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  • Jennifer Gillen

Stuck or Obsessed? Painting the Same Subject Repeatedly


Watercolor rose painting.
"Hester Prynne" the 5th rose and 13th painting in my current series. Here, it is freshly finished and still drying on the painting board.

Sometimes I wonder about the border between being stuck and being obsessed. Many artists repeat the same subject in multiple paintings. Often, only a tiny difference exists between separate paintings. It’s not the ongoing motifs that make me curious, but the pure repetition of a single subject: Like Monet's repetitive paintings of haystacks and lilies. Or Van Gogh's multiple sunflower paintings. Is the subject repeated because the artist has not fully explored the topic? Or is it simply a niche? Even worse, could it be a rut in which the artist is stagnating until new inspiration comes along?


The answers to these questions are probably different for each individual artist. I started a new painting this morning. This is when I really began to think about being stuck or obsessed. My camera roll has 150 new reference photos that could feed my paintings. One of the photos, a pinwheel-shaped clematis flower, makes a striking composition. This flower is both bold and elegant. I looked at the photo for a long time and tried to imagine painting it. Ultimately, I decided something about it wasn’t right. Instead, I eagerly started another rose painting.


This rose was definitely not my second choice. In fact, this will be the fifth rose I’ve chosen to paint on a large-scale over the past few months. For some reason beyond my understanding, painting roses feels right. I prefer to paint them at about the same scale and with the same sort of composition. I crave the way the petals separate the watercolor neatly into different shadows and highlights. Maybe fear has crept in and is keeping me from moving on. A failure to move on can inhibit artists from ever reaching their best work. Maybe there is comfort in repetition. We all gravitate toward what we know best. Or, most likely, it is natural to paint what one loves.


It’s never been my intention to be a niche artist. I don’t want to be known as "that lady who paints roses". In a lot of ways, roses are stuffy and staged and a little cliché. They don’t have a huge impact on audiences. But here I am, in a pit of roses. Honestly, I think roses are incredibly beautiful. The abundance of petals and fragrance has me spellbound. In my opinion more is better, and roses are lush indulgences. So, I obviously love them and maybe it’s not a rut after all.


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