What is a Motif in Art? Unveiling the Power of a Good Motif

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what is a motif

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Choosing the right motif for your painting can make or break its success. It’s a crucial decision that requires a deeper understanding of what a motif in art truly is. Without grasping the essence of a motif, your painting could fall short in conveying its intended message. So, let’s delve into the world of art motifs and unravel their significance.

What is a motif in art?

The word “motif” finds its roots in the word for “motive”, which means a reason (or motive) behind a person’s actions. Also in art, a motif is very similar because it is the visual subject matter of a chosen composition that is often driven by a motivating factor.

what is a motif in art and what makes it compelling
Here is a painting by Corot, that is a good example of the artist’s motif (motive).

It encompasses the way that different visual elements come together, such as color, light, and shadow. However, a motif is more than just a collection of elements. It should be something that stands out to the artist and makes you excited to paint it.

In this painting by Elisabeth Larson Koehler we can see how the painting is made up of different light and dark value shapes. The lightest shape is labeled in the image while the surrounding shapes are a little darker in value.

For example in the painting above, the motif is about muted colors and shapes of light and dark. However, specifically it is about a distinct clear shape that is light in value. All the surrounding shapes are a little darker in value. What stood out to the artist was the distinct light value shape and how the other shapes relate to it.

How to create a good motif

You can also find incredible motifs in the most ordinary of places. For example, in the painting below the subject matter may be a large piece of butter, however the motif is all about the jagged yet smooth texture of the surface of the butter. The subtle color and value changes in the yellow slab of butter create the motif in the painting.

Mound of Butter by Vollon. Just notice the beautiful transition from the cool greenish yellow color to the warmer yellow area. The motif in the painting is about the texture that is created by the subtle transitions from one color to another.

When choosing your motif, it’s crucial to consider what motivates you. What is the reason for painting this particular subject matter? What interests you about it?

Once you have identified your motivation, it will become easier to develop a vision for your painting and your art in general. 

Reasons for choosing a motif in art

Behind every motif there is a reason. In order to create a compelling piece, there needs to be be a driving factor motivating the artist. The motif you choose is often what captures your eye most immediately.

In the landscape painting above “Storm Clouds with Rain” by Johan Dahl, you can see how a sliver of light lies between the dark sky and the dark land form. The small amount of light against the darker sky and land forms the motif of the painting.

You might look out at a landscape and see a piece of the sky lit up by the sun with contrasting darker clouds. The contrast that exists between the sliver of light in the sky and the rest of the landscape becomes your motif.

Your motif is more important than your subject matter

So, the subject matter is not what is important when it comes to a motif. It is the visual elements found within the subject matter that make a motif what it is. This is what makes a painting more than just a picture. In this case the delicate as well as abrupt changes in color and value make us see and experience the surface texture of the slab of butter.

This aspect of the painting is what stands out immediately to the viewer. Though, we are unable to ask the artist what inspired him. It is clear by how he painted it, that he was enamored with the color and value transitions in the subject.

Why a motif is essential

what is a motif in art portrait example with attention to surface texture
In this lesser known painting by Rembrandt, “Head of Saint Matthew” we can see how much attention he pays to the texture of his subject matter. In Rembrandt’s work in general he has a clear interest in texture – which is developed out of the kinds of motifs he chooses.

Finding a motif to paint is incredibly helpful to develop yourself as an artist in a multitude of different ways. For one it helps you to think more deeply about what to paint and why you are painting it. It also helps you to develop a vision for your art and yourself. 

Being clear and specific

When you are specific and clear about what your motif in your paintings are, it leads to a much more profound and interesting painting for both you and the viewer. Not only does it help with creating the painting, but it also gives your work a unique voice that clearly communicates something special.

It is important to take time to consider the motif you want to paint. If you ever feel stuck, you can look at other artists for inspiration and ideas. Also, simply observing and studying the environment around you is a great place to start. The important thing is to keep on working at it.

Furthermore, a motif also gives your work focus, making it much easier to create and develop. It allows you to explore different ideas but still stay within the overall theme of your painting. You can use this as a way to create a narrative that carries through all of your works. This in turn helps you to build up a strong portfolio that showcases your individual style and vision.

How to develop your vision as an artist

On the left is “Bearded Man with a Beret” by Jan Lievens, to the right a self portrait by Rembrandt. Early on in Rembrandt’s career Jan Lievens and Rembrandt shared a studio. At the time, Jan Lievens was considered more skilled and talented. However, Rembrandt is a household name, while Jan Lievens is very little known. The big difference is that Rembrandt went beyond the superficial qualities of his subject and explored his chosen motif to its full potential. He created a vision for his painting and work – which developed out of his chosen motifs.

Not only is a motif essential in the creation of art, but it’s also essential for artists seeking to develop and grow their skills. It encourages them to think more deeply about their decision-making process.

With every motif chosen, there should be questions to ask yourself. Why am I painting this, and what do I hope to achieve from it? What message do I want to convey, and how can I best achieve that? This introspection puts artists on a path of continuous growth and improvement.

Spend time thinking of what kind of motif you want to paint. This works best when you are directly observing what you want to paint. What shadow shapes do you notice? What is the light like? What elements stand out to you most? When you ask these questions you will be able to find a clear motif for your work.

Just like Checkhov’s rule for writing, you want every element you add (or take away) to be carefully considered. A motif is no different. Choosing a motif for your art should bring out the best in your work, and it should be unique enough that it sets you apart from other artists.

Create a strong vision for your work

Developing a strong vision for every piece of art you create is not easy, but it’s important if you want to make a lasting impact with your work. Spend time studying the motifs you choose and ask yourself how each one can help to tell your story visually as an artist.

Example of a compelling motif

For example, Vermeer chose subject matter that focused more on domestic scenes. However, the motif’s he chose are all about a specific kind of clear light and simple spots of color. In this way, he transformed reality with how he created light in his paintings.

Vermeer has a clear vision for his work which focuses on an astounding clear sense of light and shapes of color. In the painting “A Lady Writing” we can see a general clear shape of light against dark.

In his piece, A Lady Writing, Vermeer chose a clear distinct shape of light. While at the same time makes the rest of the painting darker in value. We can see this quite clearly when blurring the image and putting a black and white filter over it.

what is a motif? Here is a diagram of Vermeer painting showing clear light and dark motif
In the image above of Vermeer’s painting we can clearly see the light and dark motif he chose. The light shape is distinctly smaller than the surrounding darker area.

As shown above, the motif in his painting doesn’t have anything to do with the subject matter chosen but rather how he arranged the formal visual elements. In a painting, the subject matter merely serves as a vehicle to paint his motif and vision for his work.

In this close up detail of Vermeer’s “A Lady Writing” we see how the whole painting is made up of distinct shapes of color. Some areas have subtle color and value transitions, while other areas area more distinct.

The importance of a good motif

Altogether the importance of motifs in art can’t be overstated. It provides the visual elements for the composition, but more importantly, it serves as a source of inspiration for the artist.

Also, a motif motivates the artist to deliver an in-depth and personal perspective. With every motif chosen, artists have an excellent opportunity to develop their vision and grow their skills continually. No matter where you are at in your artistic career, always remember the power of a motif. Use it to create works of art that leave a lasting impact on anyone who views it.


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    20 thoughts on “What is a Motif in Art? Unveiling the Power of a Good Motif”

    1. Hello Elisabeth,

      Thank you for your very interesting art blog.

      I always find it very hard to get a good motive for my painting.
      So, now i understand a little bit more about motive and how to choose it.

      Thank you for that!
      Kind regards,

      Frits Keulers
      The Netherlands

      1. I had an outstanding maths teacher who had this one philosophy: if you know why, you’ll grasp the how. This article on motive is exactly that for me. Thank you

    2. Warren Petherbridge

      Thanks Elisabeth, what a topic, makes you wonder why you choose certain elements in a painting, for me it is the trees and the light plays in the bark and form as well as the idea of a road or creek leading somewhere and the distant hills with muted colours. They all play a part in luring me to paint them. It is a recurring theme I have not noticed before. maybe it is what makes painting the scenes so enjoyable.

    3. Hello! Thanks for your motif in art ideas. I think this way to consider my choices while planning and painting will help me deliver my vision. I appreciate your ideas that propel me onward. Please keep them coming!
      Julie Brandt

    4. Thank you Elisabeth for your clearly expressed perspective on what a motif is and its value to the artist and those who view art. This subject is new to me and is certainly food for thought. I appreciate the notion of deliberately developing a style or theme of motifs that spans over and binds together an artists body of work, differentiating it from works by other artists. You’ve got me thinking about my next painting projects! Thanks again for your guidance and sharing your expertise!

    5. Michael Sidney Adamson

      I have always believed that the urge to create something, be it a drawing, a painting, a poem or a book is an instinctive thing that comes from within. It moulds your character, giving you a motive for living, and in my case it helped me to become a very successful manager in creating a happy, profitable workplace.
      This meant that I did not have time in my working life for my other two motives for living, painting and writing, until I retired to Spain when I was 60 years old.
      Since then, in the past 21 years, I have painted 140 oil paintings and written six novels.
      In my painting, I have learned and developed by always looking to extend myself by painting new subjects, whilst always looking to paint portraits, which I consider to be the most difficult subject.
      Thank you, Elisabeth for helping would-be artists and fulfilling our motives. Michael.

      1. Thank you Michael for sharing your story and your thoughtful comments. It is truly my pleasure and honor to share knowledge on this website. I definitely agree with what you say and that the motive to create can come out in many different ways in our life. Am glad to hear that you have been able to to retire and work on painting and writing and really apply yourself to it fully.

    6. Kathryn Dickinson

      This article was very interesting and demonstrates the X factor of an artist – in my opinion!
      Thank you

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