Don’t Let Your Inner Critic Be Lazy

I’m working on a new postcard paint-along, using these 4 photos for information and inspiration. But I’m not going to follow any of these photos very closely, so I know I’m going to hear this in the comments:

“That painting doesn’t look anything like the photo!”

At this point in my career, I just chuckle when I hear this. I have no intention of making my paintings look like any photo. (If I want a copy of a photo, there are much easier ways!)

But I know when you are just starting out—or if you’re struggling with a painting—it can be very difficult thing to hear, whether it’s from your own inner critic, or from the critics around you who feel that they get to pass judgment on whether your painting is any good. And the sole criterion that these critics are using to judge your painting (and you, it feels like!) is: how accurately does the painting reproduce the photo (or scene) in every detail?

But I would contend that very few people really use “accurately reproduces a photo/scene” as the sole criterion for how they value art in their own lives, when they’re not busy “playing art critic”. We may not not want to start an argument with external critics, but I think we all need to challenge our inner critics to do better. Because honestly, using this standard doesn’t correspond with what most of us really value in art, and it’s just plain lazy, unhelpful criticism.

Before all the realists start screaming, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with developing skill at rendering a scene accurately, or painting realistically. It’s a tried-and-true way to hone your skills. And some artists work hard to render a scene realistically so that they can invite the viewer into their (constructed) reality, and have the illusion feel “realer than real”. But, in that case, the illusion of reality is a tool, not an end.

“How much does it look like the photo” is lazy because it’s a mindless standard. I doesn’t require the critic to think about balancing multiple goals (such as, I want the viewer to be able to interpret this as waves crashing on rocks, but I also want to create a more ominous, dramatic mood and suggest the wild wind and drenching spray). And it has the advantage (for the critic) that it can never be fully met, so there’s always something to criticize! After all, no 2-dimensional, fixed representation in paper and pigment of a 3-dimensional scene that lives in the real world can ever be completely accurate in all details. So the (inner) critic is always able to find some deviation from “reality” to point out.This lets them feel helpful (or superior), without having to exert themselves to consider the thornier question of what actually makes a work of art “good”. And without being honest about what they themselves actually value in works of art.

So when you hear this criticism, especially from your inner critic, I invite you to challenge whether it should really be the only standard (or the most important standard) for judging whether the painting is successful. Ask yourself, “What do I really value in (my) art?” Think about poems, novels, music, and movies you’ve enjoyed or recommended to others. Think about paintings you’ve seen when you weren’t in “critic mode”; maybe just browsing a gallery, or in a friend’s home.

Most of us value art that moves us, tells a story, engages our emotions, evokes memories, allows us to see something from another person’s perspective, or gives us a taste of what it would be like to experience something not directly available to us.

I hope you will be able to claim the right to apply these values, as well, to decide whether your painting is successful. And make your inner critic acknowledge them, too!

Notice that none of these other valued qualities in art necessarily requires every detail exactly as it was in whatever scene or event inspired the artist. In fact, too much of the wrong details just gets in the way. 

But wait. How do I know that I’m not just using all this as an excuse because I’m just not talented enough to accurately reproduce that photo?

Well, here’s one way I can tell: if I were to hand you these photos, I would immediately feel the urge to say, “But these photos don’t really capture the way it was! I was up on a cliff, shooting with a telephoto lens. The waves in the photo look small because they’re far away, but those are 20- to 30-foot breakers. When they would break on the rocks right below us, you could feel the booming in your chest, and every once in a while I’d have to quickly stuff my camera inside my jacket to keep it dry. I was in full rain gear, but that other guy got completely drenched! I couldn’t capture that in a photo without sacrificing my camera! And the wind was crazy! I had to brace against a tree to keep my camera steady.”

If I have to add all that, then none of the photos is really capturing much of what I want to communicate about the day, so why, oh why, would I want to spend my time trying to reproduce one of these photos? (And if there is nothing I would add and no way to improve on the photo by rendering it watercolor, then why, oh why, wouldn’t I just frame the photo?)

So how do you go about trying to say some of that extra stuff in your painting? It helps to start as I did, simply by imagining what you might say to someone as you look at the photo together? Then ask yourself how you could use visual cues—what to include in the painting and how to arrange things, how you apply paint and use watercolor effects, your choice of color palette, and so on—to create the mood, tell the story, evoke the associations that you want to communicate? What does not help tell the story, or actively distracts from the effect you want to create and should be left out? 

These questions don’t always have easy answers. Often, as painters, we have to see something on the page before we know if we’re on the right track, particularly with respect to matters of painting style, or the degree of realism or abstraction. I often feel like I’m only groping my way slowly toward what the painting is trying to say. But that’s the only way I know of to create a work of art makes me and my inner critic sit up and take notice. 

I’m going to try changing the viewpoint, so the painting includes some big spray flying up above us. I’m making the man standing on the cliff in front of me a bit farther away so he seems more dwarfed by the spray and I can capture more of the scene. Maybe I’ll try letting the paint run a bit as I paint the sky and the upper part of the spray to suggest the wind.

If your (inner) critic knows what you are trying to achieve, then they’ll be able to assist you in evaluating how things are going. You still might need to shush your inner critic long enough to try a bold experiment or get far enough along to know whether things are headed in a fruitful direction, but it’s a lot easier to get your inner critic to leave you alone for a while if they know you’re going to invite them to assist in evaluating later. Gradually, you and your inner critic will start to discover some strategies and practices that are more likely to result in paintings you feel pleased with. (This is the way you really find your personal style—and it often surprises you!)

We value art because it’s so difficult and rare to be able to express something moving or meaningful. But it helps to at least try to use the right yardsticks, ask the right questions. This is the true and honest task for your inner critic, the one that will make your inner critic an essential colleague and contributor to your success instead of an obnoxious pest. 

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