Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A critique and a hug

In case you didn't know, I do some teaching. I know how hard it can be to find a good teacher, and since I was lucky enough to find someone that had the information I needed to paint the pictures I wanted to paint, I feel obliged to pass on this information to others who need it. I feel it is my duty. Traditional training in painting does more than just open one’s eyes to the visual world; it develops critical thinking. That’s pretty much how a painting gets done. It is not a mystical accident as the "modernists" would have you believe, but a thoughtful and well planned series of judgments. If you are working in an honest manner, have a conversation with nature (the visual beauty before you) and ask, "How do I make my canvas look like that? How do I paint my impression? What is beautiful about my subject, and why isn't my canvas as beautiful as the thing or scene I am painting from?" This training will allow you to judge your work objectively, separating the work from the ego. Some might say that doing fine work is an egotistical venture. How sad is that idea? It is much better to go  into the studio every day asking "How can I improve? How can I be the best that I can be? What don't I know?"

The great 19th century painter and teacher Ingres proffered this attitude as to how a painter should enter the studio every day. He felt that this was the main ingredient of artistic "genius".

Nothing gets a painter on the right track like studying for a few years under a master. This master / apprentice relationship is what most people call classical training. (please note that occasionally you will see an "artist" discuss their classical training from college where they completed some horrible copies of  a Thomas Eakins paintings under the disinterested direction of an abstract expressionist teacher. This is neither classical, nor is it training.)  True classical training not only helps the students with their own work, learning specific skills, which after much diligence produce fine painter, it has the added bonus of producing a knowledgeable teacher. The techniques used to assess your own work can be used to judge and critique the work of others.

As opposed to an untrained (in the classical sense) painter working mostly from their preconceived prejudiced eye, a trained painter can introduce a learned and practiced view. I have had graduates come to me asking for help with drawing and painting that are able to produce a piece of paper that says they have a “Masters of Fine Arts”. This means they have had at least 6 years in an institution studying the arts, or something that very distantly resembles the arts, yet they have never learned how to see and draw what is actually there. Art, for them, has been more about psychology than craft. Many university trained artists proclaim that they know how to draw, when there is absolutely no evidence of that whatsoever. Often, they can render somewhat, better than a completely untrained artist maybe, but they do not really know how to draw. I believe that one can not even begin to create "art" without first having learned the craft.

I am digressing a bit, so let me get back on track. I thought it would be helpful to demonstrate a critique of another artists work. The following painting was done by a good friend of mine that has taken a few classes with me and is very eager to learn and improve- as we all should be.
The painter will remain anonymous. I was in this painter’s studio and saw a very ambitious painting. I offered some criticism and thought it might make a nice blog post. They were kind enough to allow me to tear their work down, and then try to build something out of the rubble. So, here we go (please note, the painting was not considered finished, which is why I felt comfortable offering my thoughts- because there was still time to work on it) The following is essentially the letter I sent:

Gentle Painter,

Earlier I suggested that I would offer comments on your painting- and I have a few.

Now, have a glass of wine and relax, as I will do my best to offer some helpful tips and suggestions. Remember I am not criticizing you, but the work. The changes I am suggesting may seem major, but they are all doable and I believe they will improve the picture. I am going to do some tweaking in Photoshop to demonstrate. They are just my suggestions, so take them as you feel necessary or, write back and tell me you think I am a big doo doo head.

OK, lets begin by using the only reference I have, the photo you shot.

It is a tough problem you have set up for yourself, but the fuzziness of the photo and it’s exposure are honestly going to work to your advantage here as a reference.

The Painting                        The Photo

So, if you look at your image, what are its back stragglers (things lagging behind the rest)? What needs more than anything else to be changed?

  • The thing that hits me first is that there is no real visual focus. Everything in your painting is rendered equally; from the center to the edges etc.
  •  The values are not seen as a whole.
  • Color seen locally rather than impressionistically- as a whole. So there is a lack of color unity.
  •  Edges are too sharp and the shadows are looked into (have too much detail.) rather than looked at.
Some drawing issues that will help with the overall abstraction…


You of course want your subject to be in the center. You want your painting to be about the characters. The figures in the your painting are interesting. So, make your painting about them and nothing else.

Remember the ‘sweet spot’ is not just about where the subject is, but how it is rendered in that area. You don’t want to render equally all areas of your painting.

This can be improved in a few ways; first with value… Much of the background is seen with too much contrast. The painting is not about the Proud Rooster sign, or the random shapes in the back ground. So, I have taken the image and painted over the back ground. First, I darkened and then reduced the chroma (or saturation) of the entire back ground. At the same time, I made sure the color harmony was in balance and made sense. Looking at the photo, the background is a soft warm gray with the glow of the orange lights. The window frame forms a lovely bright blue. I painted all of those colors in broad masses.

The street lights have the look of being painted with wet paint directly over paint that had already dried. In almost every case, painting is best done wet into wet. (the only time it is not recommend is for your signature)

What you must do is to spot around the area with wet colors starting with the lights, moving to the oranges and finally to the darks around the street lights. As you get the colors laid in they will begin to blend. In this painting it looks like you are trying to use a trick to make the glow of the lights rather than match value for value.

Some drawing issues:
For demonstration purposes only, I lowered the contrast of the whole image and am drawing in red so you can see my suggested changes.

The lights in the upper left corner are much more interesting in shape and position than they are presently rendered. I will adjust and play with that as a design element.

In your painting, there were one too many windows above the male figure’s head. This was an area that pulled me away from his face anyway. I removed it (X shows spot)

The Rooster sign is too narrow, I will make it taller here. Notice how it hits the back of the rooster’s neck lower in the photo. I Pulled the Rooster sign down.

The whole left of the building seems stretched out. (red arrows show that area) I would move it over a bit and then just darken that edge or create something interesting to decorate the building in that area.

The chair is too big- notice where it meets the male figure’s back. Now, compare that to the table. All drawing should be done relationally meaning: compare "this to that".

The male figure has a bit of pumpkin head. While it may give him a cute 'Charlie Brown' look, there is too much mass to the back of his head and his hair is too far down on his forehead. Lengthen his face to make him more slender. If we were to draw a horizontal line across the canvas, notice where his brow hits his ear.

Some of the forms in the painting are too simplified. I see this lot from people that use construction drawing to rough things out.  Look at the shoulder torso line… there is a series of three humps. Also, his shoulders are somewhat wider which if rendered correctly will give him the more manly look I see in the photo. The drawing of the hand is off. Look at it as if it were a mitten, not a collection of fingers. Work from the big to the little. Can you see that the middle finger peaks above the other fingers?

For design purposes, I think his left arm should not be seen behind the right arm. To make that work I raised the front arm a bit.

Look at the shape of his neckline. It should be pointier.

Again, for design purposes, I think the plate would look better bigger and past the hand. I also prefer the actual photo arrangement of the plate over the napkin. That napkin falls over the edge and connects to the bottom of the painting creating a nice visual effect; a 'lead in' if you will. The shape of the napkin may need to be changed somewhat to make a nice effect. Another area to re-visit is the ketchup bottle. The shape is off and the shadow too strong.

Here is an abstract study adding the changes have I suggested. I did this quickly without much concern for detail but I think the painting is better for it.

I fixed some proportions. I adjusted the light: (cool lights on the windows - warm lights outside)

Because the figure is lit from inside the bar, the warm lights would give everything a warm glow. So, the blue shirt would appear warmer, or purple. I did add some blue as well to reflect the blue outside light.

I adjusted the design to connect the cloth to the bottom of the painting.

I worked on the face, which was difficult without a better photo, but I just worked the big forms. Note the difference between the front plane and the side plane of the head.

It is not pleasing for every object in a painting to be defined. That is not the way we see. To accomplish this, I would “lose” some of the edges where one object meets another when, if you squint, that delineation all but disappears. For instance, you might lose the bottom of the burger and connect it in one unit to the plate. Another place to do this would be areas of the outline of the eye glasses.

If you need help with this, set a glass up in front of a window or dark back ground. I am sure you would not see the whole rim.
I am always asked, “How do you paint glass?”
The answer is, “You don’t!”   Get it? To paint glass, one usually just looks for how it affects, value, chroma and hue slightly. After-which, one might add some highlights here and there.

In places, the wrinkles in the fabric were “over-rendered”. I simplified the shirt quite a bit, making it a more simplified image. The light in this painting deserves the hazy effect that one sees in a bar. It might be helpful to have some Degas bar scenes laid out nearby as references.

I would strengthen the silhouette and interest of the figure in the window across the street. But, keep it loose and fuzzy. Edges will pull it forward too much.

Finally, I threw some blue into the area behind the chair on the window ledge to balance the entire look of the painting a bit.

Look it over and let me know what you think. Hopefully you can see, I did not copy the photo, as much as use it to my advantage. I was not a slave to it, but there was information that came in handy.

I hope that wasn’t too painful. It is important to tell you that you are doing some good things in your painting that do not require critique plus, I really like the idea for the painting. Basically, I would say, you are working to much on the small stuff and missing the “Big”.

If you want to chat about this, please call and I will be glad to talk further. Or, if you feel it would be more appropriate to write an angry letter and throw it through one of my windows wrapped around a brick, I would prefer that you hurl your note through a window on the second floor if you don’t mind… I have to scrape, repair, and paint those windows anyway.


Patricia said...

It is always helpful to have a great artist friend that can be honest and help you grow. Pat

Judy P. said...

Hello- I found you on Stapleton's blog; very interesting critique, with much one can learn from!

Richard J. Luschek II said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard J. Luschek II said...

Yes, honesty is usually the best policy- unless someone asks "Do I look fat in this?"
Glad you found the blog Judy. Stape has the best blog on the web.
He is an inspiration to both painters and bloggers.