Thematic Approach and Derivation of Subject Matter as an Avenue for Expression and Expressiveness in Painting: Analysis of Selected Paintings by Kenyan Contemporary Artists in Nairobi, Kenya

  • Kamau Wango, PhD Kenyatta University
Keywords: Painting, Painting Style, Theme, Subject Matter, Content, Context
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In painting, just like in other disciplines of art, a thematic approach is often applied by artists in their work because themes define all aspects of human endeavour. A thematic approach is also important in the derivation of subject matter that artists ultimately pursue in their work. It can be said that any painting that is executed can be compartmentalised to fit within a given thematic pattern. Artists often, but not always, actively consider the essence of the theme itself; at times, they instinctively or spontaneously express something on canvas. It is presumed that the ‘intent of the artist’, at any given time, is to depict or express some phenomenon that is derived from the intricacies of human endeavour, behavioural traits, experiential sources, or from an individual’s own emotions and feelings. Ideally, a subject matter emanates from a particular theme, but it is also generally acknowledged that artists do not always necessarily base their work on a theme as a springboard to their core intent, but that the theme ultimately emerges by implication. A theme is too broad to be compressed into a single pictorial composition and, hence, each theme is interpreted into a retinue of ideas by cohorts of artists. A theme, by its description, is also not explicit because it is a guiding or emanative factor; therefore, it is often implied. It would be unusual, however, that an artist fails to put in perspective his or her thematic foundation in describing the final piece of work because artworks always have some thematic connotation even if it is not deliberately intended by the artist. In this regard, there are some kinds of artworks that bear weighty thematic foundations and others that bear some form of useful thematic content embedded in their meaning. This paper seeks to determine the extent to which the concept of the thematic approach is used by artists to derive subject matter in their painting and whether their subsequent paintings are, therefore, theme-specific or are as a result of creative spontaneity. Further, it seeks to find out the nature of the subject matter, the artist’s motivation and inspiration and whether the resultant paintings are effective in rendering the intended visual message to the audience. A powerful theme is not necessarily a fundamental prerequisite for powerful artwork since artworks are rendered differently by different people, but a powerful artwork is often a good indicator of a potent theme. This paper also examines the stylistic approach, content and context applied by the artists in their paintings. The paintings featured in this paper are those done by some of the contemporary Kenyan artists working independently at different studio locations in Nairobi, Kenya. They were identified and interviewed by fourth-year students at Kenyatta University in their study of the local art scene as part of their wider development of individual painting styles.


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8 July, 2021
How to Cite
Wango, K. (2021). Thematic Approach and Derivation of Subject Matter as an Avenue for Expression and Expressiveness in Painting: Analysis of Selected Paintings by Kenyan Contemporary Artists in Nairobi, Kenya. East African Journal of Arts and Social Sciences, 3(1), 92-120.

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