Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Self-criticism is a skill every artist needs to develop. The ability to look at your work dispassionately and see clearly its strengths and weaknesses is a tool that serves the artist as much as her easel or palette. The goal is to be honest without being overly brutal -- or too lenient.

It’s difficult to determine why it’s easier to dislike certain parts of a painting than it is to find those we value. However, most of us can go more quickly and easily to the things we don’t like about a piece. We need to develop a means by which we can evaluate the painting, something we can rely upon to help us find problems and see where we need to enhance our skills.


Each painting should have an objective, some target you’re aiming at in this single piece. Setting goals helps you know where you’re headed and how close you came to hitting the mark. Your goal might be broad, such as painting realistically or capturing the quality of an object or mood of a place. Or it could be as specific as having put the detail in all the right places or utilized heightened contrast in value. You might be attempting to paint new subject matter, say landscapes, or trying out a new kind of paper or other materials. You might be attempting to use more brilliant color or broken color, or perhaps you need to concentrate on painting foregrounds or perfecting trees. Whatever the issue, first ask yourself where you were heading and where you ended up.

You must try more than one painting to achieve any goal. Challenges take work and time. If after your first attempt you’re not satisfied, look carefully for those things that worked and why they worked, then paint another one that aims at the same purpose. Most of us are not likely to succeed on the first try -- and even when we do, that probably will not give us the skill to be able to do it again. So don’t give up. Dare to keep on trying.

Hold onto your first attempts at something new in order to be able to compare later on. Consider this “research and development” a good way to approach something new. You can more clearly evaluate your progress when you have a basis for comparison. So slide the first attempt or two under the bed or into the back of the portfolio and pull them out later on so that you can see how far you have come.


Be willing to learn things you don’t know. This is a lot like walking to the edge of a cliff in the fog, not knowing how far you might fall. Until you’re willing to risk failure, trying something that you’ve never done before or something that you have had no success with in the past, you can never learn it. Many times we stand at the edge of the thing we don’t know and imagine it to be a cliff when it’s only a curb. The failure can be relatively painless in the face of what we can learn from going there. After all, how much do we learn from success and how much from failure? A baby learning to walk falls down quite a lot, but once he finds his balance he uses the skill for a lifetime. We will assuredly use the skills we develop, but we learn the most when are in the fumbling, falling-down stage.


Once you think your new painting is fairly complete, spend some time looking at it, reviewing the goals you set. This time should be spent only looking, not making changes. Let your eye come to see the strengths of the painting over a period of time. This might mean that instead of setting it on the easel to review, where you could be tempted to grab a pastel to correct it too soon, you should instead set it somewhere away from the studio. Spend time with the piece, walking past it at different times of the day, in different lighting situations. Live with it a while until you have some sense of the good things you see there, as well as the things you know need changing.

When you see what needs to be changed, think about the solutions you might use. Too often in our haste to rid the painting of the offending portion we snatch a color and cover it up or wipe out that part altogether without taking the time to think. Stop and consider at least two or three possible ways to correct the problem. If color is the difficulty, what additional colors layered over might cure it or what color might replace the existing one? If it is a compositional problem, how might you rearrange the elements? Whatever the trouble, taking the time to think of several ways to treat it will help increase the knowledge and skills you must have as an artist.

When you’ve arrived at a decision about the changes to make, try the first way. If that seems not to correct the issue, try the next solution. Rational, well thought-out decisions are the instruments by which we learn.


Never become so devoted to any one part of a painting that you’re unwilling to sacrifice it to the betterment of the entire work. These little icons of success can often be the obstacles that hold us back from progressing. No matter how successfully painted, if the sheen of light on the river is too light in value, distracting the eye from the center of interest, you must take it out. No matter how beautifully rendered the lacy edge of the foliage, if the sky shining from behind is too dark, it must be replaced. Too often we esteem the one part that succeeds and forget to reach toward the success of the whole.

Most of us tend to be somewhat enamored of those paintings that make it past the first few revisions. We’ve put considerable time into the painting and may find irresistible what has been achieved. Now we should wait until we have fallen out of love with the piece before continuing to evaluate it. This might be a good time to put the painting away for a long enough time that you forget that first blush of pleasure. When you can look at it more dispassionately, in a manner that’s detached enough to admit the flaws alongside the strong points, bring it out for a final evaluation.


Now is the time the painting should be subjected to the opinions or advice of the critic you select. Learning self-criticism does not mean you never ask another person to criticize your work. In fact, having a critic you trust is important. You can learn a lot about how and what to criticize by working with a good critic.

Find someone who can consistently help you grow and has your best interests at heart to help you evaluate your work. Whether this is an artist friend or a professional teacher you pay to critique a small body of work, do not neglect this aspect of learning and evaluation. You have to seek criticism in order to grow.

Do not ask for an opinion about a painting or body of work until you are ready to hear and use the advice. Nothing is gained by asking for guidance you intend to refute. To defeat this, be sure you know what you value in the piece and what parts you want help changing. Instead of approaching the critic with a helpless “I just don’t know what to do” attitude, it might be more helpful if you point out those things that please you and are working, as well as those you feel need improvement.

The opinion of an untrained critic can be valuable as well. If a neighbor steps into your studio, ask what she thinks of some aspect of your piece. Again, this might work best if it’s specific rather than general. Asking a question about the color or composition elicits a less ambiguous reply, but be open to hearing whatever comments come. Children can be particularly candid -- and often helpful in their forthrightness if the artist is willing to be open.


Criticizing your work is a skill that must be developed alongside the painting techniques you need to succeed. Being able to evaluate what works and why, as well as what needs improvement, is an ability you can develop with practice.

Set goals and remain open to possibilities. Be willing to take risks and look for the things you need to learn or improve. Take the time you need to see your strengths and weaknesses, to decide rationally on a course of action and pursue it or try varying solutions. Find a critic you trust and listen to the advice you receive.

As an artist, you have a lifetime of challenges and new growth ahead. Do not neglect the art of self-critique.

How to Criticize Your Own Painting

Before you change anything...

As you look at a new painting consider many possibilities before changing anything. Analyze these and consciously decide on changes before doing anything. Then ask the following three questions:

1. Where are the places of harmony and movement? What has succeeded? Which part is most pleasing to you and why? Are there places that you especially like?

2. Where are the places that jump out? What causes this? Think of two or three ways to correct the problem.

You may stop here and make the needed changes if you feel you have enough ideas and information to go on. If not, try step three, but be sure you know what you like and don’t like before asking anyone else.

3. Show the painting to a critic. This should be someone you trust to tell you the truth, trained or untrained, or can be someone off the street whose opinion you know nothing about. The idea is to get a fresh viewpoint, not to determine the majority opinion. Ask people to help you see problem areas before you make changes, then develop a plan and learn from what you try. This is a way to aid in the development of your own opinion.

Do not stand in front of a painting and “try things.” This rarely results in improvement. Instead, make brief note of the possible changes in each piece and consider what will happen if you try them. Willy-nilly changes sometimes work, but often you can’t sort out why.

Take the time to ask questions about the painting, then move around and try different ways of looking at it before you pick up a pastel.

When you’re ready, make the needed adjustments.

Questions to ASK about the painting

What was my goal in this painting? What is it about the place or the photograph that made me want to paint it?

Was there a feeling or mood I wanted to express here? Did I succeed?

What is my center of interest or focal point?

Have I used detail in the appropriate places to enhance the focal point, or is the painting overly detailed and boring?

Are there a pleasing variety of textures and lines? Do they enhance the focal point or overwhelm it?

Is there a good range of light to dark values? Do they form an interesting abstract pattern?

Where is the area of highest contrast? Where do the darkest dark and the lightest light come closest together? Is this enhancing the area of greatest interest?

Are the four landscape values presented accurately? Is the sky light, the ground medium-light, the mountains medium dark and the trees dark? If not, why not?

What palette of colors have I used? Are the colors in this painting generally bright, muted, dark or light? Is it mostly warm or cool? Would some variation improve it?

Did I begin with a strong underlying abstraction of shapes? Did I retain them throughout the painting? How might I improve this in the future?

Is the shape and size of the paper best suited to this composition? Would this painting be stronger if I changed the format?

What movement occurs in the painting? Is it interesting? Is it organized and complete? How could I vary the shapes to improve the movement?

Are the negative shapes in this piece interesting?

Are there a compositional X that traps the eye or a V that points the eye off the page?

Do I have a visual treat at the apex of any visual path such as a road or stream? Does it move the eye or stop it?

Is the linear perspective correct?

Is the aerial perspective correct -- lighter, bluer, less detail, less contrast, softer edges? Is there a sense of “air” no matter how shallow the depth?

Are there little objects sitting on the windowsill of the painting?

Are there any places where the painting is unresolved and mysterious?

Are there places where color jumps out or there are needlessly interesting details?

Are there any haloes?

Are there any wallpaper patterns?

Is there any object cut in half or less? If so, why?

Are there any unintended repetitive shapes?

Different ways to LOOK at the painting

Squint your eyes to lose detail. Is the underlying design of shapes and values strong?

Use a red filter to look at your painting, your photo or at the world so that you can see values. Remember that any reds will turn white or very light in value.

Stand back far enough that your painting looks no larger than a postage stamp, even if you have trouble seeing that far. Take ten steps closer. What has changed? Take ten steps closer. What has changed? Repeat. Notice how distance changes your perceptions. At what distance is the painting strongest and why?

Trace the movement by closing your eyes for a minute, then tracking where your eye begins and ends in your painting. Try this several times until your eye moves easily around the composition. Name the kind of movement: horizontal, vertical, circular, etc.

Look at the painting using only your peripheral vision. Stare at a point to the side of it.

Turn your painting upside down and sideways. Look for the abstract elements of color and design.

Look at your painting in a mirror or use a reducing glass or binoculars turned backward. Look for the abstract shapes.

Put a mat around the painting or use wide masking tape to make a mat to cover any vivid color on the edge of your painting.

Crop parts of the painting to see if it improves.

Put your painting in direct sunlight. What happens to the colors?

Put your painting under artificial light at night and use a dimmer switch to see how the light levels change it.


Have more than one painting to work on at any time. Give your mind room to wander from subject to subject as your mood changes.

Find your strengths and don’t try to do someone else’s work. Emulate techniques. Develop your own style.

Let go of failure and look to the future.

Relax. Have fun. Learn. Grow. Experiment.


  1. This is fantastic! Thank you for the checklist. Most of what's on it is familiar to me, but having it organized like that will help me a lot when evaluating finished paintings.

    Your advice to save your botches is one of the most important things in this chapter. When it feels like I'm not getting anywhere and have been spinning my wheels just doing the same old thing, looking back at how much I've grown breaks that frustration. A lot of the things on the list are no longer conscious while I paint - but they're there, I'm aware of them by habit.

    "If not, why?" is an important question to ask about any of the points on the list. Sometimes a technical mistake can be what makes the painting work. There's always more than one solution - if the sheen on the river's gorgeous and the center of interest dull, there's always softening the former center of interest and turning the river sparkle into the new COE.

    If I'm critiquing others I tend to ask "Did you mean to ..." because sometimes people deliberately use altered perspective or other "mistakes" to get an effect.

    This is a fantastic book. Thank you for sharing it with all of us.

  2. Thanks, Robert.

    I think one of the biggest revelations I ever had about critiquing my own work was when I sorted out the differences between ASKING myself questions and LOOKING at the painting in different ways, and how important is was to LOOK at the work before DOING anything to it... Huge big differences, but so basic as to be almost incomprehensible to me. When that marble dropped I had this revelation: walk away from the painting and evaluate it without touching it! (OH duh.)

    The other biggie for me was when I finally took time away from galleries and shows and built up a body of work, which gave me time to evaluate every single piece before framing and showing it. Now nothing goes out the door until it's had simmering time...and very often that can be a year or much more! That has given me great peace of mind.

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  4. My little paintings are far from being ready for galleries or shows, but I do understand that it's important to just walk away from them sometimes. I put mine up on the mantel and look at them between the news and a couple other shows we watch at the house. My husband will offer his opinions, but it usually something like.... "I like the boat.... but where are the birds? Aren't they all supposed to have birds in them?" He has a wonderful sense of humor and his "critiques" keep me from taking my efforts/sometimes outright failures too seriously. I'm learning. I'll get there. Deborah, with your help, I've certainly come much further in understanding. Thanks!


Thanks for your comment on Painting the Landscape in Pastels ~Deborah