be both powerful and inspiring. Channeling into a creative project can result in truly stunning art.

For this reason, many artists begin their creative process by asking themselves what they are passionate about. What inspires them? What moves them? What makes them feel alive?

Once these questions are answered, they can narrow down their choices. After all, there is no point in creating artwork about something that doesn’t interest you.

By choosing a passionate subject, you can ensure that you will infuse your artwork with emotion and meaning.

What do you find Interesting?

When selecting a subject for an artwork, it’s crucial to consider your personal interests. This can encompass anything from a specific era to a particular color or shape.

Focusing on something fascinating will make you more likely to create a personal and meaningful piece.

Additionally, it is worth considering what type of message you hope to communicate with your artwork.

Whether you wish to share a story or express your unique perspective, choosing a significant subject will help ensure your artwork is powerful and memorable.

What do you want to Convey?

It can be challenging to choose the subject matter, especially if you have too many ideas in your head.

One way to cut down your options is to think about what you want to convey with your piece.

Do you want to tell a story or communicate a particular emotion? Maybe you have a strong message you want to convey or create something beautiful.

Once you know what you want your artwork to say, choosing a subject to help you achieve that goal will be easier.

Many things in the world around you can inspire you, whether it’s a scene from nature or an everyday object. Whatever choice you make, be sure it’s something you are passionate about doing.

What is Meaningful to You?

When choosing the subject matter for your artwork, it is essential to consider what is meaningful to you. What topics do you feel strongly about? 

Your artwork should reflect who you are, so choosing a subject matter close to you is better.

Once you have decided on a subject matter, brainstorm different ways to represent it in your artwork.

For example, if you are interested in environmental issues, you could create a series of illustrations depicting the beauty of the natural world.

Or, if you are interested in social justice, you could create a series of portraits highlighting the stories of individual people.

You can create significant and impactful artwork by choosing a subject close to your heart.

How do you Describe the Subject Matter of an Artwork?

oil painting of flowers with lush green, violet and pink color depicting subject matter
How do you Describe the Subject Matter of an Artwork?

When describing the content of an artwork, it’s crucial to analyze the literal and symbolic aspects of the piece.

For example, a flower painting may represent the flower’s physical form or an artist may use it to symbolize growth, new beginnings, or the fleeting nature of beauty.

You can better understand the artwork and its meaning by considering literal and symbolic elements.

In addition to considering an artwork’s literal and symbolic elements, it is also essential to consider the context in which the artist created the piece.

  • What was the artist’s intention?
  • What were they trying to communicate?
  • How does the artwork fit within the broader cultural context?

By answering these questions, you can develop a more nuanced understanding of the artwork’s subject matter.

What is the Content and Subject Matter in Art?

The subject matter is the literal or representational aspect of work in the visual arts. This refers to what is being depicted or shown.

On the other hand, content is what it contains to represent the subject matter.

It encompasses the elements of art used by the artist to communicate their ideas. The interplay between form and subject matter gives a work of art its meaning.

Content, meanwhile, is often used interchangeably with the term subject matter. However, content is the ideas the artist conveys through their work.

For example, a cat painting can be something about a cat or can also be about the relationships between people and animals or domesticity. In other words, it is a more profound meaning beyond the literal depiction.

By considering both the subject and content of an artwork, you can better understand the artist’s intention and the piece’s overall message.

What is the Difference Between Subject Matter and Theme in Art?

When discussing art, the subject matter is what the piece is about, while the theme is the inner message the artist is trying to communicate.

The two concepts are often confused, but it is crucial to understand their distinction.

The subject matter of an art piece is simply the topic it depicts. For example, a river painting would have a water and nature theme.

However, the theme of the piece might be entirely different. It could be about the fragility of life or how even the most serene landscapes can hide danger beneath the surface.

We can interpret themes in many ways, and they are often open to personal interpretation.

Understanding the difference between subject and theme can help you appreciate art more deeply and see beyond the literal depiction of the artist’s true intention.

Why is Subject Matter Important in Art?

It is necessary for art because it can help communicate the artist’s intended message and many other things we have seen above.

Conveys the Overall Meaning of the Artwork

The subject matter can convey a great deal about the overall message the artist is trying to communicate.

For example, a painting that depicts a beautiful landscape may be intended to evoke feelings of peace and tranquility.

In contrast, a painting that features a chaotic scene of war may be meant to generate feelings of horror and despair.

By carefully considering the subject of an artwork, we can better understand the artist’s intended meaning.

Expressing Social Commentary or Political Messages

line drawings of a war and battle field
The subject can Express Social Commentary or Political Messages

The subject matter of an art piece is the central theme or ideas that the work conveys. While some art is created purely for aesthetic purposes, some are made to express social commentary or political messages.

The artwork can raise awareness of important issues, prompt viewers to think critically about controversial topics, and inspire change.

In recent years, more artists have used their work to address pressing social and political issues. These artists use their talents to lighten our world’s injustices, from the #MeToo movement to the Black Lives Matter movement.

While not all art needs to be didactic, those that do can profoundly impact society.

Gives Context to the Artwork

The subject matter refers to the main idea that the artist is trying to communicate. In many cases, it is what first catches the viewer’s attention.

However, we should remember that the context of an artwork is also essential in understanding its meaning. The context provides information about the artist’s culture, historical moment, and the specific circumstances in which the work was created.

For example, we might interpret an artwork depicting a man wearing a suit and tie differently depending on the time it was created: in the early 1900s or the present.

In the early 1900s, the man in the painting would likely be interpreted as a businessman or someone of high social status.

However, today, he might be seen as a corporate worker or conforming to societal norms.

Thus, the context of an artwork can give us important clues about the artist’s intended message.

What makes it difficult to Identify Subject Matter in Art?

One of the most challenging things about art is figuring out what the artist was trying to communicate with their work.

Art is often highly personal and subjective, so what one person sees in a painting or sculpture may differ entirely from what another person sees.

In addition, art is interpreted in many different ways, so determining the artist’s intent is not always possible.

Furthermore, art is often open to interpretation, so knowing what the artist meant to convey can be confusing.

As a result, it is tough to identify the subject matter in art.

Can Art Have No Subject Matter?

a lady with brush in her hand showing an abstract art
Can Art have no subject matter?

It is commonly believed that art must have a subject, theme, or message that it is attempting to communicate.

However, a growing movement of artists believes that art can exist for its own sake without any need for interpretation. These artists argue that the viewer should be free to experience the work without preconceived notions about what it means.

Instead of looking for hidden messages, they believe the focus should be on the work’s formal properties, such as color, composition, and form.

While this approach may not be everyone’s cup of tea, there is no doubt that art can have its intrinsic value, regardless of whether or not it has a subject matter.

How to Find the Subject Matter in Art

The best way to find the subject matter in art is to look at the work closely and determine what the artist is trying to communicate.

If you’re having trouble understanding the work, try researching the artist and their background. The result can give you insight into their culture, historical moment, and the specific circumstances they created the work.

In addition, you can look for clues in the work’s title and any accompanying text the artist has provided. 

Finally, if you’re still stumped, try asking a friend or family member what they think the work is about.


The subject matter is considered one of the most important aspects when creating or purchasing artwork. You can describe artwork in various ways, and it is essential to understand what these terms mean before selecting an artwork. 

We can easily focus on aesthetics and forget the content when looking at art. However, the subject gives an artwork its meaning and should not be overlooked.  

You can create successful and meaningful pieces by understanding the subject matter and how to choose them for your artwork.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What is the subject matter and content in art?

    The content in the art can be about anything the artist is interested in or passionate about. It can represent real-life people and objects or an abstraction of those things. The subject matter of art can also encompass broader topics such as love, war, peace, religion, etc.

  2. What is the importance of the subject matter in art?

    The subject matter is essential because it’s the artist’s communication with the viewer. It can be a statement about current events, personal stories, or a snapshot of everyday life. Some artists might focus on formal elements like composition and color, while others emphasize content over form.

  3. What is the most popular subject matter in art?

    Art’s most popular subject matter changes over time, but a few constants are portraits, landscapes, and still lifes. These subjects are popular because they are easily recognizable and communicate a message or story without explanation.

  4. How do you usually choose the subject matter of an artwork?

    The artist’s interests, observations, and experiences are often a starting point, as are the local culture and environment. Other factors might include historical events or recent news stories. Sometimes the artist may also choose to explore a specific theme or tackle a complex or controversial issue.

  5. Does Abstract Art have a subject matter?

    While it is true that abstract art doesn’t depict objects or scenes in the physical world, this doesn’t mean that it’s devoid of subject matter. The subjects can be emotions, feelings, colors, shapes, lines, textures, etc. In a sense, abstract art is just another way of exploring and depicting the world around us.

  6. Is it possible to make art without subject matter or themes?

    Some artists focus on the formal elements of their work, such as color, composition, and texture, and let the viewer put their interpretation on the artwork. When it comes to such instances, the artwork will lack any particular subject or theme.

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