The other day I had an email from an art teacher in Uganda asking that I critique some student work - ages 10 and 11.
Here's what I wrote:
Hello class, your teacher has asked me to critique some paintings for you. That’s a pretty cool teacher because he bugged me for you until I said yes. Good job teacher!
Let me say first that each and every artist has their own idea of what makes a good painting, so I can only compare this painting to my own understanding of painting and make judgements based on that. So when I say this is good or this is bad, it’s just my idea, and everyone else has a different idea, so really my ideas should only be valuable to you if you like my own style of painting or at least like a impressionistic but also realistic style of painting, based on the beauty of nature.
Also, although I am now a professional painter and yes I sell my work for thousands of dollars (and yes it’s a great job!), I will remind you that I started out just like you with no particular special drawing or painting skills when I was young, but I liked doing art so I kept practicing and practicing as you know is what makes you good at anything. I did not go to art school, just kept painting and drawing, reading painting books and, oh yeah, painting and drawing. That’s all it takes if you want to get good, there’s no special magic.
The Red Trees
This is a striking image with bold simple shapes and strong colour. It’s great that you’ve thought about the direction of the light and how that makes objects look three dimensional and also casts shadows.
How could we make this painting better? Let’s think about what makes something interesting for us to look at. Usually it’s complex shapes and also variation in those complex shapes. So, could the trees be more complex? Yes they could. How about the background? Could it be more interesting? Yes it could. Look at the other paintings to see how the trees and background could be made more interesting.
The second painting is mine and the third is by an artist named Tim Gagnon.
I’m impressed by this painting which shows a lot of movement in the water and a careful consideration of how to achieve the look of a waterfall with paint. This artist has also thought about light and shade as we can see in the rocks. Let’s compare it to the painting of Richard Schmidt. What’s the first and biggest difference? Again, it’s shapes. Richard’s waterfall has a more natural, interesting shape. The shape has more variation in it. The rocks also have more variation because some are big and some are small. There’s more variation in colour too because there are some grasses and little flowers in there.
With both the tree and waterfall paintings we can see that complex and interesting shapes are the biggest part of making a more interesting painting. When we first start painting and drawing we tend to over-simplify things, to paint the ‘symbol’ or the ‘idea’ of the thing we have in our heads instead of painting the thing as it actually is. The more time we spend looking at our subject and figuring out how and why it actually looks the way it does, the more realistic our drawings and paintings can become. There is a saying that ‘every artist has spent an hour looking at the apple’.
I encourage you to spend more time looking at your subject so that you can paint it even better. Draw your hand, your shoe, a bucket, a cup, a flower - lots of small simple things to get you really looking. To see the world as an artist sees it is a special thing, because we see beauty in everything, in every place and everyone.
I wish you well on your journeys!
Greetings from New Zealand!