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!