Canned crit


Dear Artist,

Marcao Pozza-Mendes wrote from the Colorado Rockies, “Do you have a letter that deals with canned criticism? By canned criticism I mean remarking that a painting with an element like a road or river leading to a corner of the canvas always leads the eye out of the picture; there is never a way to make that work; there is never a way to break the ‘rules’ and end with a successful painting. Sometimes the canned criticism is proffered unsolicited, which makes it additionally annoying. We artists are trained not to do certain things in a painting, but there are cases where we CAN break the rules. We artists are also trained to notice these canned ‘thou shalt nots’ in the work of others.”


“Esquois Coming from Sewing with the Ladies”
oil painting
by Allen Sapp (1928-2015)

Thanks, Marcao. Whether we’re obeying the rules or attempting to break them, we’re all shooting for the same moon. “Composition,” wrote Robert Henri, “is controlling the eye of the observer.” When studying the greats, a feeling emerges no matter the genre or subject, a sensation of being “held” within the picture, with a proportionate, pleasing weightiness and balance. The effect happens when we use the rule of thirds and irregularly space varied shapes; when lines make way for patches; when complementary warm and cool colours mingle and abut for bounce; when values direct and define light, focal point and design, and a “flow” circulates the eye from one visual delight to the next. Passages of excitement and spots of activation are like stepping stones that lead you around the whole. These “rules,” plus a fevered avoidance of boo boos like homeostasis, foreground apathy and amorphous blobs have emerged as a template because artists, over time, have found them to be a foolproof way of achieving eye control.


“Landscape in San Sebastian”
oil painting
by Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923)

When it comes to crits — invited or otherwise — artists of all stages and disciplines can agree they are often merely the unpleasant bog before a meadow of revelations. Defending our choices in the midst of attack is part of how we broaden our understanding of what we’re doing and where to go next. When it comes to rule breaking, just make sure you’re the one doing the breaking and not the other way around. Pushing your art beyond academic reproduction and towards real magic is the tricky part — it can trip up the most comfortable technician. “Many a fine style,” wrote Dad, “has evolved from a decent handicap.” In other words, a few no no’s, applied with control, have the potential to silence the purporters of always and never.


“Mother and Child on a Breton Landscape”
1890 oil on canvas
by Paul Serusier (1864-1927)



PS: “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.” (Pablo Picasso)

“Watch the corners of your picture. Shooting the eye out of one of them can be bad news for you and good news for the painting next door.” (Robert Genn)

Esoterica: When looking at Fall Shed and Hillside, Marcao’s critic proposed there ought to be a break in the fence so the view doesn’t stop in the picture’s foreground. Marcao countered that the similarly valued violet shadow of the shed, which leads the eye up and back toward the hills, was enough to balance the fence line. “It’s not a perfect treatment, but it works.”


“Fall Shed and Hillside”
oil painting 11 x 14 inches
by Marcao Pozza-Mendes

As well as a painter, Marcao is the caretaker at the Western Orthodox Benedictine Monastery of St. Laurence in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. In the summer months, he invites plein-air painting friends to join him at the monastery for painting, dinner and conversation. “Our art community is a small, close-knit group, kind of like a family,” he says. “We welcome visitors!”




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“I bite my tongue and weigh my words carefully before mouthing what could be canned crit — because more often than not, the artists with whom I associate have “broken the rules” and pulled it off.” (Marcao Pozza-Mendes)



  1. In the SW Region of the Idaho Watercolor Society we have an open group that meets on first Mondays of each month for the analysis and discussion of work brought by anyone who comes. We are the friendliest group you can imagine, all good friends, hoping new members and others come join us. We shy from the word “critique” because some folks only interpret that to mean negative fault-finding. It’s meaning is more than that, of course, but we want no misunderstanding. We are anything but negative. We can be helpful and cheering, often in the same breath. Previously discussed work frequently shows up later. Often the small tweaks suggested earlier have turned the painting into something ready for public display. This wonderfully friendly gang is probably mirrored in a lot of other places. If you can possibly join such a group, I suggest you try it.
    Good letter, Sara !

  2. Dear Sara;

    I love this letter. I especially connect with your description “unpleasant bog before a meadow of revelations” – such inspiring and truthful words. I have now spent a full year away from art school, workshops , instructors and crits generally to work on my personal painting language. [ With much ongoing study in books, online and art shows]….. I think I am ready to come back out in the world – bring on the mentors and the crits .

    Happy holidays to you and your family . PS I took your advice and entered the Ferry Building Gallery 2017 open call – and am happy to tell you I was accepted into their OH CANADA group exhibition. Also accepted into the Seymour Art Gallery’s Exhibition in January [ in Deep Cove]… Thanks for all of your inspiration .

  3. Dear Sara,

    Your note underscores for me the value of being ready for critique, perhaps developing at least the start of a body of work before bringing it to someone for critique. What might look unintended in one painting can become a stylistic or composition asset when repeated and explored in a series of works.

    Sometimes even the best critics will find themselves wondering whether they should raise the “canned” no-nos if they are included in a piece with “real magic”. After all, is it an unintended mistake or a conscious inclusion? And critique can be so much more powerful when delivered honestly but still with sensitivity/tact. So I think artists should all try to be accepting enough to hear the questions that are asked about these formulaic patterns, good or bad. It gives us the opportunity to address our own processes and personal tendencies to either accept them as important to our art or to determine to evolve if we believe it beneficial.

    Thanks for the trigger!

  4. I’ve often wondered why that road that ends in the corner always leads your eye out of the picture. Couldn’t it possibly lead your eye INTO the painting as well? I’ve always been told it’s “bad” but it just doesn’t seem so bad to me!

  5. Sara: So enjoy your newsletter. Had to reply to this one. To focal point in Marcao’s painting is the door to the cabin, and rather than the fence leading me out off the painting it helps to direct my eye back to the cabin, and helps to balance the space. Besides that, at 73 I still have an incurable case of wanderlust and can’t help but want to climb that fence and explore the background.

    • Thank you Lloyd!
      Up that hill are two abandoned surface mines.
      If i weren’t somewhat of an old geezer myself, i could spend hours playing in the dirt up there.
      As it is, I just drag my paints up there for some plain-air quickies.

  6. Once again a super letter and inspiring pictures that remind us to not get stuck within rules alone. I have found rules to be helpful but also stifling. So I have decided to make one of my “rules” of painting what I have heard you and your dad mention several times and that is “what you do academically wrong becomes your style”. I often do things “wrong” in terms of what I have been taught about painting properly, exploring intuition and expression while discovering who I am as an artist. Here rules are left in some back corner of my mind and have little impact. Though I may struggle between pleasing the critics and freely using this creative process, I am learning to trust in this controlled creativity and am convinced that much more is possible with an open mind and open heart. Thank you Sara for another encouraging letter reminding us to go above and beyond what is expected of us.

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