Having studied art now for several years, I’ve learned that two specific things tend to give us problems:
- Knowing when a painting is finished
- Knowing if a painting is good
These are related problems, and I’m always looking for information on how we can resolve them.
Many of us squirm a bit at the thought of a critique. The word is too close to critical, and it’s true that they share a common origin. A critique, however, isn’t simply about finding fault. It’s more a process of evaluation, a means by which we can assess what’s good, what’s bad, and yes, what’s ugly about our artwork. For art students — like me — it’s a tool for measuring progress.
A huge problem, however, beyond the semantics of the word, is that it’s often difficult to get an honest, objective critique unless we’re enrolled in a class or program where an instructor is available to evaluate our work.
We can’t really turn to our family. They’re far from objective. Friends usually aren’t too objective, either. No one wants to hurt any feelings. It’s easier to say, “Oh, I like it,” and be done. Even when friends or family members want to be helpful, they may not have the artistic knowledge or language to truly explain what’s right or wrong with something we’ve drawn or painted. Aside from telling us whether they like or dislike the work, they may not be able to provide the specific information that will help us improve.
And that, when all is said and done, is the true purpose of a critique. We need feedback. We need to know what we’re doing right. We need to understand what we could be doing better.
In the end, it may be that the best person to provide a critique is our self. We’re familiar with the work, we know what was involved in creating it, and we know what our vision was when we first began. Truthfully, we have a more intimate understanding of a particular work than any outside critic could ever possess.
But, that said, it’s not easy for us to assess our own artwork. Unlike our friends and family who may be too kind, we may tend to be too harsh in judging a drawing or painting we’ve completed.
After researching the topic of critiquing our own work, I’ve come across some tips that may be useful.
- Step away from the work. Even if you’re unsure as to whether or not the painting is finished, walk away when you first think it’s completed. Put the work aside for at a time. Move on to another painting.
- Come back to your painting with a fresh eye. View the painting as though you were seeing it for the first time. Imagine seeing it framed and hanging on a gallery wall. Would you be drawn to the painting? If you don’t like it, that’s fine. It happens.
- How does the painting make you feel? Does it bring about any emotions? What is it about the painting that evokes those feelings? What was your original intention or vision for the painting? What did you want to express?
- Find one thing you like about the painting. For me, this has been a very helpful process. Even though a painting may fall far short of my vision, I can always find one thing that I like. I often cling to that one thing like a life-line. It gives me hope that I can continue learning, growing, and improving my oil painting.
- Is there anything distracting? Sometimes, without even realizing it, we create odd shapes in our paintings. We may accidentally paint a cloud that resembles some strange creature, as an example. Or there may be other distractions. If something in the work is bothersome and distracting, make note of it.
- Ask how the painting could be improved. Are there flaws in the composition? Are there technical issues? Essentially painting involves shapes, values, colors, and brushwork. Each medium has its essential elements. Look at these as you analyze the painting. Note areas where you need work, and also make note of areas where your techniques are strong. A painting, for instance, may be perfectly composed yet lack strong value contrasts.
- Decide if you should make changes to the painting. Sometimes changes can be easily made. At other times, it may be of more value to leave the painting as it is, take what you’ve learned from it, and move on to another canvas.
So, does this evaluation process work? Here is a painting I’ve recently finished — I use that word with skepticism. Personally, I think it will need more work, and I think I know how it can be improved. Let’s go through the painting together, and please, feel free to share your thoughts!
I’ve had this painting sitting in a corner for a while. Now, I’m going to take a look at it, and imagine it as it might look hanging in an exhibition. I’ve used a photo program to add a frame to help me fully visualize this as a completed work.
I’m happy to say that there’s a lot I like about this painting. Were I strolling along at a gallery and came to this picture, I think I’d probably stop to take a closer look.
Now, on to the thoughts and feelings I have about this painting, both as an artist and as an objective viewer.
First, as an artist, what I wanted to convey in this painting was the awe-inspiring beauty of storm clouds gathering. My original plan was to show a small farm in the scene, giving a feeling of isolation, as well as showing how insignificant mankind is in the face of nature. At the same time, I wanted a sense of hopefulness in the painting, a shining point of light to say that even when storm clouds gather on our horizon, we can have faith and see our way through the difficulties. Now, is that a great artist statement about a painting, or what? Yes, that was the intention behind this work. And as a side note, even though I live in Missouri and painted these clouds from our area, the state of Kansas is better-known for its storm clouds. Think of Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz. Where we live is known as tornado alley, too, but still, think of storms and you’re more likely to think of Kansas than Missouri, thus the name of the painting.
As a viewer, I can see the beauty of these clouds, and I like the light in the painting. But as a viewer, I can also sense that something’s not quite complete here. It’s like an unfinished thought. Yes, clouds are beautiful, and yes, there’s light in the midst of darkness, but what of it? What’s the point? All of these lofty thoughts are leading nowhere.
On to what I personally like. I’ve already mentioned it. I do like the clouds I’ve painted. I used several different colors, several different brushes, and several different techniques to create the effects I wanted. I succeeded, for the most part. Best of all, I was also able to show the light still shining even as the clouds darken the skies.
Is anything distracting me as I look at this painting? Actually, yes. As much as I love the clouds I painted, there is one darker streak toward the front that distracts my eye a bit. It’s one more element that should be directing a viewer’s eye toward a small farmhouse, but since the farmhouse isn’t there, the line becomes a distraction.
How could this painting be improved? That’s simple enough to see. It definitely needs the farmhouse, the barn, maybe a few trees. It needs something to complete the statement, to bring the human element into the work, something through which I can express those feelings of smallness and isolation. I’m not happy at all with the ground plane in this painting. Without the farmhouse, it’s just a meaningless piece of land. I’m not sure I like the colors, either.
Now for the big question. Should I change the painting? For me, the answer is a resounding YES. I love so much about the painting, yet it’s so disappointing in its failure to express my thoughts and feelings. It needs the farmhouse. No matter how dramatic the clouds may be, they aren’t enough to make this a successful painting.
So, wish me luck in getting that farmhouse in there. I tried several times but wasn’t happy with any of my results. Now, though, realizing how important that farm scene is to the painting, I will keep trying until I can get it right.