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  • Writer's pictureDavid Brett

The best paintings in the world… and how artists choose what to create

Updated: Oct 7, 2023

It doesn't take too long online to find a blog listing the best paintings that you simply must see in whichever art gallery in the world.

As with any such compilation, there will be some very famous names and some familiar masterpieces.

But, ultimately, it's a subjective process and we will mostly all like different things for different reasons.

A favourite painting of mine in London's Tate Britain is John William Waterhouse's Lady Of Shalott. Which is odd.

It's not that it isn't a brilliant work of art, because it is. And it's not that it is lesser known, because this huge oil on canvas is cited as one of the 10 best works in the gallery.

Based on the Tennyson poem about a figure from Arthurian legend who yearned with unrequited love for the knight Sir Lancelot, it ticks all the boxes of the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic.

Painting by JM Waterhouse of The Lady Of Shalott a painting of a woman in a boat
Masterpiece: Waterhouse's Lady Of Shalott ticks all the boxes of the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic

Here we have naturalistic representation, the Italian Renaissance repackaged in English medievalism, Victorian sentimentality, (somewhat) heavy-handed symbolism and that staple of the movement — an ethereal woman with flowing auburn locks.

It grabs me for a number of reasons, not least the quality of the fading light, the heaviness of the tapestry trailing over the edge of the boat, the candles almost extinguished by a last breath of wind (no prizes for picking up on the symbolism here) and the pure rock 'n' roll brushstrokes of the foreground reeds.

It's good, and it knows it. This painting is Mick Jagger in his pomp swaggering onto the stage at Glastonbury and belting out (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction, or perhaps more appropriately Jimmy Page and Robert Plant letting rip on Stairway To Heaven.

All of this is a given. So why is it odd that I should like it so much? Well, under any measurement or criteria, it's just nothing like the paintings I create.

And when I say 'nothing like' I mean in the sense of entirely divergent organisms comprised of DNA from alternate universes.

And for all that, I'm quite happy to compartmentalise my liking for this painting and the works of the Pre-Raphaelites in general, to lay aside my differences and enjoy it for what it is.

While we're at it, I have to say that I can be drawn to a diverse number of other genres or artists with equal enthusiasm: Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Vermeer, the Romantic movement, a spot of surrealism (not mad about Dali), the Realists, the Romantic Realists, Fauvism, Abstract Expressionism, David Hockney etc.

Which brings me to the question, why do artists paint what they paint? Surely, if I liked the Lady Of Shalott that much I'd at least have a stab at knocking out something similar (which would be quite a feat, I admit).

But, I don't (at least not at the moment) do figures, Renaissance palettes, symbolism, moralistic parables or dewy-eyed sentimentality. These things don't factor into what I want to communicate.

The reason why I like Waterhouse doing it is something I can't fully explain.

But as a route to understanding why artists do what they do, here are some rough motivations behind their creative output:


At the heart is a deep desire for self-expression. Artists seek to communicate their emotions, thoughts and experiences. These will be inevitably unique, personal and enacted through a choice of materials, mediums, colour and application.


A key ingredient is the need to observe and reflect the world around. Change is constant, whereas art can provide a pause (literally) for thought. The significant thing is that which is selected from the artist's world: the political, the individual concern, the human, the beautiful or the mundane. What is being offered is a lens through which to look at our surroundings anew.

Spirit of adventure

Artists continually explore and experiment, pushing the boundaries of their creativity to challenge the conventional and offer new ways of seeing. This interaction will alter at different points in time as society and our experience of the world changes. The reasons why Waterhouse painted The Lady Of Shalott no longer apply today.

Social commentary

Artists are active participants in society who address pressing issues, shed light on marginalised voices and provoke critical thinking. Art can be a catalyst of change, a powerful tool to raise awareness and inspire meaningful conversations.

Authentic voice

The subjects chosen by artists are those that resonate on a personal level. A cherished memory, a place of sentimental value or a fascination with a particular theme; the connection between the artist and the subject matter is paramount and embeds the work with an authenticity and passion.

Reaching out

Artists aim to make connections with their work by evoking responses in their audience. A relatable or thought-provoking subject matter can engage viewers on an emotional, intellectual, or even spiritual level.

Of course, we as viewers will bring our own preferences to each artist's work. Every painting is whatever we choose to see as much as the creator's intention.

Perhaps one of the features of Lady Of Shalott that appeals to me can be found buried somewhere in my own work.

But, then again, I'm not the one to say.

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