A Face Only a Mother Cow Could Love

Let’s be blunt and get it out of the way. Despite my drawing practices, my cows aren’t looking any better, and this one’s head looks more like it belongs on an opossum than a bovine.

Green Pasture (2)

There’s so much wrong with this picture, I’d hardly know where to begin if asked to explain. Besides the cow with a face that only a mother cow could love, the foreground is splotchy and overworked, the background is a mish-mash of colors, the rock near the front edge is distracting — that’s that bright, white blob — and the overall execution is poor, indeed.

But, you know what? I’m glad I did this painting. No, I don’t like it. But I like the fact that I was bold enough and adventurous enough to give this a try.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the critique process, and understanding more than ever how important it is for us to look at our paintings with a critical eye. At least, that’s where my thoughts began.

Maybe approaching our art with a critical point of view isn’t really what’s best. Maybe what’s needed is more of an objective look. Yes? That sounds good, doesn’t it? We should be able to honestly say “this is good; this is bad”, and go on from there.

I’m thinking, now, however, that maybe pure objectivity isn’t the best approach, either. I’m beginning to see the value of positive critique — which sounds very much like a contradiction in terms.

We naturally tend to associate critique with criticism and with critical analysis — all of which sound a bit negative. In truth, critique merely implies careful consideration. It’s the act of assessing a work — be it literature, drama, music, dance, or a fine art.

A critique is an opinion.

A critique is also a valuable part of the learning process — but not for the reasons you might think.

First, who is really qualified to critique our work?

If asked for an opinion, our friends and family will likely praise our work, and there’s nothing wrong with that — unless we’re wanting more specific feedback, unless we know the painting doesn’t work and are trying to understand why, unless we’re at a point where we need answers to questions we have about art. Our well-meaning friends and family may not be qualified to give us the sort of critique we really need.

The most valuable critiques, I think, come from art instructors, individuals who understand all those important elements like value, color harmony, perspective, and a host of other art and design principles. Art instructors — and judges — have the knowledge to make a careful assessment of any work put before them. We don’t necessarily have to be a student in their class. We may not always have access to an instructor who can provide a critique, though.

So what of self-critiques? Are we qualified to look at our own work and make judgments about it? Yes, we are, or at least, we should be. The problem, however, is that most of us tend to be overly critical. We focus on all that’s lacking in our art, harshly berating ourselves and our work, all the while thinking we’re doing a proper critique.

Nope. Putting ourselves — or any artist — down over a drawing, painting, or any other work of art, should not be part of the critique process. Good art instructors know this, and we should know it, too. The purpose of a critique should be to help, inform, and encourage the artist. Of these, encouragement is the single most important aspect of the critique process.

I think most of us truly know when our work is lacking. I don’t have to subject my “Possum-faced Cow” to any judge or critic to know that it has a lot wrong with it. I have eyes. I can see for myself that I made many mistakes in this painting.

What I need is not criticism, ridicule, or unnecessary focus on the problems with my painting. I need practical help, ideas on how to improve. I need information on better techniques.

But before I can be open and receptive to suggestions, I need encouragement. At the end of the critique process — of any painting — an artist should be smiling, happy, and excited to rush to the easel and get to work again.

We can find good when we look for it, and in our paintings, that makes all the difference. It is vitally important that we pat ourselves on the back, that we applaud our efforts, that we recognize improvements we’re making. This can happen even with a bad painting. Even with a very bad painting like the one of this sorrowful cow.

I applaud myself for this painting.

Here’s the deal. I am proud of myself for taking on this challenge. I was hesitant about it. But I did it anyway. I approached it as an opportunity to learn, to broaden my artistic horizons, to try something new, something that was maybe a bit beyond my level. Hurray! I deserve a pat on the back for putting this canvas on the easel, tacking up a reference photo with a bunch of cows, and having a go at it.

Now, in my original reference photo, there were a lot of cows. Originally I intended to have another three cows huddled together on the right. Don’t see them? Well, that’s because I waved my magic paintbrush wand and turned them into trees. Hallelujah! What a brilliant decision that was. I faced an artistic problem, and I figured out how to resolve it. Isn’t that a valuable, necessary skill for an artist? More applause, please.

And, let’s be honest here. That bush on the right is a thing of beauty! Definitely deserving of at least a bit of hand-clapping.

Are there things that could be improved? You betcha! But improvement will come in its own time with more practice. Let’s just focus right now on all that’s good about this painting, not about the execution itself, but about what this painting says about me as an artist.

I tried things. I played with colors. I experimented with different brushes and different types of brush strokes. I got a few lights and shadows right — that opossum face at least has the light where it belongs. I pushed myself, and when all is said and done, my cows do look like cows. Ugly cows, yes, but cows all the same.

Now, I’m excited about painting. Now, I’m even willing to find more reference photos and paint more cows. I want to paint sheep, too. Pigs. Goats. I’m eager to explore a whole new world of barnyard animals and wildlife.

Now, I’m ready, too, for helpful information that will enable me to improve my painting, knowledge that will allow me to improve and make my next painting better.

Sure, this cow is laughable, and I’m not sure that even a mother cow could love that face, but this is only one painting, and it’s part of my learning process. Critiques are also an important step as we learn and grow. Critiques can — and should — be positive, informative, and helpful. Critiques are meant to be opportunities for encouragement.

I’m glad I’ve learned that important truth about critiques. It’s fun to look at paintings and find so many, many things I can praise. Critiquing my work from that point of view makes me love my art all the more.

I think I can even love this ugly cow.


  1. I think something you did right was to make the cows in the background less saturated and used softer edges. Also I applaud you for putting up a painting you weren’t happy with…I hide mine, wait until they are dry and then paint over the top before anyone can see them. LOL

    Liked by 1 person

    1. LOL… I have a lot of ugly paintings waiting to be painted over. This painting really brought home the lesson about finding something good in our art. Sometimes we have to look really hard, but let’s give ourselves credit for the things we do right! Instead of berating myself for a “bad painting”, I’m learning to see every painting as a positive step in the right direction. In this way, even something awful makes me excited about painting more. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. See that is a medium I am unlikely to get into anytime soon. Too costly and too much work with cleaning brushes etc. I wouldn’t have any space to do it. I do want to try oil pastels again. I watched a short class on them and think I could get so much more out of them than I did before. But that is as close to oil as I really intend to get. I’m really enjoying watercolor and I do a thing with soft pastels and acrylic mixed that I like.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I am horrible with acrylics. I was surprised to find that oils are much easier to use than acrylics 🙂 I hated all the toxic mess though, so I switched to water-soluble oils. Clean up is easy! I’ll never switch back to “traditional” oils. I do like oil pastels, although it took me a while to really figure out how to use them. I haven’t done anything with oil pastels for a couple years though.

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      3. I didn’t know there was such a thing as water soluble oils. That might be something to look into someday. I tried oil pastels before and it was like I was in grade school to be honest. But after watching a video on using them, I could see more possibility.

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      4. I remember when I first tried oil pastels. Like you, I felt like I was in grade school again. I couldn’t find any good tutorials at the time, so I really struggled with it. As for the water-soluble oils, I am really liking them. It took a while for me to adjust, but now I love them. I think a few manufacturers make small “trial sets” you can try out. Clean-up is so easy! And no horrible chemicals!

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    1. LOL… yes, it’s a bit off, but it could be worse, right? I’m still drawing cows, hoping to get a better understanding of the head/body structure. Animals are very difficult for me to draw, which makes them even more difficult for me to paint. But I do want to include more animals in my paintings, so I’ll just keep at it!

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  2. When I first started reading it, my reaction was “here she goes, all the bad stuff”. Your style is very loose and it works well in this painting. What you see as “splotchy and overworked” foreground, I see wild flowers in a pasture. What you describe as “the background is a mish-mash of colors” reads as pasture receding in the hills as I saw in the Dakota’s here in the US. The rock near the front edge would be competing with the cow if it were more detailed. Your cow may not win a ribbon at the State fair but it does look like a cow – no question.

    I am glad I kept reading because this is a great post! There is a lot of truth in what you say: critiques are important for us to learn from – I think of it as feedback. Positive feedback is very useful, negative feedback: not so much unless it is followed with “next time, try x”. Effective self-critique is the hardest to do because we look at our work and see what went wrong first. That is where we spent the most time and energy so it is hard to take a step back and see it within the whole painting. And, let’s be honest, sometimes we know “something is not right” but we can’t figure out what. That is the reason I follow a number of online groups where I post my work and ask for help whenever I can’t figure it out on my own.

    Congratulations on getting out of your comfort zone. You should give yourself a good pat on the back. And Thank you for such an insightful post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I used to really be hard on myself. I looked at everything I did wrong. No wonder I was so often discouraged. OK, so yes, I still get discouraged at times, but mostly I look at what I’m doing right. It’s fun to find all the positive things and point them out to myself LOL. I’m recognizing that I’ve reached a point now where I’m really ready to start learning, if that makes any sense. I’ve tried a lot of different things, but it’s only now (after about 3-1/2 years of painting) that I’m starting to put things together. That’s exciting.

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  3. Every artist from beginner to professional will always have paintings (if only occasional) that, for whatever reason, don’t work! And that is completely ok. I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned the expression “positive critique”. Positive critique will praise the good points but also help us to understand what went wrong, why it’s wrong and what we can do to improve next time. Quite often I find we will learn more from our artistic failures than our successes… !

    Now as for your cow, I think it’s not anywhere near as bad as you might think. After a quick look at cow pics on the internet and one of my own photos, I think all that’s wrong with your cow is that 1. the eyes are a tiny bit too large – they should be a bit smaller, rounder and placed on the outside edge of the head and in line with the bottom side of the ears; and 2. the cow’s nose/jawline is a bit too pointy/narrow – it should be more squarish/wider. And that’s all… ! Changing just those two things would make a world of difference to the cow! 🙂

    This is such a great post Judith. Positive critique that helps us to learn and progress is the way forward for all of us on an artistic journey…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Evelyn. I’ve spent time browsing cow photos too now, looking specifically at the structure of the head and the face. I’ll probably try doing an “up close” cow portrait one of these days LOL. As for “positive critique”, I’m coming to see how important that really is. A critique should be an opportunity for us to celebrate all we’re doing right. I have to admit, it’s fun to pat myself on the back for something I’ve done. It’s much better than putting myself down and getting discouraged.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, my! You actually like my cows? LOL. I love cows, and I wish I could paint them better. I’ll keep at it and maybe my next cow painting will be better. 🙂 Thanks so much for commenting!


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