What Makes a Good Painting?
That pesky inner critic!
I don’t know about you, but simply telling her to sit down and shut up doesn’t work for me. Oh, I can get her to leave me alone. It just doesn’t lead to paintings I’m happy with. I need my inner critic.
We all need time to explore, experiment and follow the painting where it leads. But in the end, we do want to know “Is it any good?”
But, how do you know if your painting is any good? Given that just about anything you can imagine has been presented as “art” by somebody, somewhere, how can we hope to answer this question?
It seems that the initial default answer seems to be some variation of “It looks just like a photograph!” And, if you are starting out as a painter, and your primary focus is gaining some facility with color-mixing, brushwork, and so on, just trying to just reproduce what you see is a valuable exercise. But in a very short time, most new painters find this unsatisfying. “I want to loosen up,” has to be one of the most often expressed goals of painters everywhere.
We recognize (and admire) technical skill. We also recognize and value qualities like expressiveness, drama, playfulness, freshness, atmosphere, pithiness. But there’s no universal scheme for deciding how much weight these various qualities should have. And still, we look at the painting we just made, and want to know “Is it any good?”
Another way to answer this question is to compare your work to that of artists you admire. Or to look at which paintings are winning awards, and try to paint like that. This can be a useful exercise, too, but as Peter London points out in his excellent book No More Secondhand Art, even if you succeed in painting like Monet, you (and all of the rest of us) will have missed out on something far more important: painting the paintings only you can paint, sharing your unique vision and insight with the world.
So what to do? How can we decide if this painting is any good?
My answer is to judge each of my paintings against my own reasons for painting, and for painting this particular painting.
1. Ask (ahead of time) “Why am I painting this?”
Push yourself to be specific. “It’s just so beautiful!” isn’t enough of an answer. What, specifically, about this subject grabbed your attention? Narrow it down to ONE main idea! (If you can’t narrow it down, that’s great! It means you have the basis for more than one painting.) It could be “that fabulous orange glow in the sunset” or “the feeling of peace I get from being out on the lake in my canoe at dawn” or “the graceful curve of that dancer’s arms” or “the memory of baking Christmas cookies with my grandmother”.
Another way to ask this question is “What effect would I like this painting to have on a viewer?” Sometimes it helps to even imagine where this painting might be displayed.
2. Ask, “What, for me, communicates that idea or feeling visually?”
Bonus! You know how everyone talks about how important it is to edit and simplify your scene or subject to have a strong painting? Now you have a basis for making those decisions. No more putting stuff in because “it was really like that!”
After all, when you tell a friend about the gorgeous orange glow in last night’s sunset, you might mention how it was reflected in the lake (since that enhances your story), but you don’t describe the cooler you were using as a footrest, or the fact that you noticed how you really need to replace those ratty sandals. Maybe you throw out the feet and the cooler and let the foreground begin with the reeds at the edge of the water. (Even if they happen to be in the reference photo you quickly snapped with your phone.)
3. Be prepared to adjust and refine as you work.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever started a painting without doing all your sketches and value plans and color studies beforehand. If your hand is down right now, well . . . Liar, liar, pants on fire! I do it All.The.Time.
I’m always discovering part of the way through a painting that there is some problem I should have figured out beforehand. Well, okay, you can use that as an opportunity to call yourself stupid, or why you never learn! but I’m not keen on beating myself up, so I decided, “That’s not a bug; that’s a feature!” I do rough drafts! Writers do it. Why shouldn’t we?
Instead of slogging ahead on a painting that I know isn’t going to make me happy, I pause. Now is the time to solve that problem. Maybe I can make an adjustment to get back on track. Maybe it will be more successful to begin again on a fresh sheet of paper, with the problem now solved.
(Don’t forget to notice and keep the stuff that’s working!)
Maybe (oh, happy day!) something better than I could have planned has happened, and it’s time to set aside my original intentions and capitalize on the “happy accident”.
4. Evaluate your painting according to your intentions for it. (But accept that you will fall short of the ideal.)
If you’ve been clear and specific about your reasons for painting this painting, and the effect you want it to have on the viewer, you now have a way to answer “Is it any good?”
Does it capture what you wanted to capture? Does it express the feeling you wanted to convey? Will it have the desired effect on a viewer?
One caveat: It’s common for everyone else to think the painting is more successful than you do. They’re not just being nice. And you’re not just being too hard on yourself.
Creating a painting that makes your heart sing is a LOT harder than creating a painting that makes someone else’s heart sing. You know the extraordinary, elusive, powerful emotion that motivated you to paint it. And that’s what you’re comparing it to. Everyone else is experiencing the painting for itself, from their own perspective. For all you know, it may evoke something even more poignant and powerful for someone else. (Or it might not speak to them at all. That’s going to happen, too.)
Don’t insist that a painting has to perfectly capture the feeling that motivated you to paint it in order to be a good painting. That’s not likely to happen. (But, if you’re lucky, it might sometimes capture something even better, even more powerful. It might teach you something new!)
Art is hard! Saying something meaningful, powerful or original is hard! We only succeed in bits and pieces, here and there, now and then. But it’s important work.
So take your inner critic by the hand and tackle it again together.