Painting with Purpose

In this article, I will distinguish and explore the specifics of planning, making, and sharing your painting with a purpose. Painting serves many purposes, ranging from playfully exploring mediums and materials, providing emotional release, creative expression, serving societal functions, and communicating messages.

Making purposeful art examines the intentions behind the painting, revealing a lot about what matters to the artist and the culture they live in. It discerns paintings made with function, practicality, and messaging in mind. Purposeful art expresses the artist’s values and motivation behind their creative process creatively and intentionally.

Before diving into the purpose pool, I’d like to briefly explore the distinction between meaning and purpose in art.

On Meaning and Purpose

Painting can be purposeful – and is always meaningful.

An important distinction to make a note of is that between making meaningful art and art with purpose. Painting, albeit all forms of art in general, is an expression of something meaningful. Whether it is conscious or not, the materials, canvas, and content an artist choose reveal something meaningful to them at the time. Paintings unveil the creative process alive in the painter, their unique skills, emotions, worldview, and social context.

Many paintings are made without a sense of “purpose” to be appreciated by the mere emotion and thought brought by making or observing them. Art without purpose is still art – uniquely human and culturally enriching. What does examining art made with a purpose do for us?

The purpose of a painting takes the painting into a place of action. Ask yourself, what does purpose mean to you? Perhaps it translates to you as something useful, functional, or practical. To another, it may motivate, inspire, cultivate change. Purpose shines a light on personal and cultural values, world views, passions and provokes thought and action in a painting’s observer.

Subjectivity and Purpose

Many painters question whether their art has meaning or purpose and whether the viewer will see it as they intended. Some hope they will express their message clearly, though it is almost impossible to guarantee such a goal unless you are the creator of the instructional Stop! Sign, subjectivity will show that people will notice, appreciate, and understand different phenomena. On the other hand, some artists love to get the viewers thinking and lean into that subjectivity and purpose inference.

Both approaches can get people talking and reflecting on how the same piece of art lands with them. Looking at a piece of art, you may wonder, “What did the artist want to convey in this painting?” Simultaneously, you may catch yourself reflecting on how that same piece of art makes you feel as you observe it.

Though artists may struggle to accept that the purpose of their art is almost always victim to subjective perception, it’s important to keep taking action. Paint, paint for fun, paint with purpose, and trust you will make an impact, no matter what! Just take action and create, and keep showing your work!

Functional Art

According to an article at ThoughtCo., functional art can reveal the purpose behind a painting through four lenses:

(1) context
(2) personal
(3) social
(4) physical functions

Context

The context of a painting is evident from looking beyond the materials and content on the surface. Where was the artist when they made this piece? As an artist, how am I influenced by my surroundings as I paint? Take note of the time and place, political and social norms, economic status, availability of tools and materials. How do they tell a story beyond the painting itself? Contextual purpose can be studied under the philosophical inquiries of Martin Heidegger, discerning how revealing time, place, and social context drive meaning behind the use of tools, materials, and content in art.

Art confronts us with “the earth”—the sensuous reality of the non-human, which we tend to forget or ignore when we are engaged in practical tasks. At the same time, art sets the earth into “the world”—the historical human context in which we work, suffer, and hope.

Martin Heidegger in The Origin of the Work of Art (1937)
The artwork of Michelangelo depicting important themes and values held at the time in socio-cultural time and space.
Sistine Chapel of Michelangelo, Rome

Personal

Personal purpose is related and is perhaps the most subjective and most revealing of the artist’s process. Unless the artist spells out their intention and proposed purpose of the painting for you (like a Stop! sign), the viewer often gets to tie the story together. Say, for instance, you produce a piece as an expression of your experience of loss and grief. While experienced by everyone, these emotions vary in their meaning, context, and imagery for each of us. Your depiction of sadness may reveal your interpretation, though it may very well conjure a different response in any given viewer.

An abstract, personally-meaningful painting whose purpose or message may seem unclear to an observer
A painting of mine, made with personal purpose to express a time of closeness felt to forests and energy
2019

Social

The social functions of paintings offer meaning and relevance to shared lives, often evoking shared emotions and highlighting socio-economic and cultural views and norms, current events, and values. There are numerous ways that paintings project social purpose, including mural and graffiti art, marketing schemes, political art, street, political comics, and more. The purpose behind these paintings is often emotional and can work to divide or connect to people or with certain social groups.

Imagery from Pink Floyd's album, The Wall, depicting social and political criticism
From Pink Floyd’s The Wall, a concept album conveying emotional and political commentary

Physical

Physically purposeful art usually serves the desired function to provoke thought or actions in the viewer or societal structures. These may include interior and industrial design, architecture, some landscape architecture, woodworking, and welding. Interior design and private property planning offer great opportunities for customizing physical spaces for unique expressions of what is important to the artist or the owner. Urban planning and landscape design invite a special relationship with the artist/designer and the earth’s materials and flow of social traffic and values. Physically purposeful art may decorate or inspire new thinking and relating to physical spaces. Others may simply encourage people to think and interact differently with common spaces.

3D Illusion Street art drawing a curious crowd
Kurt Wenner’s 3D illusionary street art drawing a crowd

Bring Purpose into Your Art

While I encourage aspiring or practicing artists to learn to see all they create as meaningful, painting with purpose adds a great sense of depth and connection to your work. To bring purpose into your art, consider reflecting inward on your values, your beliefs, messages you may wish to share. Use your playtential time to enjoy joyful art and expression and explore deeper, offering function and engagement with those who will see it.

Let me know what you think in the comments! I would love to hear from you about your creative process and experience in making paintings with purpose. Also, please share any pieces of art that have made a great impression on you and sparked your interest in the purpose behind the painting!

About the author:

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I am passionate about making the best of life through cherishing relationships, exploring worldly experiences, and cultivating a creative lifestyle of art, music, dance, and fitness. I am a self-taught painter, inspired by the sublimity of nature, consciousness, love and universal transcendence that binds all of humanity and nature, together.

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