When critiquing a painting, I like to begin by describing what I think makes the picture good, before suggesting ideas for improvement. Often, artists are more aware that something isn’t quite right about their work than they are aware of all that they are doing right. I use two basic criteria when analyzing a painting: concept and execution. A good painting is the result of a good concept well executed.
The concept is the idea that artist is conveying, what the picture is about, the choice of subject matter or the statement the artist is making. I look for concepts that are fresh, interesting, eye-catching or otherwise standing out from the rest. Style is not usually very important. A good painting can be “modern” or “abstract” or similar to any “ism” in art history, such as Impressionism. If the concept is original, not obviously a copy, a fresh take on a traditional theme, or something different (but not different just to be different), I take a closer look. If a painting looks too much like a trite, warmed-over, done-before approach or a bad imitation of someone else’s work, it will be much less interesting or compelling.
Execution is how well the artist translated his or concept into the chosen medium. Control of the medium is largely a matter of practice. No matter how good, fresh, original the idea is, if the work looks sloppy, poorly drawn, badly crafted, technically deficient, it will not be successful. On the other hand, the best craftsmanship and technique can’t rescue a weak concept.
Concept and execution come together in the picture’s composition. Composition includes drawing, pictorial design, tonal value and color, and contrast. Good drawing doesn’t necessarily mean the ability to make a picture look exactly like what you see (that’s what cameras are for). Good drawing means a sincere, confident, convincing rendering that is right for the concept and chosen medium, so even distortions in proportion or perspective can be appropriate.
Pictorial design is how well the lines, shapes, colors and values in a picture attract and retain viewer’s attention. Dynamic balance, strong contrast, a clear path for the eye, good use of centers of interest and focal points are all part of a successful composition. Tonal value is the lights and darks in a picture which are often more important to the success of a picture than color.
Finally, the single most important thing is contrast— good use of lights and darks, warm vs. cool colors, textural effects, hard and soft edges etc. I don’t mean stark conflict such as black against white, but well balanced use of value, color, textural contrast to create an eye catching composition. Even subtle contrast can be eye-catching. I expound upon these ideas in my book, The Secret to Better Painting (North Light books).
I think it’s very important for an artist to constantly strive to do better work, but never to take it all too seriously. Any painting done with an honest effort and primarily for the joy of it has value, regardless of what anyone thinks of the results. What counts is the painter’s commitment to continue to strive for improvement without sacrificing the joy of sheer creation. Perhaps the best way to sum up my advice to painters is to practice having fun while you practice painting or drawing. The more fun you have, the more you’ll want to paint and draw, the more you paint and draw the better you’ll get and the more fun you’ll have. And that’s the joy of painting!
Greg Albert has taught drawing and painting at the Art Academy of Cincinnati for more than 20 years. He’s the author of Drawing: You Can Do It (1992) andThe Simple Secret to Better Painting (2003), both from North Light Books. He’s currently working on a book on figure drawing.