Below is a handy checklist to identify trouble spots in a painting:
Strong foreground—For some reason it is very common that the artist ignores the foreground. Perhaps because we tend to focus first on the middle of the painting and above, like the horizon. It doesn’t need to “scream” at the viewer, but it does need to be strong enough to hold up the rest of the painting. If something just isn’t quite right, check your foreground.
Enough Contrast—This is the number one most common problem I see in the work of novice painters. People confuse color with contrast and consequently they either have too many high key hues with the same value or so many mid-tones that the piece lacks life. I liken this to public speaking or acting. Self-consciousness when speaking on stage leads to not enough volume or variation in tone of voice—too difficult to listen to, despite what they have to say, which may be simply marvelous. You don’t want to whisper, nor do you want to shout—does your painting do wither of these exclusively? Don’t be afraid of contrast, it is your friend.
The lights in our studio are ridiculously good. No one in their home will have that light. It is important to view your work in low light. I always view my work in all the light that is available—I paint in natural light when I can, then turn my lights on, turn them off again, use just the ceiling light for a while, and then take the piece outside, etc. Often at the end of the day I sit and watch as the light fades and observe how the piece holds up in the changing light.
Light and shadow—is there a shadow in response to a strong light? Do you want that? What about Chiaroscuro (An Italian Renaissance term literally meaning light and dark?) Would your piece benefit by “charging” the values –making the darks darker and/or the lights lighter?
Integrated marks— Are there marks on your painting that look like you dropped ketchup or mustard from your sandwich? You can have marks that look spontaneous –PAINTERLY marks are a good thing; they communicate the artist’s hand—but marks “stuck” on the top of a passage without integration can look like you just had a messy lunch.
Four corners—A teacher once said something about checking the four corners of the painting for strength. I misunderstood and began to double check my work by looking at each quadrant of the painting to see if the composition in that space was strong in and of itself. I’m not sure how much guidance it provides, but when I am really stuck it seems to help me see the piece more clearly and it often identifies the weak spot.
Use a mirror—Another trick is to look at the piece in a mirror. Many artists use this, including Angelina. In my studio the mirror in the hutch is positioned conveniently to see the reversed image of smaller paintings. I use it often. In the studio there is a full-length mirror on the bathroom door.
Is the eye led around the painting? Does it have a focal point? Where do you want the viewer to begin looking? A focal point can be a very subtle thing—a small mark with character in a bold color can be enough. Strong contrast always draws the eye. Once you identify a focal point, can you see a counter-point—where does the viewer go next?
Is there too much detail or too much strong color scattered all over the painting? If so, it can confuse the viewer. You can simply “soften” details or too bright colors—lead the eye….
Are there “holes”—areas that have no interest, but are not really resting spots because they are too muddy or indistinct? This is a tough one. Sometimes muddy areas can actually be quite exciting when the adjacent color is a complement. Don’t judge too harshly on this, but check to see if there is an area of the painting that the eye avoids simply because it’s boring. Resting spots are good; they are a calm spot in contrast areas of strong interest. Do you have any?
Do edges of the painting “fall off” the sides of the substrate? This is a common problem with an easy fix. Is there an edge of the painting where your eye just “slips” off? If so, tone the edge or add a line (tree trunk, side of a wall, etc.), keeping the eye within the format and make every part of the painting worthy of a look.
Is there a sense of space? Abstract paintings are often flat, but if you are painting more representationally a sense of space is usually an asset. Remember—warm colors come forward, cool colors recede. Diffuse light creates a sense of deep space. (Sfumato, literally meaning “up in smoke”, is a term credited to Leonardo and used to describe passages with no hard edges creating a sense of deep space. Is this something that would benefit your piece?)
A good composition is considered to be a “harmonious, unified whole” (the gestalt—an organization of, and the relationship between elements that the brain and eye seek while trying to find harmony and unity), with balance, emphasis ( focal point) and variety, using color, contrast, line, texture, shape, space and pattern.
A good painting is “about something”—you may not be able to verbalize what that is, but you know when you’re looking at it that the artist had a connection to the subject, whether it was something in the imagination or some external image or idea that stirred the soul. Maybe nothing was planned, but nothing was arbitrary. Again, think of it as a conversation–a call and response. The best moves on the painting are responsive and maybe even accidental. If they are allowed to be arbitrary, it would be akin babble. Avoid the babble.
Come to class. Ask yourself these questions about your paintings, ask your compatriots. Get their honest opinion about how your work “reads”. They will freely give it.