Gurney Journey: What is a 'Non-Motif?'

Gurney Journey: What is a ‘Non-Motif?’

What is a non-motif?

That’s what I call a scene from our everyday world that is familiar but rarely interpreted by artists. I wrote an article about non-motifs in the February / March issue (#149) of International Artist Magazine.

Unlike a picturesque motif, a non-motif is unconventional, unexpected, but also commonplace and recognizable. If you try googling the term “plein-air painting” you probably won’t find a single car or fast-food restaurant or utility pole, despite the fact that those things are all around us. Why not? Is it because they are intrinsically ugly or because we haven’t yet found the beauty in them? 

Paintings can serve to awaken us to the mystery of the world we actually inhabit, such as parking lots, supermarket interiors, gas stations or back alleys. They have a weird luminous power over my imagination. When I begin to paint them, I feel as though I have set foot on an unexplored continent. 

Tips for Succeeding with Non-Motifs
1. Start out with an idea of the light, color or compositional effects you want to achieve, and plug the forms into that idea. For example, you might want to do a tight cropping on a colorful sign or you might want a warm, backlit scene with edge lighting.

2. Use a viewfinder, a mirror or a camera to give you a fresh eye on the scene. It’s often hard to recognize good subjects, even when you’re looking straight at them.

3. Do a thumbnail sketch in pencil or paint to visualize what choices you might need to make.

4. Try to key into an emotional reaction that you have about a place, something you love or hate about it, a juxtaposition that seems bizarre or somewhere that you enjoyed hanging out as a child.

5. Stay local. Paint the subject at different times of day, and if you can, different seasons of the year.

6. If you’re traveling, paint an ordinary street, not the Instagram spot.