Best Ways to Express Emotion in Painting

by | Sep 29, 2019 | Blog | 18 comments

Painters paint for many reasons, and I believe emotion is one of those. The act of painting in itself can be a release of feelings, or a way to handle life events. So emotion plays a part in the making of the work, but it also plays a part in the viewing of the work. Some artists like to plan ahead, with a specific intention for the painting’s response by a viewer. While other artists allow for a wide variety of responses while viewing the painting. Either way, emotion is one aspect – and maybe a significant one – for painting.

While attending a show of works by a friend of mine, I was reminded about how emotion can play a major role for painting. I was asked to give a talk to the show’s attendees during the show, and felt an urge to write about it here.


Sometimes it’s best to say no

That’s what was going through my head a few days before my friend Gigi Mills had her solo gallery show. A select group of her collector’s was invited to a private cocktail party the evening prior to her opening. Brilliant marketing idea. And I had been asked to give a public talk about her paintings at this party.


How difficult can it be?

I was familiar with her work, and I’ve given public talks about art before. I said yes. I began writing out a plan. My mind raced, adrenaline pumped. Why was I so nervous? I wrote, rewrote, edited, rewrote again – and worried. Would my friend still like me in the morning?

I wrote for many hours – way more then I first thought would be required. I stuck with speaking from the heart and with my honest opinion. More importantly, I wrote with the intention to get the audience to LOOK – to spend more time with the paintings on display. That WAS the point after all, right? Anyway, spoiler alert – all went well in the end, I received several thank-yous from attendees, got into some fun and heated artistic arguments about a few of the ideas I presented, and paintings sold.


How to give a public talk without feeling nervous

Not possible. At least in my opinion. Just be OK with the fear, suck it up, and do it anyway. It’s worth it. As an artist, it’s good to speak in public. Gets us introvert artists out of the studio, and practice talking about art. Whether your own – or someone else’s. Doesn’t matter. It’s all good.

Here is my draft for the talk. Keep in mind I encouraged audience participation – questions and interruptions – adding a lively banter and some additional deviations not in the draft. The artist is Gigi Mills. Her work is represented by GF Contemporary, an art gallery located in my hometown Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her show is titled Prima Materia on exhibit fall of 2019.

It began with the usual thank-yous and introductions…. I’ll spare you all that and dive right in.



I consider Gigi Mills a master painter and believe in her work wholeheartedly.
And here’s why.

Laundry/Hanging the White Sheet, oil on panel, 24″ x 18″, Gigi Mills

When I look at paintings I search for an image that has PRESENCE – an immediate visual appeal, an impact, along with a sense of daring and originality from the artist. Generally, something of the unexpected. All of this I find in Gigi’s work.

I can tell this is a sophisticated audience, so please humor me while I start with a simple question – What is a painting? Basically, it’s an image painted on a flat surface. This definition however, would work for wallpaper as well as painting, right? Both are images on a flat surface. So here’s where it gets fun and tricky! Obviously (at least in my mind) wallpaper and painting are NOT the same. Good wallpaper designers create their work to be seen as periphery or background so the imagery will not upstage the people and room where it adorns the wall.

A painter on the other hand, wants someone to take notice. They want their painted image to be seen! And not just a quick glance, but indeed with riveting effect. So much so that the viewer will gaze at the work long enough to fully engage, make a connection with the painter, and in the end have a meaningful experience. A painting is a vehicle of communication between painter and viewer.


What’s your immediate reaction to a painting?

When looking at art I like to pay attention to my first response. Is it intellectual or emotional? Is the immediate impact a thought or a feeling? A painting can stimulate both,

Andy Warhol, 1962, acrylic on canvas, 16″ x 20″, Museum of Modern Art, NYC, photo by Hu Totya –

but usually one is more immediate than the other. Andy Warhol’s soup can paintings give us a good example of an image that provokes an intellectual response. Yes they have aesthetic appeal, but Warhol’s primary intent I believe, is for the viewer to think about the relationship between commercialism, marketing and the art world. With Warhol, it’s the IDEA we probably notice first.

Gigi’s work on the other hand, is primarily emotional. Yes the images have narrative elements and can stimulate thought, but emotion is what hits us foremost. Do you agree? And it’s OK to disagree. That’s an essential aspect of art – to inspire discussion. Is there any particular painting here that you feel brings up a specific emotion?

Some emotions offered by the audience: mystery, intrigue, pensive, melancholy, tenderness, meditative, sense of awe, a stillness, longing, desire, wonder, solitude, aliveness, romantic, surprise, peaceful, spiritual, expansive.

Expansive – that’s an interesting one I had not thought of before. Can you point out one of the paintings that feel expansive to you? (Night Sky & Starfish, was pointed out as example.)

Night Sky & Starfish, mixed media on paper, 80″ x 46″, Gigi Mills


How to paint emotion

The other day Gigi and I were pondering the question – How do you paint emotion? The first thing that came to mind was COLOR. Color is always contained in some shape – in both life and in art. For instance we look up at our seemingly limitless blue sky above but the view is cut off at some point – is framed by buildings, trees, etc. Even a Mark Rothko color field painting uses squares within squares, subtle though they may be. And ultimately all paintings are contained by the outside edges of the canvas its painted on.



Color and its shape or container. This pairing alone will convey emotion as clearly as a Shakespeare tragedy. Wassily Kandinsky was one of the first artists to write about this, back in the early 1900’s with his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art.

For Kandinsky, yellow held the sound of a shrill canary, while blue was a deep bass note. Put the yellow in a circle and the shrill is softened, while in a triangle with its sharp angles the shrill is heightened. Like the orchestra concerts he attended in Russia back then, he felt sounds conveyed immediate emotions and additionally held spiritual value. It was his life’s work to paint using color in abstract shapes, to recreate the emotion he felt while listening to a concert.

Recently Gigi paid me a visit all excited about just finishing a painting for her show. She had been working on this one very intensely. She burst in saying, “I found the perfect color – and now it works!” She went on about the many layers of color it took to reach the finale – the final effect, mood and feeling she was after.

I was reminded of Piet Mondrian, one of our masters from the last century, who had been known to spend a year on a single color of blue. Similar stories abound about other modern masters like Mark Rothko, taking lengths of time to obtain perfection in color. Just like Gigi, they understood the value of color precision.


Color & shape are major ways to express emotion

Nude in a Blue Room, oil on panel, 16″ x 12″, Gigi Mills

This painting, Nude in a Blue Room is primarily cool. (Blue colors are usually felt as a cool temperature). Gaze at this painting and see what type of emotion comes up for you. Now imagine this painting swapping out the cool blues for warm colors – like reds or yellows. The mood would change drastically! Gigi’s paintings make frequent use of primary colors – red, yellow, blue. Left full strength and mostly unmixed, these colors can evoke bold primal feelings.

Pairing brights with neutrals adds sophistication and a sense of mystery. Gigi’s use of rich blacks and stark whites, recalls early black and white movies. Remember the way an old Alfred Hitchcock mystery movie felt? Like film noir the use of neutrals sets us up for a larger-than-life feeling.

Color layered over color will fine-tune emotion. Gigi often starts with a bright color, then layers over it several times to either intensify the color with more brights, or do the opposite and subdue it with neutrals – depending on the mood she wants to express.

Calling the Hounds, oil on canvas, 21″ x 29″, Gigi Mills

Take a close look at the dogs in Calling the Hounds. We see a bright pink color that is still visible, raw and sketchy, not covered over with more paint layers. This same pink was also used underneath the expanse of gray background. Gigi calls this type of layering bright under quiet.

Still Life with Blue Artichokes & Oranges, oil on board, 17″ x 13″, Gigi Mills

In Still Life with Blue Artichokes & Oranges, the small touches of rich bright orange are encased by neutrals – those soft muted grays. A riveting focus on the orange is like finding jewels in a treasure box.


Magic places to ponder that are easy to miss

Another aspect that creates emotion is EDGES. I’m not talking about the edges of the canvas. Instead I’m referring to the place where one color shape touches another color shape within the painting itself. The edge between shapes. This is a magic place responsible for creating emotion, but often working in our unconscious and not visibly obvious.

Calling the Hounds/Morning, oil on panel, 12″ x 16″, Gigi Mills

For example, here is the image in full of Calling the Hounds/Morning, as well as an enlarged detail so we can more easily see how the edges are handled.


As I mentioned before, Gigi layers color to get the quality she wants. As each layer is applied, the overpainted color layer stops just a bit short of covering the underlying color completely. We can see this best at the edges, where the layers are revealed. Check out how the orange color of the shirt doesn’t quite touch the gray background, and instead leaves a bright hairline halo. Another example is found with the thin line of pink between the dogs’ outline and the background color. These small yet potent multi-colored places at the edge add a visual vibration to the viewing experience.


Reduce detail to increase emotion

Another aspect in painting that expresses emotion is style and more specifically where it fits on the scale of abstract to realistic. For me, Gigi’s work rides the line between these. Since there doesn’t seem to be any universal definition for abstract or realistic painting, for our purposes let’s say abstraction minimizes detail, while realism relies more heavily on the addition of detail.

One of Gigi’s intentions is to show emotion without having to be totally graphic, without dotting all the i’s. She may start with a vision, then includes only what is essential to evoke a certain space or form. What is left out allows for more viewer interpretation, to trigger our own personal response, our own experiences and stories.

A simple horizontal line indicates where ground meets sky, or table meets wall. We see how  adeptly she uses minimal detail – just enough for recognition. The more detail, the more the artist controls the viewing response. The less detail, the more open the painting remains for the viewer to interpret the image for themselves.  As a painting leans more towards abstraction, the image gains more energy, adding to a deeper connection between artist and viewer. Imperfection plays a part to create mood as well. Gigi’s choice to elongate, exaggerate and distort forms, especially noticeable in the nudes and figures, adds a sense of the unexpected. This distortion reminds us that being human is about being imperfect.


What makes a successful painting?

Work that entices us to look deeply and to feel deeply. A mystery to investigate, a story to unfold, an intimate glimpse into the personal. We can analyze a painting with words, break it down into concepts, but this will never be the whole story. There are no formulas. Artists must constantly invent and re-invent. To use a formula means an artist doesn’t have to stay conscious in the act, or be that raw nerve that connects them through the work to the viewer. Using a formula for production, the work loses its edge and lacks spirit or soul.

Gigi calls her show Prima Materia – the base of all matter, coming from spirit or source. This title well expresses her desire for the images to go beyond their external form – the content or subject matter, be it a dog, horse, figure – and instead allow the inner spirit to be revealed. Another way to enhance the artist-viewer connection.

A painting that gets our attention relies on the openness of the painter, their vulnerability, being unafraid to share their inner side, their deepest emotions. Not just share, but bring it into tangible form. This daring I feel, is what makes a painter and their paintings great. When the artist goes deep and feels it in their gut, the viewer can too. A great painting, regardless of content, style or medium, will connect us to our experience of being human.

This is what attracts me so passionately to the work of master artist, my friend and colleague, Gigi Mills.

Which brings us to the end of my talk.
Thank you for your time and attention.

Photo credits: Top photo by Allison Holley.
All painting photos by Gigi Mills.


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  1. Suhail Mitoubsi

    Thank you for a beautiful article. As an abstract artist, I truly believe that all forms of art are all about expressing our feelings. Genuine feelings reproduced in our art can be easily felt by the viewers. And I think this is one of the most factors that distinguish between a good art and a not so good one. I paint to express my feelings but also to discover my feelings. My journey of creating each painting is primarily led by my feelings and once we connect, the whole process is completely controlled by my feelings, not by me. Thank you once again.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Dear Suhail,
      Thank you for adding your comments here and how you incorporate emotions into your work.

  2. Paul Cahan

    A painting is “perfect” for only the brief moment when the artist says “DONE,. Life, art, everything changes and to me a great painting or sculpture grows on you every time you study it. The complexity of the human condition is by definition a vital role in art and our ways of seeing and experiencing the world. Even a photo changes different times you think about it.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Paul, Thank you for adding your comment to this blog. I agree with your definition of “perfect” – well said!

  3. Paul Cahan

    Interesting read but i missed the interviewer asking the artist who are the most important artists that influence their work. Nothing is totally original. In my work i often list the name of an artist who influenced me and in my website.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Paul, I agree that is a very important part of our development as artists. We don’t work out of a vacuum and utilize all that’s gone before us whether we are conscious of it or not. Originality, though, I do believe is obtainable. By delving deeply into our inner selves and allowing a good amount of “play” with our process, allows our spirit to come through in the work. I believe it is this quality of spirit that can be defined as original. The style, the idea, the color palette, even the feeling, as well as other aspects about the work can be identified, copied or found as roots in other works by other artists, but there will always be a hint of an individual spirit in the work – if of course, we allow that to come through in the work. Again, thank you for your thoughtful contribution.

  4. Susanne Harrison

    Hi Nancy
    Thanks so much for sharing this experience. You nailed it! …the openness of the painter, their vulnerability, being unafraid to share their inner side, their deepest emotions. This is especially true for me when my art enters a realm where there is a shift and it becomes the gift to me. It’s that moment of knowing, my mind didn’t create that. It came through me. I get goosebumps, a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. My being is moved. Did it come from God, the universe, or maybe even painters that have past??? It is powerful.

    • Nancy Reyner


  5. paint

    I loved this “talk.” Great insight for me; probably for you, just your normal wisdom.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Thank you! Glad you liked it.

  6. Teresa Payne

    Do you have a book that tells your ideas about art?

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Teresa,
      Yes! Thanks for asking. My book is called Create Perfect Paintings. You can purchase it online with Amazon. They sell it at a good discount too.

  7. Renee Phillips

    Nancy, this is brilliantly written! Your talk must have held everyone awe-struck. I’m sure you’ll now have every artist in the world asking you to give a talk at their opening receptions!

    • Nancy Reyner

      Thank you Renee! Ha there’s a new career – live art talks at openings! Not sure I’d be able to handle it and still paint but thanks for the idea!

  8. Jackie Glover

    Nancy, I loved this “talk.” Great insight for me; probably for you, just your normal wisdom.

  9. Gary (GD) Roberson

    Great job. I miss not seeing you.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Gary! Nice to hear from you! Hope all is well.

    • Jane Mishkind

      You are a good friend to Gigi

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About Nancy

Professional fine artist Nancy Reyner’s blog about art, painting and creativity. Her career spans over 30 years. She lives in Santa Fe in the US. Subscribe below for free tips on art and painting.

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