Philip Guston, ‘Curtain’ 1980
Philip Guston
Curtain 1980
© The Estate of Philip Guston
Victor Pasmore, ‘Square Motif, Blue and Gold: The Eclipse’ 1950
Victor Pasmore
Square Motif, Blue and Gold: The Eclipse 1950
© Tate
Bill Viola, ‘Five Angels for the Millennium’ 2001
Bill Viola
Five Angels for the Millennium 2001
© Bill Viola Studio

In the past the term motif was commonly associated with Islamic designs, but it also alludes to a theme or symbol that returns time and again, like the noose, cigarette and lightbulb in the work of American figurative painter Philip Guston; or a pattern, like the abstract drawings of the mid-twentieth-century abstract painter Victor Pasmore. The video artist Bill Viola often uses the motif of water to represent birth and death, as exemplified in his multi-video installation Five Angels for the Millennium.

Motif can also refer to the subject of the artwork. The phrase ‘to paint from the motif’ arose in the context of impressionism, meaning to paint on the spot.