Monday Morning Art School: using design elements in painting

The artist’s job is to invite the viewer into his world. That doesn’t happen by accident.

I and the Village, 1911, Marc Chagall, courtesy MOMA. In this painting, line is a dominant design element, articulating the relationship between man, beast and place. However, proportion (relative size of the objects) is playing a part as well.

Line

In math, a line is straight, has no thickness and extends in both directions through space. Sometimes that’s what we mean by a line in art—for example, a horizon line.

More typically in art, a line is just a path through space. Wherever you have an edge, you also have a line. However, lines also refer to mark-making, so in that sense they can be fat, thin, punctuated, tapering, diffident, bold or whispering.

Diagonals and curves seem to keep us more engaged than unbroken verticals, as they’re more difficult for the eye to ‘solve.’

Interior of the Laurenskerk in Rotterdam, 1664-66, Cornelis de Man, courtesy Mauritshuis. The illusion of three-dimensional form is created with perspective and value.

Shape and form

Shape and form define objects in space. Shapes have two dimensions–height and width–and are bounded by lines. Forms are three-dimensional. The artist’s dilemma is to give the illusion of three-dimensional form in a two-dimensional painting.

Ploughing in the Nivernais, 1849, Rosa Bonheur, courtesy Musée d’Orsay. The vast sky and field create as much narrative as do the team of oxen.

Space

Space in the real world is three-dimensional. In art, the term refers to a sense of depth, or the artist’s use of the area within the picture plane. The illusion of three-dimensional space is created with perspective drawing, atmospherics, relative proportion (size), positioning, and defining volume through modeling.

Sometimes we refer to negative and positive space, which means the division between the primary object(s) and what we perceive as the background. Positive and negative space were a very big deal in much twentieth-century design, which often used the vast emptiness of the page as a counterweight to the primary object.

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter, 1601, Caravaggio, courtesy Cerasi Chapel. Chiaroscuro relies primarily on value to drive the eye.

Color

Color has three essential characteristics:

Hue—where it falls on the color wheel (red, blue, etc.),

Chroma—how brilliant or dull it is,

Value—how light or dark it is.

Color is also described as ‘warm’ or ‘cool,’ but these are useful artistic conventions and not measurable as fact.

Historically, value did much of the heavy lifting in painting. The Impressionists began using hue and chroma to define volume, and that is essentially how most alla prima painters work today.

Portrait of the Baronness James de Rothschild, 1848, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, private collection. We see satin, lace, tulle, feathers and jewels primarily due to Ingres’ exquisite control of reflected light.

Texture

Texture refers to the surface quality of an object. Paintings have implied texture, conveyed by color, line and brushwork. They also have real texture in the form of smooth or impasto surfaces.

Ejiri in Suruga Province, 1830, Katsushika Hokusai, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art. Great winds have blown away the clouds on Mount Fuji, and they’re also blowing the travelers and their packs around. This movement is echoed and amplified by the brushstrokes.

Movement

Movement can be either suggested or depicted—as in the wind in the painting above—or implied by brushwork. Most paintings have a major thrust of energy, which I call its motive line.

Your assignment is to take one of your own paintings and subject it to formal analysis. Consider each of these elements of design in turn. How are you using them? How could you use them better?

It’s too soon to wipe that painting out!

We’re our own worst critics. A little time and you might realize that painting has flashes of brilliance.

Adirondack Spring, 11×14 in a cherry frame, will be available through a fundraiser for the Gerhardt Neighborhood Outreach Center on October 17. This is a mission that provides medical care, job training, after school care and more to the residents of North Rochester, and one I’m delighted to support. If you’re interested in my work and in supporting a great city mission, contact Annie Canon.
As I set down my brush after a long painting session, I have one of two reactions. It’s either, “meh,” or “that’s pretty bad.” All I can see at that moment are the ways in which the painting has fallen short of my inner vision. I don’t see the things that are going right, like audacious composition, new ideas, or bravura brushwork.
I’ve been at this long enough to ignore that reaction. I no longer question whether the work is good or bad. I just ask myself if it’s finished.
Yesterday, Ken DeWaardspoke to the Knox County Art Society (KCAS). He said that he takes plein airwork back to his studio and leans it face-in against the wall for a few days. Only after the struggle has faded from memory does he turn it back around. Then he can dispassionately analyze what it needs.
Fog Bank, by Carol L. Douglas.
The worst self-doubt happens when you’re in a plein airevent and your work is overlooked by buyers and judges. It’s very easy to think you’re painting terribly. This happened to me this year with Fog Bank. I was unimpressed with it, since it’s largely atmosphere and no composition. Three months later, I like the painting more than anything else I did at that event. My goal was to show the movement of a North Atlantic fog, and I think it worked. That nobody else was thrilled by it is immaterial.
I had a similar reaction to another painting in 2017, They wrest their living from the sea. At the time, I thought the whole thing was too fussy and overworked. But set against my intention, the painting is a success. I wanted to contrast the tiny houses of Advocate Harbour with the vast landscape in which its people fish and farm. There are times when skies arefussy and detailed. Sometimes we have to square up to that and paint them realistically, instead of stylizing.
They wrest their living from the sea, by Carol L. Douglas
My old friend Marilyn often wiped out paintings she didn’t like. “Another board saved!” she would say. I don’t do that. Even failed paintings tell me something about my process.
Sometimes a painting is uncomfortable to look at because it’s pointing the way forward. It can seem like an awkward outlier when you do it. Five years later, you realize it was a bellwether and the best thing you painted that year. You’ll blunt your development if you wipe out everything that makes you uncomfortable.
In students, this discomfort with change can result in paralysis. They fuss and get nothing done in class. If that’s you, try falling back on strict exercises that force you to stop thinking in terms of results and start thinking in terms of process. (I’ll get into these on Friday.)
Grand Bahama Palms, by Carol L. Douglas
The last painting in this post is one I did on Grand Bahama in 2017. There is never any guarantee that a moment of beauty will be there when you return. This young palm is in one of the hardest-hit parts of the island, and I imagine it was drowned and broken. If the painting survived, I hope it reminds the owners of the former glory of their patch of land, and is a promise that beauty will return soon.

Finishing a stubborn painting

Asking a respected peer for an opinion is good, but sometimes we’re stuck fixing our problems without help. That’s where knowing how to self-critique comes in.
Tom Sawyer’s Fence, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard.
Yesterday I got a text message from a peer that read, “Working on a commission and can’t figure out how to finish it.” She went on to add, “That last 20% of the painting is always the hardest part for me. I can tell something is wrong but finding it and fixing it is the challenge.”
From my perspective, it was easy enough to see that the background needed to be toned down so that the focus could ring. That’s because I wasn’t wrapped up in its creation.
Downdraft Snow by Carol L. Douglas is on exhibition at the Joseph A. Fiore Art Center this summer.
I had a similar experience at Castine. I couldn’t get the contrast to work between the water and a roofline. Kari Ganoung Ruiz suggested I add a shingle edge. That single brushstroke changed everything. Similarly, Kirk McBrideasked for an opinion from his wife, who’s also an artist. Her suggestion made his painting more coherent.
Painting, however, isn’t always a game of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Sometimes, we’re stuck answering the question without a Lifeline. One of the best ways to do this is to subject your own work to formal analysis.
That means you ask yourself how each of the five basic elements of painting design are working. That doesn’t mean you have to write a dissertation. It means you consider your painting in terms of each of these design elements. Are you using line, shape, space, color and texture to guide the viewer through the space you’ve created? Have you emphasized important passages and subordinated others? Is there repetition, pattern and rhythm in the piece?
Marshall Point Rock Study, by Carol L. Douglas
A painting that doesn’t work almost always fails in several of these areas. You are as qualified as anyone to analyze your paintings based on these objective standards. There’s a great advantage in learning to do this: you will never be led astray be a stupid critique again, and you can help yourself fix what’s wrong.
I like to consider my own paintings first on the questions of motive, line, and value. I’m looking for a strong impulse—created by dark shapes—that pulls the viewer through the painting. I’m not relying on chance to create a focal point; I want to drive the viewer there at warp speed.
Good group critiques teach us to look at our own work dispassionately and objectively, rather than possessively and emotionally. For those of us who’ve experienced the nasty criticism of art classes, it can take a lot to unbend from the defensive posture. That’s why I practice positive critiquing.
Ottawa House, by Carol L. Douglas
Positive reaction, done right, is harder than negative criticism. You need to catch a person doing something right before you can comment. That means constant vigilance and a rock-solid understanding of process. It requires being able to differentiate between idiosyncrasy, style, and the real technical issues that can cause a painting to fail. Above all, it requires confidence. Nobody is supportive from a position of weakness.
I demonstrated this technique to my friends in the Knox County Art Societythis week and realized I’ve never blogged about how to do it. Look for it.
Meanwhile, I have two new opportunities for you: a Tuesday class from my Rockport studio, starting on August 20, and a second watercolor workshop aboard American Eagle, September 25-29. I’d love to see you there!

The pernicious practice of ‘feedback’

Ditch it, says a business consultant. We artists could learn something from him.
Blizzard, by Carol L. Douglas. We all want to be outside, so my students painted out the windows yesterday. I’ve done that a few times myself!

One of my students just came back from wintering in Australia. We’ve been practicing formal analysis in her absence. That means we consider a painting on the basis of its formal structure. This isn’t a like-vs-dislike process, but rather an objective one, talking about how the painter uses various techniques to advance his goals.

The protocol for criticism in my studio has always been the sandwich rule. We begin by pointing out something the person did well. We then discuss what might have been handled differently. We finish by pointing out something else that the person did well, so that each session ends on a positive note.
Snow squall, by Carol L. Douglas
This method has been mocked as “fluffy bun—meat—fluffy bun,” but that misses the point. Most people are all too aware of their failures and not aware of their strengths. Catch them doing something right and they’re likely to repeat it.
Since I hadn’t given my wanderer adequate instruction, she was lost. It didn’t help that the painting we were analyzing (by another student) was a stunner. It was all too easy to gush.
There’s nothing wrong with that, and we’ll continue to use the sandwich rule for our critique sessions. My goal in practicing academic criticism with them was different. I wanted to them to start seeing how form, shape, repetition and rhythm work together in painting. But I also wanted to take the judgment out of looking at art.
Tree line, by Carol L. Douglas
The Feedback Fallacy—an article that’s about to be released as a book—takes aim at the pernicious practice of feedback. Marcus Buckinghamwrites for a business audience, but what he has to say is applicable to the arts, in schools, and in families. He says our culture of criticism as based on three lies: 

  • The best way to help you is to show you something you’re too blind to see for yourself;
  • Learning is like filling an empty vessel—you lack abilities and it’s up to someone else to teach you;
  • Great performance is universal and measurable. Once defined, it can be transferred from one person to another, regardless of the recipient’s strengths and weaknesses. 

Focusing on an imaginary standard of greatness—and how we fall short—doesn’t enable learning. In fact, it shuts it right down. Learning happens when we see how we might do something better, not when our errors are pointed out to us. I can tell a student a hundred times to not dab, but it isn’t until I pick up his brush and show him how to make a proper mark that he will understand what “not dabbing” means. And it won’t be until he has made great marks—uniquely, idiosyncratically his own, with power and confidence—that he will have mastered mark-making.
My backyard, by Carol L. Douglas

Positive reaction, done right, is harder than negative criticism. You need to catch a person doing something right before you can comment. That means constant vigilance and a rock-solid understanding of process. It requires being able to differentiate between idiosyncrasy, style, and the real technical issues that can cause a painting to fail. Above all, it requires confidence. Nobody is supportive from a position of weakness.
We live in a corrosive culture, and it affects all our interactions. But one thing we can do is ditch the unnecessary feedback in the studio. If you’re ever wondering whether a ‘bit of advice’ to another painter is a good idea, just don’t.
Note: my next eight-week session in Rockport starts March 12. I think I’m full up, but if you want to be wait-listed, email me. Details on my classes are here.

Monday Morning Art School: saving a so-so painting

You like it, but there’s something just not exactly right. Or you’re not sure you like it at all.

Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, 1879, Edgar Degas National Gallery, London. How does pattern and repetition hold this painting together?
Last week I went through a collection of paintings belonging to another artist. “Pull out the ones that I should burn,” she said. There were almost none in that category. In fact, most of them were quite lovely.
Of the ones that weren’t, most were promising starts that either fizzled or were never finished. “You can fix this very easily,” I kept saying. Of about 75 small paintings she brought, only a very few were consigned to the burn pile. Most of them needed a simple fix: a passage lightened, an edge softened, or a focal point developed. All she needed was to have those pointed out.
The next day, my student Dave went through my slush pile during a break. It’s huge; it has hundreds of paintings in it. “I love this,” he kept saying. “Why don’t you like this?”
Crucifixion of St. Peter, 1600, Caravaggio, Cerasi Chapel, Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome. In chiaroscuro, value creates volume. How did Caravaggio drive us back through space in this painting?
I don’t not like them, I told him; I just don’t feel like selling them. I almost never wipe out work that’s not finished or not what I’d envisioned. They go on shelves in my studio. Occasionally, I will sell these paintings for rock-bottom prices, but mostly they’re there for my edification. Occasionally, I’ll notice something I really like and pull it out and study it, both for what’s working and what isn’t working.
Everyone has problem paintings. Often, I discover a year or two later that what I thought was a problem was actually a roadmap. It was a precursor to where I was headed as a painter. In some cases, all these paintings need is varnish to bring up the color and they sing. Or, they may need revision.
Michael tramples Satan, 1636, Guido Reni, Santa Maria della Concezione church, Rome. How does line drive you through this painting?
Last week, I wrote about the five basic elements of painting design. The best way to rescue a so-so painting is to subject it to formal analysis. That doesn’t mean you have to write a dissertation about it. It means you consider your painting in terms of each of these design elements. Are you using line, shape, space, color and texture to guide the viewer through the space you’ve created? Have you emphasized important passages and subordinated others? Is there repetition, pattern and rhythm in the piece?
A painting that doesn’t work almost always fails in several of these areas. You are as qualified as anyone to analyze your paintings based on these objective standards. There’s a great advantage in learning to do this: you will never be led astray be a stupid critique again. (I once ruined a wonderful painting by following bad advice, made worse because I’d paid for it.)
Le Wagon de troisième classe (The third-class carriage), 1864, Honoré Daumier, Metropolitan Museum of Art. This has nothing to do with the subject of this post; it’s just how I feel when flying.
We recently did this exercise in my Rockport painting class. In my experience, amateurs fixate on mark-making to the exclusion of far more important qualities in painting. They’re so worried about their handwriting that they fail to see the bigger picture. My students walked away from this exercise with the objective knowledge that they were doing better than they thought. I think you will, too.
I would have illustrated this with some of my flubs, but I’m traveling today without access to my server. I’m off to Pecos, NM, to paint snow.

The corrosive power of chance remarks

Words have the power to inflict or bind wounds. May we choose ours carefully.
Posted, by Carol L. Douglas. Watercolor on Yupo paper. I never did figure out a color for those water-lilies.

I was checking into an event when the canvas-stamping person said, “Oh, you paint on a red ground? I’ll have to check your work out. A lot of people do that near where I live, and I hate it.”

I have no idea what—or even if—she was thinking when she said that. But it has subtly affected me ever since. I’m finding myself less likely to leave the ground showing, more likely to lard the paint on. Neither is good technique.
I’m a confident painter. Imagine if I was less experienced, or less secure. It might have completely shaken a painter at the start of a competitive event. It’s a perfect example of how not to offer criticism.
Private Island, oil on canvas. This was interrupted by headache last week.
Compare that to my dear friend Mary Byrom, who doesn’t like that red ground either. Mary is a crackerjack painter herself. I know she has good technical reasons for her opinion. She is also a loyal, kind, supportive friend. I know her intentions are good. I can listen to her opinion and weigh it fairly, without being defensive. She’s earned the right to critique my painting.  
I’ve spent the month looking at and absorbing Joseph Fiore’s paintings, and I plan to start tinkering with some of his technical approaches, particularly his surfaces and scribing. He clearly—and successfully—paints on white canvases. He leaves areas white, scrubs the paint back, and lets the ground show through.
After checking every day this week, I decided I had to paint the reflections from my sketch, because there’s a constant breeze on Damariscotta Lake right now.
Toning, for those of you who aren’t painters, means painting the white gesso a color before you start the painting proper. I was taught to always tone my canvases, and it’s something I also teach my students. Of course, the way I learned was to lightly tone with an earth tone in sepia, yellow ochre or grey. The brilliant red was a later addition.
Toning is as old as painting itself, but its rationale is explained through the 19th century concept of simultaneous contrast. This is a fancy way of saying that a color looks lighter against black, darker against white. To see it accurately, you need to see it against something that’s a neutral value.
Toning:
  • Establishes the mid-tone values from the start;
  • Unifies the color of the composition;
  • Sets an emotional tone for the painting;
  • Stops any specks that peek through from competing with your highlights;
  • Gives you a more accurate sense of the value and size of your darks when you first set them down.
In the field, it also stops you from being blinded by brilliant white.
Working Dock is the painting I showed you yesterday, properly photographed this time. (I finished it at dusk.)
From observation, I’d say the majority of my plein air peers start on toned boards. It is something I’ll continue to recommend to my students. But should I keep doing it? That I can’t answer until I experiment on a white canvas. And that will wait until this workshop is over, because I only brought toned canvases with me.
While I’d like to say I’m thinking through this as a response to the Fiore paintings, there’s a small niggling part of me that’s still reacting to that woman’s comment. It’s a reminder that words have the power to inflict or bind wounds. Good advice is invaluable, in painting and in life. But may we all be as kind as Mary Byrom when we offer our opinions.

Monday Morning Art School: How to critique work on the internet (and elsewhere)

Stop looking for something brilliant to say; it’s not about you.
Ogunquit, by Carol L. Douglas

My friend likes to make “medieval” artwork through her persona in the Society of Creative Anachronism. If any activity ought to be about pure fun, this is it, but she recently told me about a terribly harsh criticism she received on Facebook. She hadn’t asked for advice, but she got it anyway. The message she heard wasn’t about something she could do better. It was that this so-called expert was a cruel jerk.

In general, this is my rule for critiques over the internet: don’t. Comments are irrevocable once they’re out there in cyberspace. Your tone can’t modify or soften your words. You can’t really see the work, and while a thumbnail may tell you a lot about composition, it is silent about paint handling, mark-making, and scribing.
Historic Fort Point, by Carol L. Douglas
When I am asked for a comment, I talk about what I admire, reserving more thoughtful critiques for my classes and workshops. However, someone will occasionally press and want more specific criticism. At that point, I take the conversation to private messaging or email. It’s too easy for public internet conversations to devolve into a cruel pile-on.
We use the “sandwich rule” in our class. We begin by pointing out something the person did well. We then discuss what might have been handled differently. We finish by pointing out something else that the person did well, so that each session ends on a positive note.
Lunch break, Castine, by Carol L. Douglas
This method has been mocked as “fluffy bun—meat—fluffy bun,” but that misses the point. Most people are all too aware of their failures and not aware of their strengths. Their own self-doubt gets in the way of seeing what is successful in their painting. That needs articulation as much as the negatives do.
St. Paul was one of the most influential people of antiquity. Philippians 4:10-20 reveals a teacher who is affirming, content, flexible and confident. He exhorts, he talks freely of his own challenges, and he’s optimistic. That’s a great model on which to base teaching and criticism.
People are capable of wonderful things, but our society routinely discourages us from daring to be great. When someone disregards all the voices telling them they can’t do something, and they challenge themselves with hard work and dedication, they ought to be encouraged.
Kaaterskill Falls, by Carol L. Douglas
I’m up at Schoodic Institute teaching my Sea & Sky workshop. On Thursday evening, we’ll have a critique session. This isn’t about learning what’s wrong with our paintings. It’s also about learning to read artwork and learning to write artwork that is readable. To this end, we’ll ask some general questions, such as:
  • “What do you notice first? Second?”
  • “Why did you see those things in that order?”
  • “Does this evoke a feeling or response in you?”
  • “What is the point of this work?”

Frankly, there’s enough negativity in this world. If we err, let us err on the side of kindness.

The excruciating pain of choosing

What paintings make the final cut? How about choosing by committee?
El camino hacia el pueblo, by Carol L. Douglas

Keith Linwood Stover once asked me why artists seek criticism in the first place. “We’re not the best judges of our own work,” I told him. (This is why gallerists and curators are such important players in the art process.) That’s especially true when you’ve just painted for a week in an alien environment. Whatever judgment you have goes to pieces.

I’m not alone in finding this difficult. Last night I sat around the table at Jane Chapin’s house with a group of artists, debating what we’ll submit. Richard Abraham and I are in the same position: our strongest works are in a sense, redundant. They’re each of the same subject. This makes us both a little nervous.
Dry wash, by Carol L. Douglas
I looked at his three top contenders and gave an opinion; he looked at my three and gave an opinion, and it was unsettling, because he counted back in a painting (Dry Wash) that I’d already eliminated. Men and women approach paintings differently, and understanding how the male mind works might be helpful in jurying.
My opinion is that any of Richard’s three contenders will win him a prize. His options are all good. That makes me wonder if I’m dithering over equally inconsequential differences. Still, the choice of submissions is the most difficult job of the week, and it behooves us to take it seriously.
La casa de los abuelitos, by Carol L. Douglas
A painting should be—as the old saw goes—compelling at 300 feet, 30 feet, and three feet.  The first question, then, is what will draw someone from the other side of the room. To answer that definitively, I’d have to be inside the head of the juror (Stephen Day) and I’m not. Looking at his work only tells me so much. I can’t know what his goals are, how his day is going, or any of the other myriad thoughts that go into his decision.
Hoodoos in training, by Carol L. Douglas
Why do I distrust my judgment? I’m always most intrigued by the paintings that are terrifically difficult to master. That’s why I love Jonathan Submarining, from Castine 2016. The viewer may just see a Castine Class sailing school bobbing around on the waves, but I see a tough painting done knee deep in the surf and executed well.
This is true too with Dry Wash. The only reason I might change my mind at the last minute is that the dappled light and rocks are well-executed. But the other two better meet the 300-feet challenge.
Castigando del caballo muerto, by Carol L. Douglas
That puts me in a quandary. I’ve written before about who I trust to critique my work. I messaged images to two people yesterday: my husband and Bobbi Heath. Their opinion was consistent (and it matched, for the record, Jane Chapin’s).
But in the end the decision rests with me, and it’s no fun.

How dare you speak to me like that?

Criticism is tough to take. Sometimes, that’s because the criticism itself is lousy.

The Raising of Lazarus, by Carol L. Douglas. Really, was it so bad?
I don’t remember the exact words of my first printed review, but they are burned in my memory as, “I can’t believe the curator included this dreck,” and “absolutely amateurish use of color.” My stalwart friend Toby, also an artist, listened to me whine and cry for about an hour. She stoutly agreed that the critic was an ass. That’s a pal.
It was a national show, but the critic and I knew each other slightly and had mutual friends. Knowing me didn’t make him more kindly-disposed. That’s a good lesson in general, by the way: never assume that connections will carry you in the art world. They are just as often a handicap.
I’ve critiqued a lot of paintings myself since then. The older I get, the more I understand that there are few absolutes in art. It’s always childish and supercilious to rip on another artist. There’s almost always something that you can learn from another’s work if you take the time to try to understand his processes or point of view.
Well, heck, you may as well see the whole series. This is Submission. Later, it would be in a show closed for obscenity.
That was an unsolicited review. What is far more common is criticism that we ask for.
The worst mistake we can make is to ask for an opinion when we really want a pat on the back. We sometimes hear home truths we aren’t prepared for. Always ask yourself why you’re asking that particular person for a critique. If it’s because you crave his or her approval, quietly move on.
Even if you are genuinely interested in an objective opinion, what do you intend to do with the information? I, like everyone else, am plagued by self-doubts. I tend to immediately grab on to a criticism and act on it, without thinking it through.

I once paid another artist to critique a large work that had me flummoxed. “It kind of reminds me of an immature Chagall,” she said. She felt I needed to loosen up, abstract more, and conceptualize less. I went home and wrecked the painting entirely. I’ve carried it around for twenty years now as a bitter reminder. Under all that schmaltz lies a beautiful idea that died from an overdose of opinion.

A third painting from the same series. I can’t even remember what it was called, but I have certainly gotten less political in my old age.
Sometimes it’s easy to see what your critic means: darken that sail, raise that cloud cover. But sometimes, he or she is making a subtle but very real point that will take you months and years and many more paintings to understand.
Very few people have earned the right to critique my work. They earned it by being trustworthy, not having an ax to grind, and understanding my goals and motivations. I can count those people on one hand. Ours are relationships of long standing. I trust that they understand my goals in painting, even when those goals are radically different from theirs.
Scrotum man, also from the same series.
“When you ask another painter—unless they’re an experienced painting teacher—they’ll often just tell you how they would have painted it,” Bobbi Heath said. Listen for this and guard against it. The questions the critic should be addressing are broad ones of value, composition and technique.
Even with an experienced teacher, an opinion may still be flat-out wrong. Poppy Balser once asked me what paintings she should submit for an award. I’m glad she ignored me, because the one I didn’t choose won Best Watercolor. The jurors were focusing on different things. In retrospect, I saw their point.
By the time you read this, I’ll be flying to Minneapolis for a weekend of dancing on crutches. Meanwhile, it’s about time for you to consider your summer workshop plans. Join me on the American Eagle, at Acadia National Park, at Rye Art Center, or at Genesee Valley this summer. I plan to be able to walk by then. Really.

How to critique work (and still have friends)

Imagine if we visited the Sistine Chapel looking for things to criticize instead of enjoying it for what it is.

Kaaterskill Falls, by Carol L. Douglas

Anyone who has ever taught teenagers knows they are simultaneously hypercritical and thin-skinned. They must be taught to be constructive and humble. A few years ago, there was a flash-in-the-pan video of an art student destroying her own work during a critique. She was mocked for being oversensitive, but listen to the girl criticizing the work. She is larding her critique with personal comments. That’s what happens in an unstructured critique class.

For that reason, we routinely used the “sandwich rule” in our class. We began by pointing out something the person did well. We then discussed the problems of the painting. We finished by pointing out something else that the person did well, so that each session ended on a positive note.
This method has been mocked as “fluffy bun—meat—fluffy bun,” but that misses the point. Often, people have no idea what they’re doing well. Their own self-doubt gets in the way of seeing what is successful in their painting. That needs articulation as much as the negatives do.
Camden in the fog, by Carol L. Douglas
We are taught from a young age that education is about correction, but it is as much about encouraging what is successful.
One problem with formal critique is that we sit there wondering what brilliant insight we can come up with about the work, rather than spending time absorbing it for what it is. Imagine if we approached the Sistine Chapel like that.
I once ruined a painting because of muddled criticism. It especially rankles that I’d paid a high-profile artist to deliver it. “It looks like a crude Chagall,” she said. Dismayed, I painted over the whole thing. Years later, I realized she was flat-out wrong. Criticism is, after all, just an opinion. Today, I’m confident enough to trust my own judgment, but I wasn’t at the time.
Lunch Break, by Carol L. Douglas
It’s easy to misconstrue a student’s intention. For this reason, it’s best to listen first, before offering commentary.
A critique session isn’t just about learning what’s wrong with your painting. It’s also about learning to read artwork, and learning to write artwork that is readable. To this end, I ask some general questions of the class, such as:
“What do you notice first? Second?”
“Why did you see those things in that order?”
“Does this evoke a feeling or response in you?”
“What is the point of this work?”
I am often asked to critique work over the internet. This is difficult. Our cameras and displays are not very accurate. I may not know the person in real life. Since we’re not having a personal conversation, I am guarded in my comments.
Piseco Outlet, by Carol L. Douglas
There is a very small coterie of artists I trust enough to ask for criticism via text or email. They’ve demonstrated that they’re knowledgeable and sympathetic to my painting goals.
Today, for my last class of this session, we’ll be critiquing work. Frankly, there’s enough negativity in this world. If we err, let us err on the side of kindness.