Take a Step Back | Tips for Keeping Your Painting in Perspective | Part 1

Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to critique another artist’s painting while we often struggle for hours, days or even months to figure out what may be needed to resolve our own? If you’ve participated in a critique group or taken a break during a workshop session to observe another painter at work, you fully understand. A question I am often asked by students is: “Why do I never see the problem in my own work, even an obvious one, yet instantly see it in someone else’s?” My reply is, “I don’t readily see it in my own work either. I am too emotionally involved.” Just as it’s easier to see both the good and bad in another person’s child so, too, it is with our paintings. The more we can step back and become objective, the easier it is to see strengths and weaknesses.

photo of pastel artist richard mckinley

Richard McKinley painting en plein air. Time to step back for some perspective.

Painting Perspective

This week and next, I’ll be sharing a few utilitarian and psychological tips for keeping the process of painting, as well as the painting itself, in perspective. For starters:

  •  Take a step back from the easel. As simple as it sounds, it is the most easily strategy to ignore. Standing too close distorts the perception of how the whole of the painting is working. The longer a painter works without stepping back, the easier it becomes to obsess about individual areas, loosing visual perspective. Many exquisite small areas within a painting do not mean that it will hold up from a distance. Conversely, a few flawed areas that are part of a strong composition do not matter much.
  • Use a timer. If you have a hard time remembering to step back, use a timer. Most cell phones have one built in. If you use a digital monitor for reference in the studio, you can set it to fade to a screen saver after a period of time. This is an excellent reminder to step back and observe the painting.
  • Close one eye and squint with the other. From birth, the human eye and mind have worked in unison to achieve sharp focus. This ability allows us to quickly jump from one focal distance to another. Left unchecked, this focal ability can lead to an artist becoming overly enamored with detail. While detail may be charming, it still has to reside upon a solid compositional foundation to create a successful representational painting. Remember, all the beautiful detail in the world won’t solve a flawed understructure. By blurring one’s vision, details are lost and the general shapes, values and colors will appear. Analyzing the painting and scene while squinting can help by providing a minutia-free perspective but alas, a furrowed brow.

When I saw the photo (above), I was reminded that I hadn’t stepped back during the entire painting session, approximately 3 intense hours. Guess I’ll have to heed my own advice and set my cell phone timer!

Artist and workshop teacher Richard McKinley is a regular columnist for Pastel Journal magazine and the author of the instructional book, Pastel Pointers. Check out the Richard McKinley Special Value Pack with his book and DVD set at northlightshop.com!




Watch and learn from leading pastel artists in these landscape painting demonstrations now on DVD!

Subscribe to Pastel Journal magazine, and don’t miss a single issue!

Sign up for your Pastel Journal email newsletter & download a FREE issue of Pastel Journal magazine

Get unlimited access to more than 100 art instructional ebooks for only $19.99 a month!

Find pastel painting downloads, books, videos & more

You may also like these articles: