What is Subject Matter in Art: A Quick Guide for Beginners

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Last Updated on May 11, 2023 by Dee

Hello everyone, it’s Dee the art teacher here! If you’re new to the world of art, you may have heard the term “subject matter” thrown around. But exactly what is subject matter in art ? Subject matter is a crucial aspect of any artwork; understanding it can greatly enhance your appreciation and enjoyment of art.

In this quick guide, I’ll be breaking down what subject matter is and why it’s important for beginners to understand. So, let’s get started!


What is subject matter in art?

When you explore the world of art, one of the key aspects you’ll come across is the concept of subject matter. In its most basic form, subject matter refers to the topic or focal point that an art piece is built around.

This can be anything from a person, still life, landscape, building, or any other foundational element. By understanding the subject matter of a piece of art, you can gain insight into the meaning and intention behind the artwork.

Three Main Components of Subject Matter

As an art enthusiast or artist, it’s important for you to recognize the three main components that scholars often consider as the subject matter in an art piece: the focal point of the piece, the form used to create it, and the intention behind the artist’s creation. By acknowledging these aspects, you’ll be able to better analyze and appreciate the artworks you encounter.

Keep in mind that subject matter in art can be subjective, and what is evident to one person may not be the same for another. As you explore various art forms and pieces, always remember to consider the subject matter from both the artist’s perspective and your own interpretation. This will allow you to fully immerse yourself in the richness and diversity of the art world.

what is subject matter in art

Defining Subject Matter in Art

Art as a Medium

Subject matter in art refers to the main topic or focal point that an artwork is built around. The artwork’s subject matter can vary greatly and may include a person, still life, landscape, building, or other foundational element. When you look at a piece of art, the subject matter often provides the first point of connection, as it is what you see depicted in the work.

Interpretation and Meaning

Dee looking at a relief scultpure

In the context of art, subject matter plays a significant role in determining the overall meaning of the piece. It’s important for you to understand and analyze the subject matter in order to grasp the intended message or concept the artist is conveying. Sometimes, the artist’s intention behind their creation may not be immediately obvious, making it even more essential for you to observe and interpret the subject matter within the artwork.

In addition to the focal point, the elements of art used by the artist are also crucial in conveying the subject matter’s meaning. These elements of art can include line, shape, color, texture, and form, which all contribute to the overall representation of the subject matter.

Types of Subject Matter

Subject matter in art can fall into various categories, such as:

  • Figurative: This type involves the depiction of humans or animals. Portraits and scenes with people interacting are common examples.
  • Landscape: A landscape focuses on the representation of natural or built environments, like mountains, forests, or cities.
  • Still Life: This category features inanimate objects, often carefully arranged to evoke a particular mood or message.
  • Abstract: In abstract art, the subject matter is not representational or based on external reality. Instead, it often explores shapes, colors, and forms to convey emotions or concepts.

Types of Subject Matter

This section will cover four popular categories: Portrait, Landscape, Still Life, and Abstract Art.



A portrait is a depiction of a person, animal, or group of people. In this type of art, the focus is on capturing the subject’s appearance, emotions, and personality.

You might find that portraits can range from highly realistic to more abstract or stylized representations. Some famous examples of portrait art include Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” and Vincent van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait.”



Landscape art captures a scene from the natural world, such as mountains, forests, oceans, or fields. These works can evoke a range of emotions, from tranquility and serenity to awe and wonder.

In landscape art, artists often pay close attention to elements like light, shadow, and perspective to create a sense of depth and space. Examples of well-known landscape paintings include Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies” series and J.M.W. Turner’s “The Fighting Temeraire.”

Still Life

still life

In a still life, artists depict inanimate objects—often everyday items like bowl of fruit or a vase of flowers. This type of art allows you to observe and appreciate the beauty and detail in the smallest, most ordinary things.

Artists often use still life as a way to explore composition, color, and texture. A few notable still life paintings are Paul Cézanne’s “The Basket of Apples” and Johannes Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid.”

Abstract Art

Mondrian's Abstract Art
Mondrian’s Abstract Art

Abstract art is a departure from traditional representational art, as it doesn’t aim to directly depict a specific subject. Instead, abstract art uses shapes, colors, and forms to create a visual language that evokes emotions, concepts, or ideas.

In this type of art, you’re encouraged to interpret the piece based on your own perspective and experiences. Notable examples of abstract art include Jackson Pollock’s “No. 5, 1948” and Wassily Kandinsky’s “Composition VIII.”

Connection to Themes and Topics

Historical and Political Context

When exploring subject matter in art, it’s essential to consider the historical and political context around the artwork. The era and circumstances in which the piece was created may provide insights into the artist’s intentions and the themes and topics they captured.

For instance, you may encounter a Renaissance art portraying religious themes or a piece from the Civil Rights Movement expressing political struggles.

Understanding the historical aspects strengthens your interpretation and appreciation for the artwork.

Identity and Emotion

what is subject matter in art? embroidery? emotion

Subject matters in art are not only tied to historical or political events. They often dive into exploring personal aspects, like the identity and emotions of the subjects or the artists themselves. Artists can use their works to communicate their feelings or portray their unique perspectives on life.

Elements and Principles of Art


Landscape in pen ink and watercolor with a small white house in the foreground and mountains in the background

In the art world, the subject matter refers to a piece’s main focus or theme, which can be a person, landscape, still life, or building.

To build a strong artwork, you need a solid understanding of the elements of art and the principles of design.

One of the key aspects to consider is composition, which deals with the arrangement and organization of various elements in a piece of art.

When you’re creating a work, try to find a balance between unity and variety, and be conscious of the rhythm, scale, and proportion of the piece. Think about the focal point and how the elements will draw the viewer’s eye throughout the artwork.

Color and Light

Color is an essential element of art and can completely transform your artwork’s mood, tone, and meaning. When selecting colors, consider the color wheel, complementary and contrasting colors, and color harmonies.

Observe how light interacts with your subject, and use this understanding to create a believable and visually impactful piece.

To create depth and interest in your work, study the different properties of light, such as value, intensity, and temperature.

Texture and Form

Zentangle Landscape 1
Zentangle Landscape 1

Another important element in your artwork is texture, which refers to the surface quality of your subject. You can create visual texture through techniques such as stippling, cross-hatching, and stumbling.

Form is another crucial aspect to consider when creating a piece of art. It is the representation of three-dimensional objects in space, creating depth and volume in a work.

Understanding the basics of perspective and the principles of shape and space will help you create more dynamic and visually appealing pieces.

As you create your artwork, remember to consider these essential elements – composition, color and light, texture, and form – to develop a well-rounded and visually striking piece.


Artists and Intentions

Artist’s Vision

When exploring the world of art, you’ll often come across the term “subject matter.” As an art enthusiast, it’s essential to understand this concept.

Subject matter in art refers to the topic or focal point around which a piece is centered. It can be anything from a person, landscape, still life to abstract ideas and emotions.

As an artist, your vision plays a crucial role in shaping the subject matter of your artwork. This vision stems from your experiences, emotions, and beliefs, making each piece unique and personal.

The subject matter captures the essence of your artistic statement, and by conveying it effectively, you share a piece of yourself with the viewer.

Viewer’s Interpretation

While artists have their intentions and vision behind each art piece, sometimes the beauty of art lies in the viewer’s interpretation.

As a viewer, when you engage with an artwork, your perspective and experiences can bring new meaning and understanding to the piece.

Keep in mind that the context surrounding an artwork also plays a significant role in grasping its meaning.

By diving deep into the subject matter and considering the artist’s intention and interpretation, you can unlock new dimensions in the artwork .

Remember that subject matter in art is a dance between the artist’s vision and the viewer’s interpretation. By embracing the nuances of this relationship, you can enrich your experience – be it as an artist or an admirer.

The Impact of Medium and Style

Painting and Drawing

someones hand painting

When creating art, your choice of medium and style can greatly impact the subject matter. In painting and drawing, the materials you use, such as oil paints, acrylics, or graphite, can affect how the subject matter is perceived by the viewer. For example, oil paint may give rich texture while graphite may produce an evocative line quality.

As you explore different styles, you’ll realize how they convey different emotions and ideas. Impressionism, with its emphasis on light and color, will present a subject matter differently than a highly realistic or abstract approach.

The chosen style can evoke a range of feelings, from tranquility to urgency, based on how you manipulate the medium.

Sculpture and Installation

sculpture and installation at the Royal Vic Museum

The impact of medium and style also plays a significant role in sculpture and installation art. When choosing materials such as marble, bronze, or found objects, consider how the tactile qualities will affect your subject matter.

A smooth marble sculpture conveys a sense of stability and permanence, while a found-object installation might hint at impermanence or chaos.

As you work with sculptural styles, you’ll see how they can change the way viewers perceive space and form. An abstract sculpture, for example, may emphasize shape and movement, while a realistic portrayal emphasizes an accurate representation of the subject.

Your choice of style will communicate different aspects of the subject matter, creating a unique experience for the viewer.

Remember that the impact of medium and style can dramatically alter your subject matter’s interpretation, whether you’re working with painting, drawing, or sculpture.

Experimenting with materials and techniques can help you find the optimal combination to effectively convey your artistic intentions.

Subject Matter in Real-World Context

Inspiration from Everyday Life

In the world of art, subject matter can be inspired by your everyday life. It’s common for artists to draw from their surroundings and experiences, turning these aspects into a captivating piece.

For instance, you may observe a beautiful sunset and use that inspiration to create a landscape painting.

The subjects in your artwork could also be inspired by emotions or relationships, which can lead to a more abstract representation. Embrace the beauty in everyday moments and let them guide your creative process.

Art and Science

Art and science may seem like polar opposites, but they often intersect in fascinating ways.

As an artist, you can use scientific concepts as subject matter for your pieces.

For example, consider the intricate patterns found in nature, such as the Fibonacci sequence or fractals.

You might also explore technology and its impact on society, creating a piece that reflects your thoughts on the subject.

Art can also be a tool for communicating complex scientific ideas more accessible and engaging. For example:

  • Biological illustrations: Artists have long played a role in illustrating scientific discoveries, such as detailed drawings of flora and fauna. By capturing these subjects accurately, your artwork can educate and inspire others about the natural world.
  • Astronomy-inspired art: Space exploration and the mysteries of the cosmos have captured the imagination of both scientists and artists. You could create celestial-themed pieces to reflect on humanity’s place in the universe or the wonders of the night sky.
  • Technology in art: As technology advances, artists are increasingly using digital tools to create and display their work. This opens new possibilities for blending art and technology, creating virtual reality experiences or interactive installations.


I hope this guide has been helpful in clarifying the answer to the important question, “What is subject matter in art?”. By understanding the subject matter of a piece, you can gain a deeper appreciation for the artist’s intent and message.

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1 thought on “What is Subject Matter in Art: A Quick Guide for Beginners”

  1. In a piece of art, it is primarily the theme, content, or focal point. While some artists strive to be loud and obvious, others occasionally are subtle or concealed.


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