Repeating motifs

Yesterday someone asked me why I paint the same things over and over; why I repeat motifs like flowers, vases, my neighbors’ house, and views of my backyard. The short answer is – I repeat motifs because I am not painting things. I aim to focus on the specific aspects of something that make it interesting to me.

small hydrangea, 6×8″

hydrangea, 10×10″
I worked on this larger painting while also working on “small hydrangea.”

I am communicating light and silence and movement and joy and color. A motif is just the vehicle for how to get there.  Painting something multiple times is a way for me to get to know what I am looking at and how I feel about it.

a process of discovery

I am not the first or only painter to repeat motifs. Perhaps my favorite example is Giorgio Morandi , whose work shows consistency but also incredibly beautiful and subtle shifts. To say his paintings are about vases, jugs and boxes would be to miss the depth of feeling that is there – and the thought that went into each painting.

For me, there are practical reasons to paint something more than once. The more I look at something and paint it, the better I learn to draw it. I also get to know the values and colors to some extent, though of course none of these things remain static. It’s also a way to work out composition. I am a “learn by doing” kind of person, so I need to see it to know what I think about it.

But painting a motif repeatedly has another important effect: it’s the best way I know to discover the subtle characteristics that set one thing apart from another. I like to focus on the individual to capture a specificity that is not generic. I find that it’s easy to miss the idiosyncratic on first glance, or even in the first few hours of a painting. Careful and sustained looking and working on a painting for an extended period of time is certainly one remedy, but painting something more than once is another (and is based on the same careful looking).

beginner’s mind

It’s also a good way to practice coming to everything with beginner’s mind- without preconceptions of what something is supposed to look like. When you repeat motifs, the danger is that you can go on autopilot and think you already know what’s there. It’s a good way to practice the discipline of looking carefully.

“No man ever steps in the same river twice,
for it’s not the same river
and he’s not the same man.”  


Because of course, nothing stays the same. Flowers can change dramatically within an hour or two. Over the course of a few days, they change a lot. Even the appearance of inorganic things, like vases and houses, changes substantially from day to day. Light changes everything, as we painters well know.

fade to green, 6×8″
The flowers have started to change color at this point- something I found beautiful and wanted to try to capture.

And importantly – how I feel on any given day changes and will change how I feel about what I am looking at. Painting something more than once gives me the opportunity to discover those feelings and to try to capture them through the process of painting. And for me, capturing feeling is important. Focusing on subtlety is one way that I aim to do that.

different experiences

So even though I may paint the same flower multiple times, I never paint the same painting twice. Even when I make a small painting as a study for a larger work, I paint each one independently – each carefully observed for itself. And so sometimes they end up being quite different from one another, but that doesn’t mean painting the study didn’t have to be done. You can’t unknow what you know, or unsee what you’ve seen, so all of those prior painting experiences are brought to each work. I’d even go so far as to say this has become an important part of my process.

And sometimes the paintings look very similar to one another, which I find interesting. I rarely look at other paintings when painting a different one.

Why not work on the same painting multiple times instead of painting a new one?

I do both. I sometimes make different paintings when I am repeating motifs. At other times, I decide to carry one painting further and will work on it many times. Often I work on two or more paintings of the same motif simultaneously, switching back and forth between them. Some of them are sometimes abandoned as everything comes together in one of the paintings.

But most of the time, my process involves layering many experiences on top of one another to varying extents. It’s rare that I finish a painting in one sitting, and most often a painting is the remnant of many different moments layered upon one another (even the small ones).

Do I ever copy the small study exactly to make a large painting?

No, not at all. It’s not that I think there’s anything wrong with that- for other people. But much of the joy in painting for me comes from being fully engaged in the moment as I paint, observing and responding. Trying to copy a painting mark for mark would would come across as inauthentic, I think, and would not be enjoyable.

Would I recommend that others paint the same motif over and over?

Absolutely. If nothing else, it’s a great exercise in learning how to observe carefully. For me, that’s one of the most critical aspects of how I work.

Thank you for reading.


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