Yesterday, Michelle Lonsdale wrote, “I’m currently in my second year studying Fine Arts at a university. I’m working on a research assignment investigating artists’ self-critiquing methods. What thoughts, beliefs or rituals do you use while critiquing your work?”
Thanks, Michelle. Your question is such a valuable one. With all the current running off to get things juried and critiqued by others, self-critiquing might seem an unpopular sport. It isn’t. The acquired ability to critique oneself is the fuse of great art and the silver bullet of the pros. While all artists work differently, here are a few thoughts:
Quality develops when the artist and the critic are honed into a functioning co-op within the same skull. The “ritual” is to pry the artist away from the critic. The artist can be flamboyant, egocentric and prejudiced. The critic needs to be patient, humble and strict. A split personality may be the price you have to pay to see your work through fresh, unsullied eyes. The operation doesn’t hurt — much.
Divorcing yourself from the preciousness of your efforts and seeing your work as it really is takes time and mileage. This means “alone time” in your working area. I’m sorry, but my observation has been that no quality work or strong direction will arise in environments where consultants are readily available.
On the other hand, a valuable ploy is to constantly upgrade and rethink standards of excellence, most often done through books and other media. This doesn’t mean your style will be influenced by the exposure, but rather you may improve by association with those you admire. “You’re only as good as the company you keep,” goes the time-honoured expression. The mere act of holding onto great works or seeing them in museums magically transfers a sense of timelessness and creative soul. Fact is, you will not generally improve by misguided staring at your own efforts.
Not surprisingly, when you switch from creation mode to critique mode, you tend to lose the magic of inspiration and substitute a more pedestrian, mechanical approach. A checklist is valuable. In serious sobriety you need to write and follow your own list. I use a series of varying questions: Meaningful subject? Strong patterns? Middle tones? Interlocking gradations? General gradations? Echoing shapes? Flowing design? Alluring counterpoint? Lost and found? Focal point? Big and small? Overall simplicity? Complex shapes? Visual depth? Interesting surface? Arial perspective? Sophisticated colour? Natural believability? What could be?
PS: “Think of and look at your work as though it were done by your enemy. If you look at it to admire it, you are lost.” (Samuel Butler)
Esoterica: Critical intuition can also be enhanced by minor substance abuse. Cigars and Scotch have been my traditional choices. Since giving up smoking, I’ve begun to note the critical value of alcohol. “In vino veritas” (In wine there is truth), said Plato. More recently, I’ve been stalking errors by merely putting on another hat. Right now I’m using an Australian Akubra that makes me feel like an antipodean crocodile wrestler. On and off it goes, sometimes several times an hour.
by M Frances Stilwell, Corvallis, OR, USA
Your list is a little disappointing to me as I don’t know what so many of those things are. Alluring counterpoint, interlocking and general gradations, interesting surface are the biggies. Are these words synonyms for old measures or are they new ideas for how to make your artwork better? i.e. for sure now, do I need to go to art school?
(RG note) Thanks, Frances, and others who asked the same question. If you go to art school you might not always hear about some of those things I mentioned. “Alluring counterpoint” is where there is a small amount of jumpy detail or “grace notes” that give a secondary area of interest without destroying the power of the whole. I often try for at least one area of AC. “Interlocking gradations” are smaller gradations or blends laid side by side or juxtaposed. They give added, often abstract, interest and mystery to otherwise ordinary subjects. General gradations are gradations or blends in a large area such as sky, water or the general base of an abstract, etc. Interposed with “flats” these general gradations go a long way toward strengthening compositions (also helping areas to “sit up” or “lie down”) and holding the eye. “Interesting surfaces” means texture, shine (final varnish) and evidence of the human hand at work. In my case I like an even, “handmade” look, not too artificially rough, not too slickly smooth. Inconsequential though these concerns might seem, they all contribute to a work’s visual “stickyness.” In the pursuit of making your own work unique, I should emphasize that while your list may have parts of other artists’ lists, your list needs to be your own list.
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Lessons for life in making art
by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA
The fact is we have to be analytical at some point in the process, most importantly at the concluding stages. I say stages, as each time we rethink and make additions and corrections the work is off in another direction which can be quite trying, resulting in the removal of our favorite bits of gorgeousness sometimes. The willingness to do this for the greater good of the whole painting is a lesson in life as well. One could even say a lesson for our fragile, single-minded politicians, who rarely are self-critical. I always push the idea that we have to overcome our weaknesses to move forward in this world and especially in the world of art.
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The Kitchen Test
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
The test for me is in my kitchen. I make a piece. I hang it in my kitchen. Now, I see it every day. I see it in the morning and in the evening. I watch the light change on the art. If my piece does not hold up, I change it.
Before this painting leaves the kitchen, I already know how to fix it. This is a good suggestion for all painters. Have a place to look at your work that is far away from your studio. Live with it. Who are you to say it is done? I call this the Kitchen Test.
What I learned from my painting students was that they spent way too much time looking, and very little time painting. I have about twenty paintings that are not finished. I am looking at some of these paintings in my kitchen. When I have made quite a few decisions, I paint. This does not take much time. What takes the time is the indecision. The seeing and deciding. Decide, then paint.
Time reveals everything
by Marlien van Heerden, Pretoria, South Africa
I can only live with one of my paintings, a watercolor, one of my first paintings. For the rest I am constantly pulling it apart in my mind. I am seldom happy with a painting when I am done. Never quite what I intended. After a few days I can start appreciating it or not be able to stand it.
Someone said painting is a series of corrections; the challenge is to know when to stop. I like to think it is the process of fitting in the pieces, until you can recognize the idea, then stop, and leave the rest for the imagination. Painting is a ritual of play and critique/evaluation. When I live with a painting I want to keep on changing it. When I see one after a couple of years I am surprised at things that happened (almost as if I had no hand in it), or surprised that I never noticed the obvious ‘mistakes.’ I think an artist and critic is unable to part, although your view gets obscured with the corrections in your mind. (You will simply not recognize an arm out of proportion, like reading a letter with a missing e.) Time makes it possible to see your own work objectively.
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We are the best judge
by Adrienne Moore, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Six or seven of us artists have been meeting once every two weeks to draw or paint the figure with a live model. We use coffee break time to bring in a work-in-progress or finished work and the group does an impromptu critique. It seemed to bind us together as the critiques are always aimed in a very positive way. Sometimes we differed in opinions so radically on a work. That is where the solitary artist comes in as we start to look well at our own work. Alone we can include far more meaningful trust into what we have endeavored to paint. Our intuition determines what we were trying to say in this painting/to move armed with conviction that we made the right choice. If I am in doubt I usually put the painting up near the fridge because the first look in the morning is so important. At once what looked like a great piece in the studio the night before fades before dawn looking like it has more than a few problems. Sometimes a work that has been lingering too long on my studio wall can be revitalized to be a very exciting piece. I know that we can pay to have critiques done, but as a practicing artist for many years, the ultimate test is when we allow ourselves to be the best judges of our own work and, if we are not fooling ourselves, we will know with experience when a painting works well.
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The artist’s vital questions
by Scott Kahn, NY, USA
Students must look to artists they admire for ‘guidance.’ The trouble with this is that the student often ends up admiring to the point of appropriating certain elements of the artist they admire and ultimately the work looks derivative. It takes a conscious effort, as one matures as an artist, to throw off derivative elements in one’s work. Once that realization is lodged into an artist’s working framework, it seems to me it’s more of a dialogue with oneself than a ‘critique’ of oneself. It’s a symbiotic process where as the work unfolds, it reveals itself and we have a discussion with ourselves as to what needs to be done next. That happens when the dialogue ceases. All the things you suggest an artist ask along the way are academic, superficial considerations. What the artist should really be asking is, “Am I being honest? Am I being myself? Am I searching for the truth? Am I reporting my experience of life and the world as I see and experience it?” It is an interior dialogue that fundamentally has nothing to do with design, color, composition, gradations, shapes, perspective, etc. Those considerations rely on preconceived notions and rules which are antithetical to the creative process.
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Add to the list
by Louise Francke, NC, USA
I might just add a few things I do to your good list:
1. Take a jpeg into the computer and Photoshop. There reverse it, turn it upside down and turn it all around, work with brightness, contrast, color manipulation, etc.
2. Pay attention to the corners. Are they handled as well as where your main focus is?
3. I have blurry lenses I put on to remove myself from the subject and just see how the color is either working or not working. Without attention to the subject and lines, it helps to see how the painting flows. I used them on this impromptu watercolor sketch of rocks out back. When taking into oil, I dealt with the thick lines giving them more character which isn’t in this sketch. Prepare ahead on limited materials to take into field — found I was missing much and had to improvise.
4. While working, I turn the painting around to see where weaknesses are.
5. Time helps one deal rationally. Turn the painting to the wall for 3-5 days and then come back for an unbiased viewing.
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Blueprint for a self-critique
by Linda Anderson, Victoria, BC, Canada
I created a form for myself to help with the planning and critique through the process and after the painting is deemed finished. It also allows me to get in the thought space when I started, if I have had to leave it for any length of time.
Steps For Creating a Painting and Providing a Blueprint for a Self-Critique
Fill in this form for every picture in the planning stages so you will have a record of your original intent and the mood you wanted to convey.
When the painting is finished take this form and step by step see if you fulfilled your original plan. If your center of interest changed while in the process, then your color perspective or linear perspective may have changed as well.
What is it about this subject you want to focus on?
What do you want the viewer to experience?
What will be your center of interest?
Decide on palette or color scheme:
Will this make your painting Warm or Cool?
Your complementary color (or colors) will be?
Composition — Find a Rhythm — Divide spaces into
Think Gallon, Quart & Pint for your proportions.
Do several thumbnail sketches to determine if your choices work.
The center of interest can be created with: Highest value contrast : Area of most detail : Converging lines
The most exciting paintings are those with high contrast. To create this is a challenge in watercolor — work with grays (neutrals and semi-neutrals) and luminous darks. Painting in layers instead of always premixing washes in watercolors will get you more intensity in your colors because less water is generally used.
Areas of Concern:
The Foreground invites the viewer in and leads the eye to the focal point.
The Middle Ground usually contains the center of interest or destination for the viewer’s eye.
The Background shapes and emphasizes the pictorial depth.
Three things to be concerned with:
1.The shape chosen to interpret the subject.
2.The color or value entrusted to these shapes.
3.The treatment of the edges where these shapes join.
1.A good shape is longer in one dimension.
2.Avoid perfect circles or squares or triangles.
3.A good shape has gradation.
4.A good shape is interlocked with its neighbor.
5.A good shape has a variety of edge treatments.
6.A good shape allows passage to the next shape.
Patterns for good compositions:
1.A piece of dark value in lighter values.
2.A piece of light value in darker values.
3.A small light area and a large dark area in mid tones.
4.A small dark area and a large light area in mid tones.
5.Gradation, Dark to Light and Light to Dark
6.An all-over pattern.
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by Joanne Gervais, Kingston, ON, Canada
I use “Critique Sheets” to assist a portrait and figure drawing and painting group that I facilitate. The sheets are not intended to limit the freedom that can be found in creating artwork with great abandon, but are more there to remind us the artists that some of these elements can assist in creating stronger works of art.
They are to be used like a tool such as a paintbrush and charcoal. You choose the support, media, techniques, subject and also choose to select or ignore time honored artistic elements such as focal points, movement, etc. The ability to critique one’s work, as well as other artists’, is a talent in itself requiring both courage and skill. Critiquing work is mostly ignored today for fear of limiting artistic freedom. If work were critiqued with a deliberate eye for strong artistic elements, there would be less inferior work.
Cross off any elements that are not relevant and add any that are.
ELEMENTS Excellent Average Weak Juror comments
Use of Line
Use of Mass
Overall Technical Proficiency
Red Orange Abstract
reverse painting on plexiglass 22 x 28 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Claire Remsberg of McCall, ID, USA, who wrote, “I am at times too hard a self-critic (self-deprecating to an extreme) and at other times too giddy with excitement at a newly finished piece or direction that I fail to notice major shortcomings.”
Enjoy the past comments below for How to critique yourself…