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The Challenge of Critiquing Your Own Work

Reflective Becky, oil, by Priscilla Treacy.
Reflective Becky, oil, by Priscilla Treacy.

One of the best things about taking an art class or taking your work to a critique is getting feedback from fresh eyes. But how do you get the fresh perspective to objectively, critically evaluate your own work in progress? How do you know when it’s ready? How do you challenge yourself to keep improving? We asked some Art League teachers to share their strategies:

Marsha StaigerMarsha Staiger (website/faculty page)
This is why I work in a series or on more than one precious painting at a time. I like the opportunity of looking at the group of works together, so that the work can show me the piece or pieces that are running “ahead of the pack.” The early out of the gate is often passed at the finish line because the others have had more layers and developed a denser history, but I extend the race and let the late-comer teach the early out. Lots of Kentucky horse racing thinking.

Ceiling as the Sky - Nick RaynoldsNick Raynolds (website)
As a representational painter, there is always the possibility of falling back on visual accuracy in order to stay objective. This can also be a danger though, in that making something look “realistic” is not, necessarily, in and of itself “art.” It seems to me that much of what it’s about is simply work. Keep working, steadily and continuously, but not monotonously. There are so many ways to upset and challenge your vision: Turn your piece upside down or look at it in a mirror; if time allows, stick it away behind a pile of other pieces, and look at it sometime later with fresh eyes; look at a lot of different work by other artists; and my favorite — sitting up with the piece in the quiet and deep solitude of 3:00 am can be very sobering.

Joyce McCarten - EquipoiseJoyce McCarten (website/faculty page)
I begin a painting with more intuition than thinking.  If I have an idea and go right to it, the painting will be tight and boring.  To begin I play around with line and shapes and use colors that are not what I want. I try not to have an idea, although there is always something there that is motivating me.  I just try to ignore it for awhile.  I trust the process will bring it out when it is time.

After that, when I am in the middle of the painting, I step back and look at it and ask myself questions:  What is the temperature of this painting?  Are there values that are too close to be distinguished?  Are there too many shapes , is it too busy, or does it need more line?  Are there any areas that I would want to keep or put a glaze on top?  Is there a passageway through the painting or is my eye stuck in a certain place? Does it need structure? Most important, I promise to tell myself the truth about what I have.  What do I have and what do I want?  Many students think they don’t know what they want, but they really do.  You have to pull it out of yourself and work a little harder and longer than you want to. Knowing when the painting is done comes with experience.  When you have worked for many years, your eye becomes educated to your own work and you “know.”

Nest - Nick XhikuKreshnik “Nick” Xhiku (website/faculty page)
When in process with an art work, it is always advisable to be open minded — never think that there is one best way or the best avenue. There are 1,000 options, and in this moment, it is helpful to parade in your mind the knowledge that you have from great artists. Everybody needs to know more; there is always something to learn. I also think that we should cultivate our judgement about what is good — for example, the portrait by Rembrandt is not good just because everybody says so — do I really like it or do I like it because everybody likes it?

Priscilla Treacy - DaniellePriscilla Treacy (website/faculty page)
My strategy for evaluating a work of art in progress remains the same whether I am working on a figure painting, landscape or still life. I am very conscious of the overall design of the piece, and whether it expresses what I want, both visually and emotionally. I am very aware of negative and positive space and how they play off each other. As a fan of harmonious color, I am constantly checking my overall color distribution and the effects that are being created. I often like to use the practice of letting one color dominate – this seems to work for me. I know when my work is done when I feel it in my gut, and know there is nothing more to be done.

Smoke House - Steve FlemingSteve Fleming (website)
There are several factors I use to evaluate a painting but the basics of my process is having a clear statement or design to judge the work by. In my normal medium of watercolor, I never work from photographs but rather black and white value drawings that clarify the message and direction of the painting. Without this I find myself flailing about trying to control the painting with endless corrections and useless washes. When I begin to ask myself too many questions that have no answers, I consider the painting done. Better to leave a few ideas unstated than to beat the painting into submission without a hope of success. Move to the next piece; there is always more paper and better results.

In my abstract art I work from mood and no specific plan. I use a texture, a color, or a shape and I build on that. I spend more time looking at the piece and less time painting. I continually try new solutions and new directions but I really try to avoid the technique du jour.

What are your strategies for keeping on your toes? Let us know in the comments. For more ideas, check out painter Robert Genn’s post, “The two-easel convention,” which inspired this one.

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