Your Painting Has A Life Of Its Own (Outside Your Studio)

Do you ever look at a painting and ascribe some meaning to it only to find out later that the artist was expressing a totally different idea? This is when you truly understand that a painting has a life of its own….once it leaves your studio. I add this phrase on to differentiate it from the idea that a painting has a life of its own as you work on it.

Jackson Pollock famously said: 

“When I am in my painting, I am not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of “get acquainted” period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.”

Instead, I’m referring to the life that viewers give a painting beyond the life given to it by the artist. It’s as if the painting is alive and grows as it encounters those who gaze at it. When you put your work out into the world, people bring their own world with them to the painting.

Let me give you an example.

I’ve just returned from the 2024 15th IAPS convention in Albuquerque where I saw amazing artwork and spent time with old friends and new. One of the highlights of the convention is viewing the accompanying exhibition.

Michele Ashby’s beautiful painting won the Prix de Pastel – this exhibition’s highest honour. I’m going to share my thoughts about the painting when I first saw it. And then we’ll go from there.

Here’s the painting. I purposely have not included any information about the piece.

Your painting has a life of its own: Michele Ashby, "Tied," pastel on Pastelmat Anthracite, 14 x 12 in.
Pastel painting by Michele Ashby

My first thoughts on seeing the painting was the idea of something old-fashioned. Elegant and old-fashioned. What appears to be a well-used measuring tape is tied around the neck of a dress mannequin with its slightly dinged wooden neck. To me, the painting speaks to the quiet dignity of craftsmanship, of wisdom, and the knowledge that comes from years of experience. It’s a portrait where the subject holds its head high, chest erect, proud. The mannequin stands in for the tailor who creates the clothing with the measuring tape worn like a necklace, a treasured accessory.

When I look at this piece, I see pride in the profession chosen. Michele‘s superb craftsmanship in creating this piece, underlines and reiterates this idea. It highlights and celebrates not only the tailoring profession, the idea of handmade and of quality, it also refers back to the profession of artist. And we celebrate that and all it takes to create.

The piece also brings to mind the wealth of those who can afford a custom-made outfit. It reminds me of the book and wonderfully interpretive movie, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris. So there’s a hint of the disparity between those who can afford to buy and the maker of the clothes. This was certainly a secondary notion that came to mind. 

Primarily, for me, the painting is about the elevation and celebration of craftsmanship and the time-honoured professions of seamstress and tailor, AND artist. 

As an aside, I couldn’t help but ascribe some meaning to the inclusion of the number 42. If you know of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you’ll know where I’m coming from! What is the meaning of life??

There you have my reading of this painting.

Before I continue, I’d like YOU to now look at the piece and notice what comes up for you. 

What do you see? Make a note. Take time. Look to see. Look to feel.

Nothing you think about the painting is irrelevant or foolish or whatever negative word that may bubble up. Everything you think or feel about it counts as another layer. This is what I mean when I say a painting has a life of its own. 

An artist’s meaning is not the one and only meaning. Part of the delight of putting your painting out into the world is to hear what other interpretations viewers assign to it. This is such a gift to you, the artist!

Now go write down what you think of this painting by Michele Ashby!

When you’re done recording your ideas, come back to the post. 

Your painting has a life of its own: Michele Ashby, "Tied," pastel on Pastelmat Anthracite, 14 x 12 in.
Detail of Michele Ashby’s pastel painting

Now, let’s read what Michele Ashby wrote to accompany her piece, “Tied.”

“Having produced a number of artworks in my ‘Little moments big memories’ series, I wanted to explore the subject further with a very different take.

‘Tied’ was created along with 5 other artworks in a spin off series. 

I want to showcase the subject of obsession of size regarding the female figure, together with the injustices regarding pay between the sexes – both sensitive topics and both heavily centred around numbers.

‘Tied’ shows what a noose-like constraint this obsession can be. The figures are plain to see (pun intended), with so many women experiencing body shaming issues on a daily basis, leading to body dysmorphia, mental health issues and worse.

‘Tied’ when viewed from a more androgynous standpoint, also represents strength showing the female form wearing a tie can be open to connotations that ‘she means business and wants to be taken seriously, as a major player.”

WOW – how completely different is that from my reading of the piece?! And how marvellous to weave this layer of meaning into my own interpretation!

Were you surprised? Or were your own annotations aligned with Michele’s?? I’d love to know so please do leave a comment!

Here’s Michele’s painting again, this time with title and other info. Does the added information change anything for you?

Your painting has a life of its own: Michele Ashby, "Tied," pastel on Pastelmat Anthracite, 14 x 12 in.
Michele Ashby, “Tied,” pastel on Pastelmat Anthracite, 14 x 12 in.

As an artist, you may have a certain idea about what you’re trying to say in your painting. Remember however that a viewer brings their beliefs, their perceptions, their values, their memories, their upbringing, their opinions, their ideals, their influences, along with them, and with all of that personal enormity, will read a painting in a certain way. As in this case, they may not read the painting as designed. And this is how a painting will grow as layers of meaning are added to it. How wonderful is that?!

I’d love to know what your thoughts are about this painting by Michele Ashby. I’d also like to hear your response to this idea that your painting has a life of its own.

Until next time, 


PS. Don’t miss reading Michele’s guest post!

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14 thoughts on “Your Painting Has A Life Of Its Own (Outside Your Studio)”

  1. I read it as being about conformity. I took “stockman” to mean that 42 is an average measurement and that we are almost strangled into conformity which looks calm, retro, clean, tidy, innocuous but is hiding injustice to those who differ from the norm, who refuse to be regulated, to be ‘wooden’ to be “dummies” and just want to live as humans in all their variety.

  2. Not knowing the artist had painted this piece as part of a series on women, the first and only theme that came to mind was another title:
    “The Measure of a Man”. And I using the word -man- as a reference to all mankind, male and female.
    Some folks think a finely constructed suit makes the man. What about the inner man?
    Is size important or does that matter at all? What about stature as a human being? Compassion, humility, grace, tenderness, etc.
    Using a manikin in place of a portrait allows me to think on people I know, and what makes them important to their world and the relationship I also have with them. How do we “measure up” in society and more importantly how do we stand with our Creator?

  3. Wonderfully engaging question. The meaning of the painting as I gazed at it did convey the restrictions of “People can be classified into groups according to whatever suits the instigator for whichever purpose”. That is Someone else’s prophesy upon the regarded one. I was interested to see that it is a male determination – the collar size of a shirt. The meaning is clearly expressed to my way of thinking.

    I have a mini obsession about carefully observing any painting (or work of Creativity), in order to understand what it says to me, and how it communicates to the individual that I am. Normally a work of Art has a note explaining the paintings creation process and a little of the artists’ biography. It feels like this note is influential on the gazers’ senses to the disadvantage of the work of Art itself. Hence when I attend to any piece of Art I spend some time to read its message before any other interference takes place.
    Carmel S.

    1. Hi Carmel, thank you for sharing your thoughts about this whole idea and also how you approach a piece of Art, reading the artist’s intent before going further. Certainly that information exists to help us, the viewer, understand the ideas behind the creation. I think titles can also lead us in a certain direction. And understanding context is also helpful.

  4. Hi Gail. I liked reading what you had to say about this painting. I had a completely different interpretation of Michele’s work and no where near what the meaning of what it was to her. To me it speaks more of craftmanship, like you mentioned, and the precise measurements the tailor needs to complete a garment…like the precise care the artist took in rendering this piece, both garment and painting symbol of works of art.

    I read something interesting in a book about an instructor telling his students about the way an artist wishes to tell the story, sometimes subject, sometimes medium, sometimes colour. But even as the artist finishes, the story does not end. Because the viewer takes the piece into their head and they interpret the piece in a different way. You think the artist must have the final say. But the art instructor tells his students they are wrong. Each person who sees the art sees it through the window of their life, the window of their memories, their understanding. So he tells his students the next time they go to the gallery, or view another’s work, instead of asking yourself, “What is the artist trying to say?”, ask “What does this piece say to me?”

    For me, I never like adding a story to my work. I think the work should speak for itself. An interpretation in this way lets everyone experience something new. It is the way of magic. The art will become something new in the mind of another. That is amazing, I think.

    1. Thanks Laura for sharing your thoughts about Michele’s piece. And for sharing what you read about the instructors advice to students. That’s exactly it!! Amazing indeed. Certainly, artists don’t own the meaning of their work!
      I’m curious about the book….

  5. Oh wow! My thoughts were so far from any of the others. I felt the mannequin was a male, the tie was a noose, the measuring tape counting the numbers of hanging of Black men over the centuries. The preciseness of the drawing as a foil to hide the filthy truth of the actual act. Hmmmm, I truly am not a pessimistic person and do not normally dwell on tragic times or activities.

  6. Wow, that is an amazing conversation that you started Gail.

    I too did not know about the artist’s actual intent and it does open up the meaning of the piece even further. And I enjoyed reading the others interpretations as well.

    My thoughts centered about the fact that there was no actual human figure attached and that the mannequin was labeled as “stockman” – androgynous. That society has now become where labels and identities are not important and have now become blurred for everyone. That labeling is not important that we’re all the same.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this painting Abby. I had hoped someone would talk about the label “stockman” and here you are! Love it!!

  7. HOLY HOTDOGS BATMAN! This was very interesting and will cause me to think a little deeper about my own art. Right now Im just putting things on paper but what’s missing is the story or a meaning. I think the next step is to add depth, a story or meaning.

    I saw a blue collar worker seamstress and the precision of the craft. I mean wow looking at the painting of the measure tape. I think I will be looking at art a little more grown up now.

    This was a great article. Id also love to know about that book.

    1. Hah hah – you sure made me smile Valerie!! And I’m chuffed that the article has affected you, to look a bit deeper into the creation of your own work. Remember, you don’t have to attach a meaning to your work – your meaning may just be to share the glorious shaft of light or a beautiful sunset. Viewers will add their meaning and understanding.

      And thanks for sharing your thoughts about what Michele’s piece briought to mind for you.

      What book…?

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Gail Sibley

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My love of pastel and the enjoyment I receive from teaching about pastel inspired the creation of this blog. It has tips, reviews, some opinions:), and all manner of information regarding their use through the years – old and new. Please enjoy!

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