This article is the first of a series on creating more powerful, personal and expressive paintings.
When I teach watercolor classes or workshops, there is often a moment where a student comes up to me, thrusts a painting into my face and demands:
Tell me what’s wrong with it.
What do I need to fix?
Am I done?
Is this any good?
Maybe you’ve been that student. Maybe you’ve been that teacher. Maybe you’re asking yourself questions like this about a painting you’re working on right now.
How do you answer questions like these? How does anyone ever know if a piece of art is “good”? If the teacher says so? If someone buys it? If it wins an award?
I’m betting you can come up with examples of artworks you’ve encountered that have passed all these tests and you still wouldn’t put them in your home!
But if you have no standard by which to judge, then what? Flip a coin? Keep going until you get bored? Or overwork it and wreck it?
There’s a better way. A better set of questions. Start with:
What effect do you want this painting to have on the viewer?
Most people look at me blankly when I ask this. They’ve been so wrapped up in technical details they’ve completely forgotten the answer to this, if they ever considered it in the first place.
Step 1: Imagine an encounter.
Imagine the painting hanging on a wall somewhere. Don’t spend a lot of time trying to come up with the “perfect” setting or the “right” answer. You can imagine other possibilities after you finish with this one. Just pick one possibility to start with. But imagine as much detail as you can.
Where is it? Someone’s home? A gallery? A public building? What sort of lighting does it have? What else is in the space? What happens in this space? What time of day is it?
Now imagine someone walking into the space and encountering the painting. It could be you, or someone you know, or someone imaginary, but again, try to imagine some specifics? Who is it? Are they old, young, happy, weary, peaceful, distracted, sorrowful. What is this person doing? What’s their relationship to the space?
Now imagine what happens when the person encounters the painting:
- What do you want them to notice, appreciate, think, or feel?
- How do you want their gaze to move around the piece? Where should it speed up and slow down? Where should it linger?
- How do you want their thoughts and feelings to evolve as they look at the piece?
- What do want them to notice after they’ve been looking for a while?
- When do they decide to move on, and what do you hope they are thinking and feeling as they leave?
If you want, you can run through this exercise more than once, imagining different viewers and settings.
It’s great to do this exercise early in the planning stages of a painting, too. I’ll talk more about the planning process in later posts in this series. But, honestly, most of us jump in and start painting without having all (or any) of this figured out.
Step 2: Stage an encounter.
Now let’s use an actual person (or group) to see what happens when some real viewers encounter the piece. But you have to be careful about how you do this. If you ask for a “critique” you will probably get one of two things:
- Here’s what I would do if this were my painting. (Which could go in a totally different direction from what you had in mind.)
- Here’s my sorta, kinda remembered notions of “good design” and “rules” from classes I’ve had.
Neither of those will help you decide if your painting is done.
Here’s how to set it up so you get the feedback you want:
- Remove as many distractions as possible. Prop the painting on an easel. Cover the edges with a mat, or at least some clean tape. Make sure there is good even lighting.
- Do NOT point out anything you “still need to fix” or “are not happy with” or in any other way contaminate your audience with your thoughts and feelings. Keep your current thoughts about the piece to yourself.
- Tell your audience that you are asking ONLY for responses to some specific questions and would prefer not to hear any comments on anything else just yet, especially anything about whether they do or don’t like the piece no matter how kind or positive.
It helps to give further instructions on that last point. Friends tend to want to either gush about how lovely the piece is or solve (what they think are) your problems. Try to interrupt that before it gets started. Tell them it would be more helpful to hear “this yellow area makes me feel happy and reminds me of morning sunshine” than “I really like what you did with the yellow over here”. If someone does give you “I really like the yellow”, gently ask them for more: “Why is that? What are you thinking and feeling when you look at that yellow?”
Try to keep the focus on the experience your viewers are having, NOT on any value judgments (theirs or yours). I find that I have to keep repeating my list of questions and redirecting the conversation away from value judgments. This kind of feedback is not what most artists are used to so it takes practice and reminders.
By the way, these questions make it possible for you to get excellent feedback from people who are not artists and think they know nothing about art. Children and teens are especially good at giving this kind of feedback.
You can use this set of questions to explore your own experience of the painting, too, but usually you are too tied up in details at this stage to be objective. If you are going to ask yourself these questions as part of evaluating the piece, it helps a lot to put it away for a week or two and work on something else. When you come back to it, you’ll be more likely to see it with fresh eyes.
Step 3: Evaluate the results (and plan changes, if needed).
Compare what you are hearing with what you imagined and see how it feels. You may decide you like the actual experience(s) as much or more than the one(s) you imagined. Maybe that tells you you’re done. Maybe it gives you some ideas for making the experience even more powerful.
If you’re not hearing what you hoped to hear, you’ll probably know a lot more at this point about how your painting might need to be changed.
Important: “Change” does not always equal “fix something that’s wrong”. It could just as easily mean “enhance or capitalize on something that’s working really well”!
Also “change” in watercolor may mean starting a fresh draft on another sheet of paper. The way I decide is to ask myself whether it will be easier to get to the result I want by starting fresh with a clearer vision or making some adjustments to the existing piece. Some things, like toning down a color with a glaze or darkening an area, might be easy to do on the existing piece. Others, like a completely different color palette, or a different arrangement of picture elements, would be easier if I start fresh.
It’s not a “failure” if you decide to start another draft; it’s just another draft. And for those who protest they don’t want to “waste” paper, I ask: What’s a bigger waste, using another sheet of paper to create a painting that really makes me happy (and putting the first draft in the Big Pile of Nope to use for learning and experimenting), or laboring for hours and hours to to “fix” a draft that will never really be the painting I know I can create? Up to you . . .
As you go through this process, you might also realize there you have opportunities to create a viewer experience that you like even better than your original idea. Great! You’re always in charge of the direction you take your painting. Be flexible and let your thinking adapt, if you wish.
But, don’t feel like you have to change directions because someone else made value judgments instead of just describing their experience of viewing your piece. If someone went on and on about how much they liked that yellow part, and the yellow bugs you, or the reason they liked it has nothing to do with the effect you wanted the painting to have, ignore them! Similarly, if one person was bothered by a confusing shape in one corner, and no one else even noticed it and you don’t think it’s worth fussing over, then don’t.
Step 4: Change ONLY one thing at a time.
Start with the most important (not the one you feel most confident of). How do you know what’s most important? I ask myself, if I were only allowed to make one change before this painting was taken away, what would it be?
If you know how to make the change you need to make, then the way is clear.
If you’re not sure, then you have a very specific question and can easily research possible solutions. For example, Viewers were distracted by the incorrect perspective on the barn because the rest of the painting has normal perspective. So, I need to figure out how to correct the perspective on the barn. Then off you go to learn a bit about perspective, or to look more closely at the barn or ask someone for help.
Or maybe, I like the wonky drawing on the barn. It makes me laugh and I want this piece to be playful, so I’m going to make the perspective kind of wonky everywhere and then it will all work together.
Step 5: Repeat Steps 1-4 after each change.
Each time you make a change to a painting, it affects how a viewer encounters the entire piece. Don’t get caught up in making every possible change you can think of. That’s one way that paintings get overworked. From this point forward, your goal is to do as little as possible to achieve your desired effect.
Step 6: Leave some imperfections and room for responses.
No artwork is ever going to completely match your ideal. That’s okay. You’re not trying to have the last word on beauty or sunsets or whatever. Art is ultimately a conversation. Let the painting and the viewers have their say. Viewers are going to bring their own memories, emotions and stories with them to your work. If you let them, they will show you things in your paintings that you never would have noticed. Often, things you think are imperfections will be the doorway for someone else to discover something exciting and beautiful that you overlooked. Leave room for that!
I’ve given you a lot of detail here, because this sort of evaluation strategy is different from what most artists are used to. It sounds sort of long and involved and tiresome, but after you do it a couple of times, each round usually only takes a few minutes.
More important, it gives you a LOT better chance of making a painting that satisfies YOU. Without needing to look to some outside authority like a teacher or a show judge to tell you whether the painting is “good” or “done”.
Give it a try! Let me know if you have questions. I’ll try to address them in upcoming articles in the series. I’d love to hear how it goes, what you learn or how you adapt the ideas to your own creative process.