What Makes “Good” Art?

What do you believe art is? What is art’s purpose? In many ways your beliefs will determine whether you think a certain piece of art is good or not. Since artists and experts don’t always completely agree on what good art is, answering these questions may be difficult, and any answer may seem subjective.

FOUR VIEWPOINTS.

1.) If you think that art should be an imitation of reality, then your definition of good art would require realistic light and shadows, accurate perspective, and proper proportions. 

Rosa Bonheur’s Painting – “The Horse Fair” (1852-55).

2.) A more formal interpretation of art would require good art to employ a traditional use of line quality, color, composition, and the other academic elements and principles of art. 

3.) Others might believe that good art must communicate a message. Good art has something to say to an audience and may try to convince or share commentary. Such art is often thought-provoking, having a moral or political theme.

4.) Finally, some people are of the opinion that good art must express the artist’s emotions and evoke an emotional response in the viewer. Creating an emotional connection is a goal.

Most people believe art ought to emphasize one or several of the above ideas. In What Makes Great Art  Andy Pankhurst and Lucinda Hawksley also discuss several other categories of good art ( for instance, art that focuses on beauty, movement, distortion, or symbolism). 

Joaquin Sorolla’s – “Walk On A Beach” (1909).

EXPERT OPINIONS.

Artists and art experts have offered their own individual definitions. One expert explained, “I have trouble describing exactly what good art is, but like pornography, I know it when I see it.” 

According to actor/director Michael Chekhov, great art has “a feeling of Ease, a feeling of Form, a feeling of Beauty, a feeling of the Whole.” (Note the repeated mention of the word “feeling.”) 

On medium.com, the author notes that good art is at least in part determined by “the clarity with which the artwork’s central idea or concept shines through.” 

Don Stone’s Painting – “Midwinter”.

The writer of artgoda.com says “good art has 1.) a strong emotional impact on the viewer, and 2.) leaves a long lasting, unforgettable impression.” Thus, great art evokes strong feelings and is not boring, but memorable. 

The art consultant Alan Bamberger feels “good art is an effective combination of concept, vision, and mastery of medium (the ability to get the point across). Good art is also uncompromisingly honest, unselfconscious, bold, ambitious, enlightening, original, challenging, and a feast for the senses. It doesn’t necessarily have to have all these qualities, but at the very least it has to keep you coming back for more… and never ever bore.” 

Artist Lauren Brevner has said “ I tend to have a visceral reaction to the piece… that’s how I know it’s good… It could be a quickening of my pulse, or butterflies in my stomach,… such a rush of emotion that I can’t help but feel drawn to it.”

For visual art specifically, another expert claims that the best artwork “shows a mastery of drawing, composition, color, and technique,” and that larger works, as opposed to tiny works, naturally have more impact. 

Andrew Wyeth’s Painting – “The Cummer’s Light Wash”.

 COMMON CHARACTERISTICS OF GOOD ART.

There is some general consensus, however, about what matters in creating good art, no matter what the style. Good art tends to have:

1.) Good composition and design.

2.) A feeling of the emotions of the artist (shown perhaps with liveliness, vitality, boldness, fearlessness, verve).

3.) An expression of originality (a new way of seeing or an unusual viewpoint). The artist is able to create an impression or interpretation that is their own. 

4.) Beauty. (The image is pleasing to the eye.)

5.) Unfussy, economical, fresh brushwork (not overworked or overwrought). Every part of the image is essential, necessary.

6.) Clear central idea or concept.

7.) Magic (a memorable, emotional impact).

Georgia O’Keeffe’s Painting – “Lake George” (1922).

FOLLOW GUIDELINES WHILE CHOOSING YOUR OWN STYLE.

Each of us identifies with or gravitates to certain types of art. We have our preferences, no matter what the experts say. Your inclinations will dictate the elements you will strive to include in your own paintings and that you prefer to see in any art you might buy. What are your preferences? Don’t merely follow trends; decide for yourself what you like.

At the same time, your style choices should not ignore the characteristics of good art. “Good” art is, in fact, NOT completely subjective. If you want to create your own “good” art, you cannot just do your own thing with no regard for generally accepted guidelines like those outlined above in the previous section. Aim to incorporate into your painting the important components of good art as you paint, whatever your chosen style. 

In summary, get a good grasp of the basic techniques in your chosen medium, incorporate some of the guidelines for good art into your artwork, then concentrate on making art that expresses your own personality and feelings.

Join me and get painting tips, inspiration, and the latest news about classes, new art or products for sale, sent to you by email. Subscribe here. I’ll give you a free copy of my Color Blending Tips pdf. that you can download and print.

Wow! Value, Hue, And Intensity!

Every color has three different components. These qualities are value (lightness or darkness), hue (the color name), and intensity (saturation or brightness). Each brushstroke in a watercolor painting is affected by all three aspects of color, although usually the properties are discussed and adjusted separately. By manipulating value, hue, and intensity in a painting, you will be able to create the illusion of space and three dimensions as well as create art filled with feeling.

COLOR VALUE.

I have heard it said that VALUE (a color’s lightness and darkness) is the most important of these three elements of color to get right in a painting. Value helps to create form and to show the direction of light. In order to better see value in a scene, squint your eyes. Squinting allows less light to reach your eyes and will reduce both the color (hue) and detail you see, making it much easier to isolate light and dark values. Even when squinting, you will probably see many values ranging from black through a range of dark to light grays to white. Trying to capture every one of these variations in paint, from dark to light, would be too overwhelming. It is best to simplify; narrow down the number of values you plan to capture, and limit yourself to 3-5 values for ease of painting. For example, limit your choice of values to darkest dark, lightest light, and one or two mid-tones.

One method of achieving the desired value of your color, is to mix the right amount of water with the right amount of paint. If you add more water to a watercolor mixture, you get a lighter value. If you instead add more pigment, you create a thicker, darker mix. The thickness of your color mix relates to its value.

Further, you can create the desired value of a color by first choosing the right pigment for the value you want. Catherine Gill, in Powerful Watercolor Landscapes, pp. 120-121, suggests, “If you want a light value, choose a transparent pigment. For a middle value, choose an opaque. For a dark value, choose a stain.” You still must adjust the amount of water you use. For a light color using a transparent pigment, use more water. For achieving middle value color, make a thicker mixture with an opaque color. An even thicker mixture made with a staining color will produce a dark value.

Values – Beach Shadows Watercolor Painting.

HUE.

HUE is the name used for a color. Red, yellow, and blue are hues. An almost infinite number of hue variations are possible, from yellow-green to turquoise to blue-violet. When we talk about hue, we are NOT referring to light or dark, bright or grayed, or strong or weak. To better understand how hues (colors) relate to each other, learn about the COLOR WHEEL. Each hue has its own specific placement on the color wheel, depending on its similarities and differences to other hues. 

B. MacEvoy Color Wheel. (Download your own copy https://www.handprint.com/HP/WCL/cwheel06.pdf)

Hues located close to each other on the color wheel have more similarities; they contain more of the same primary color than hues located farther from each other. Nearby hues are harmonious and analogous. In contrast, those hues located farther away from each other on the color wheel are less closely related. Two hues opposite each other on the color wheel have little in common; they are complements. If mixed together, complements create a neutral, grayed hue, whether gray or brown. When complements are painted side by side in your painting, they contrast strongly and can emphasize each other.

HUE AND TEMPERATURE.

COLOR TEMPERATURE, whether a color is warm or cool, is a characteristic of hue. Every color leans either toward warm or cool. On the color wheel, cool colors are grouped together (blue, green, violet). Warmer hues (red, orange, yellow) are located together on the opposite side of the color wheel. While yellow is generally a warm hue, some yellows are cooler than others. For instance, a Cadmium Lemon pigment is cooler (closer to blue on the color wheel) than warmer (more orange) Cadmium Yellow. Cadmium Red is warmer than Permanent Alizarin. And Sap Green is warmer than Hooker’s Green, which is warmer still than Viridian. Thus, even within a hue, you will find a variety of temperature differences. You can warm a hue by adding yellow and cool one by adding blue. 

A color can also appear warmer or cooler depending on the hues painted nearby. In other words, a color’s appearance is relative. You will want to judge a hue’s temperature in relation to colors next to it. Ultramarine Blue next to Cadmium Lemon will look cooler than the same Ultramarine Blue next to Cadmium Red.

Color temperature changes in a painting affect a picture in several ways. 1.) Color temperature can show the effect of light and shade. Warmer hues ( combined with a lighter value) can indicate the sunnier or brighter side of an object, while cooler hues suggest shadow and less light. Items closer to the sun are generally yellower and warmer than those farther from the sun or light source. Where the surface of a feature changes direction, you can alter color temperature and show its contours. For example, the east side of a barn may be in direct sunlight, but the north side may be in shadow; a contrast in color temperature can capture the three-dimensional quality of the image.

Changing color temperature to illustrate contour. – Barn Watercolor Painting.

The quality of light can also change color temperature. A sunset may transform everything to a rosy hue, whereas a road during a rainstorm may become grayish purple. Observe the light source BEFORE choosing your hues for a painting. You may notice a warm light source (a bright sunset or artificial lighting, which is often warmer than outdoor lighting) where you will need to paint cool shadows. Or the light source may be cool (from a north-facing window, outdoors under the blue sky, or even on an overcast gray day), suggesting the need for warmer shadows. So remember, shadows are NOT always cool.

2.) Color temperature can help you create depth in a painting by taking advantage of the fact that warmer hues tend to advance (pull forward) while cooler colors recede (push back) into the distance. With cool bluish, distant hills appearing farther back than warm foreground fields, you can create space in a painting. (As the distant hills recede, they will also tend to get paler, less intense, and will display less contrast and softer edges.)

3.) Colors (hues) can have a psychological effect on mood. Color contrast can add energy to your painting. Warm colors like red, yellow, and orange tend to arouse emotions such as love, passion, happiness, hunger, and anger. In contrast, cool colors, such as blue, green, and purple are thought to bring calmness, sadness, or indifference. Red sports uniforms have been linked to higher win rates. Blue has been linked to sadness, gray to feeling down, green with jealousy. You can use color temperature to engage your viewers, to get them excited or relaxed. 

Color Temperature Changes. – Red Geranium Watercolor Painting.
Color Temperature Changes. – Cold Winter Barn, Winter Light Watercolor Painting.
Color Temperature Changes. – T’s Fall Road Watercolor Painting.

INTENSITY.

Color intensity is a color’s saturation, purity, or brightness. An intense color is pure, whereas a less intense color is grayed. Intense colors, like Phthalo Blue, Cadmium Red, or Ultramarine Blue, are found on the perimeter of the color wheel. Less saturated colors, such as Indigo, Sepia, or Venetian Red, will fall toward the interior of the color wheel. To lessen the intensity of a bright color, add some of its complement or a close complement (the colors opposite on the color wheel). For instance, to lessen the intensity of Hooker’s Green, you could add a slight amount of Cadmium Scarlet, Cadmium Red, or Permanent Alizarin. Some readily available (but less intense pigments) include Sap Green, Payne’s Gray, Indigo, Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna, Raw Umber.

Understanding color bias helps you mix high-intensity or low-intensity colors. A warm red pigment contains some yellow – it ‘leans’ toward and is biased toward yellow, whereas a cooler red would have more blue and would lean toward blue, or have a blue bias. A hint to help you create a bright, intense mixed color is to use two colors biased TOWARD each other on the color wheel (e.g., a yellow situated closer to the blues mixed with a blue situated closer to the yellows), thus avoiding the addition of any of the third primary color, red, which would gray the mixture.

The grayer, softer colors provide restful areas within your painting. Less intense, grayed colors can also be used to draw attention to and support a bright color (providing color contrast), allowing the bright to take center stage. Contrast in color intensity near your center of interest can help to emphasize it. On the other hand, too many bright intense colors will compete with each other and can easily overwhelm a picture. A range of intensities in a painting creates more interest and a better painting.

Grays Can Intensify Bright Color. – Viennese Streetcar Watercolor Painting.

SUMMARY.

Use what you have learned here about value, hue, and intensity of color to improve your paintings and to paint strong three-dimensional pictures. Begin by considering value to begin to capture light and shadow. Then, work to create a range of warm and cool hues to establish mood and depth. Build more distance and interest while supporting your center of interest with grayed, less intense color.

Related blog posts you might find helpful include:

Join me and get painting tips, inspiration, and the latest news about classes, new art or products for sale, sent to you by email. Subscribe here. I’ll give you a free copy of my Color Blending Tips pdf. that you can download and print.

APPENDIX A: TEN COLOR COMPONENT TIPS

1.) Squint your eyes to better distinguish value (light and dark).

2.) Simplify your composition, and reduce the number of your values to 3-5        

     for ease of painting.

3.) To mix a lighter value, add water to a mixture. To create darker values, 

     use less water and more pigment, making a thicker mixture. Mixing 

     color with a transparent paint is the easiest way to create a light value. 

     Opaque paints are ideal for mixing mid-tones, while staining paints 

     work well to mix dark values.

4.) Each hue has its own specific placement on the color wheel, depending 

     on its similarities and differences to other hues. Understand how the

     color wheel makes it easier to mix colors, to use warm and cool colors 

     effectively, to arrange your palette, and to find a color’s complement. 

5.) Every color leans either toward warm or cool. You can warm a hue by

     adding yellow and cool one by adding blue. 

6.) The appearance of colors can vary depending on which colors are 

     nearby. You will want to judge a hue’s qualities in relation to the colors 

     next to it. Understand also that the quality of light can change 

     color temperature, suggesting a possible call for reconsidering the 

     temperature of your chosen pigments for a picture. Warm light 

     suggests the need for cool shadows, while cool light creates warm 

     shadows.

7.) Use value and color temperature to suggest light and shade and to 

     create depth in a painting. 

8.) Understanding color bias helps you mix high-intensity or low-intensity 

     colors. You must take bias into account if you hope to create either a 

     bright or less intense color and hope to avoid a muddy color. A warm

     red contains some yellow – it ‘leans’ toward and is 

     biased toward yellow, whereas a cooler red would have more blue 

     and would ‘lean’ toward blue, or have a blue bias. 

9.) To insure a bright color mix, use two colors biased TOWARD each 

      other on the color wheel (e.g., a yellow situated closer to the blues 

      mixed with a blue situated closer to the yellows), thus avoiding the addition of any 

      of the third primary color, red, which would gray the mixture.

10.) Grays and less intense colors support and set off bright colors. 

       Include them in your work to provide more interest and an improved  

       painting. To dull or gray a color, add some of its complement. Gray 

       can also be mixed by combining all three primary colors (red, yellow, 

       and blue).

After Watercolor Basics… What Next?

STAGE I. THE BASICS.

Anyone with desire and focus, can learn to paint with watercolors. The process, however, can take a very long time, even years, and true artists never stop learning (nor do they want to). But let’s assume that you have learned what materials you need and the fundamental techniques you need to use those materials. What comes next?  When I began to paint in 2008, I didn’t know. I don’t think I even knew that I was considering such a question. What was important to me at the time was improving! I wanted to get more proficient. In this post, I intend to share some of the steps I’ve taken in my process of learning watercolor, a few questions I’ve asked myself, and several concerns I’ve had along the way.      

Red Bumpers Watercolor Painting.

STAGE II. COPYING & CLOSE OBSERVATION.

Beyond the elementary techniques, I found that what I wanted was to portray my reference images as accurately as possible. I quickly learned that close observation was required. But as an artist, I found ‘seeing’ isn’t simple.

Most of the time, we look at things with only part of our attention.  We see only what we expect to see, often assigning a label to every image.  For instance, if what we are looking at is a ‘tree,’ we may not explore carefully what is really there.  This habit of not paying close attention keeps us from actually LOOKING at things.  In the everyday world, we quickly categorize and move on, perhaps in part because there seems to be so much information.

When I started painting, I would choose an image to paint, and the first thing I’d notice was a lot of detail. I was distracted by details, as perhaps you are, too. What do you do with all that detail? How do you know which details are important? Those questions overwhelmed me. I had been told to ‘look carefully’ at a reference, but the more I looked, the more confusing detail I saw. Over time, however, I began to believe that the trick had to be focusing on something else, not trying to capture every tiny detail.  Focusing on small details, like individual leaves, or trying to include every tree trunk or grass blade in a painting, didn’t work well.

Thus, to paint more successfully, I forced myself to slow down. I tried NOT to look at small details first, but instead to examine and study the shapes, values, and colors that made up the larger framework of each scene. ‘Seeingdoes mean focusing attention, looking closely, but especially at the arrangement of shapes. For example, where is the light hitting the tree branches?  Can you see through the branches?  What is the overall shape of the tree?  Are branches straight, upturned, crooked, rough?  Is the tree lopsided or symmetrical?  Are the highlights a different color from the shadows?  What is the weather, and how does it affect the appearance of the ‘tree’?  By asking such questions and looking carefully, I began to more accurately paint what I SAW, NOT what I THOUGHT I saw.

As I became more familiar with and practiced at painting, I began to see more subtle color, more nuanced detail, more understated tones. It seems that ‘seeing’ cannot be forced and may only develop gradually over time, with experience, and when one is ready. With practice, however, we can expect to notice more and sooner, perhaps even noting details that others miss or take for granted.

Forsythia In Vases Watercolor Painting.

DRAWING HELPS YOU OBSERVE CAREFULLY.

Drawing trains the mind, hand, and eye to work together.  Many beginning artists may avoid drawing altogether if they can, feeling that their drawing skills are not good.  However, you should not feel obliged to render precise drawings of what you wish to paint.  Do not let your concerns about drawing ability or drawing technique deter you. I found that even sketching a quick, rough thumbnail required me to consider what was important in a scene. One of the main purposes of drawing is to TRAIN yourself to see shapes and spaces more accurately – to ‘see’ like an artist and keep the big picture in mind.  By keeping details to a minimum, just getting some information down without stressing, you can help yourself to see.  

More specifically, you should look for basic SHAPES and notice how they are connected.  Find larger shapes first; then fit smaller shapes into them.  See the image as a whole; and only then concentrate on individual components.  Distracting details are only decoration on the surface of these shapes. Squinting your eyes often helps you to see beyond any unnecessary detail. Concentrate; work slowly and intently.  Give yourself the time to observe and take in information before rushing to produce an image.  Ultimately, the goal is to be able to perceive what you see as totally abstract forms, values, lines, and color, as in a jigsaw puzzle. You must shift your perspective. Remember that shadows are shapes, as are reflections.  Backgrounds have shape and should act as frames for the subject of a painting.  Only when you can ‘see’ in this way will you begin to be able to suggest three-dimensional reality on your flat, two-dimensional paper.

Frederick Franck, artist and philosopher, says in The Zen of Seeing/Drawing:  “I have learned that what I have not drawn I have never really seen, and that when I start drawing an ordinary thing I realize how extraordinary it is, sheer miracle . . . .”  So do not hesitate to sketch and draw what you intend to paint.  As you draw, you will notice which details are important and sharpen the mind/hand/eye coordination necessary to improve your painting skills.  Drawing is a skill that requires practice and time, just like any other ability (including learning the techniques of painting).  The skills and mental processes necessary for drawing are the same as those you use when painting with a brush.

White Primroses Watercolor Painting.

STAGE III. BEGIN TO DESIGN, PLAN, & SIMPLIFY.

When I began to feel more confident reproducing an image before me, I sometimes found myself wishing I could improve a composition; the reference pictures I found weren’t quite satisfying. Occasionally I wanted to combine two photos instead of having to copy one. In other instances, I wondered if some of the components in a picture might be better relocated to another section of the picture, even left out. A tree or a building might have been blocking what I thought was the most interesting section of the picture.

At this point, I also began to take some of my own reference photos, to create a view I desired. I essentially inched my way toward DESIGNING my paintings, seeing what was in front of me but arranging and modifying the information to actually improve the picture, making it something I liked better and felt was more effective. 

Eventually it dawned on me that this desire to improve a reference might be the start to a new stage in painting for me. To improve a painting, I could forget about ‘reproducing’ nature. I could start to REARRANGE it! I could take what I liked and ignore what I didn’t want to include. Definite rules about design and composition existed and could greatly improve a painting. I wanted to learn them. 

Mastering Composition by Ian Roberts is a comprehensive guide and excellent resource that can help you learn more about composition. 

These blog posts might also be of interest if you want to know more: “Composition!?!”, (5/7/2020), https://leemuirhaman.com/2020/05/07/, and “Designing A Strong Painting With Good Composition!”, (10/16/2018), https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/10/16/designing-a-strong-painting/.

Red Geranium Watercolor Painting.

I found that this designing and PLANNING need to be done BEFORE any paint is put on the paper. Again, you will need to study your subject for a while. Think about what it is that attracted you – that should be the primary statement or BIG IDEA in your painting. Consider what you will emphasize in the picture. Eliminate anything that might compete with or distract from the ONE focal point and main idea. You shouldn’t try to include every daunting detail in a scene. Instead, it pays to NARROW your vision (even to crop an image) and SIMPLIFY your subject. 

Ask yourself what your focal point is. What will your painting be about? Is there a lead-in to invite the viewer into the picture? Think about what you want to say before you start. WHAT do you hope to achieve, and HOW are you going to achieve it? Establish some clear objectives. 

While drawing or sketching develops necessary observational skills as mentioned previously, drawing also helps you to plan and condense information into a simplified format. This clarification will strengthen the message of your final painting.  With a drawing you are more likely to end up with your focal point being prominent, because you concentrate mainly on that particular feature.  Your drawing will be streamlined, easier on the eye of the viewer, because you collect only the information that counts and leave out extraneous material. Thus, drawing trains the brain to think about and analyze what is essential to the picture.

High Jinks Watercolor Painting.

IV. EXPRESS FEELINGS & EMOTIONS.

A later stage in improving my painting skills grew out of the wish to have my feelings and emotions come across in each painting. When establishing the IDEA for a painting now, I try to think about how I feel. We all interpret a scene in our own way – WHAT you want to emphasize and WHY will probably differ from what interests me or another person. That is to be expected – we all have different experiences, reactions, thoughts, and feelings that affect our impression of our world. These factors will affect our chosen focal point, our ‘big idea’ for a painting, even the style in which we paint it. (Our own particular concerns and perception directly determine the painting style we choose.)

In other words, I try to consider MOOD when planning my painting approach to a picture, and then work to express it. It seems easier for me to achieve some success at this in some paintings than in others. I contemplate how the scene makes me feel. Happy, sad, excited, nostalgic? I strive to determine what it is I want to show and what the meaning of each topic is to me. Why did I choose to paint this picture? Why was I drawn to this image? Does the scene remind me of a favorite place?  Does the picture make me feel calm? Do I feel like laughing when I look at or think about this subject? 

I believe great artists are able to paint their feelings about a scene, as well as an impression of its actual appearance. (Think about Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, for instance, or Vermeer’s Girl With A Pearl Earring.) They make sure they don’t copy the details so faithfully and precisely that there is no room left for life, mystery, or emotion in a painting. Instead, such artists paint their interpretation and memories, share what they feel are the significant factors behind what may be a commonplace scene, attempt to translate emotions aroused in their hearts. They often reveal their skill at rearrangement and invention in the scene.

T’s Fall Road Watercolor Painting.

Emotion can be conveyed in a painting in a number of ways. The mood of a painting can be created or altered by hard, soft, or lost edges; light and dark values (contrast, high key, or low key); line and arrangement of masses (lyrical, angular, curved, open, closed-in, a preponderance of verticals or horizontals); light (overcast, ominous or threatening, nighttime, bright and sunny, glaring, or late afternoon); and color choice and color proportion (warm, neutral, cold, cheery, drab, soothing, jarring, or balanced). For more in depth information on emotion and mood in painting, see “Get In The Mood!”, (9/4/2018), https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/09/04/get-in-the-mood/

Choosing and combining so many variables appropriately and successfully to express your emotion takes experimentation and practice, yet is the ultimate goal in art.

Take note of and respond to your own emotions – these feelings are what you will try to get down on paper and share with viewers of your art. Think with your heart. People will connect to YOUR art with THEIR emotions! 

V. BECOME YOUR OWN TEACHER.

After painting for ten years, I lost my beloved mentor and watercolor teacher, who died in 2018. Before he died, he asked me to take over the teaching of his watercolor classes. While I didn’t feel at all ready for that, I really didn’t want to let him down. For that reason, I started teaching others what he had taught me. However, I couldn’t help feeling that there was still more for me to learn. If I had questions, though, who could I ask? My solution was to study art books, seek information online, and continue taking occasional workshops in person and courses online. 

I also began writing blog posts (in 2018) to share with others the information I was learning about watercolor. I studied and wrote about things I was struggling with, or topics I found especially interesting. In order to write about a subject, I had to consolidate, understand, and make sense of it for myself. Writing has helped me know my own thoughts.

I think we can all work towards becoming our own best teacher. Always keep learning on your own and for yourself. I’m not suggesting you avoid taking classes or working with watercolor instructors you enjoy and are learning from. Instead, I’m asking you to treat yourself as a good teacher would, by being supportive of yourself, allowing yourself to investigate and learn more about the art topics that you might be struggling with, and searching out information about your art interests. (One of my recent investigative searches has been about how to paint light, create the glow of light in watercolor.) I hope that you take an active part in your own art education.

If interested, the following blog post will explain more about creating the best possible attitude toward your painting: “How Can I Become My Own Best Teacher”, (7/21/2021), https://leemuirhaman.com/2021/07/21/how-can-i-become-my-own-watercolor-teacher/.

Crossroads Watercolor Painting.

WHAT’S NEXT?

For me, I want to continue to write and to paint with watercolor. I hope to freshen up my website, perhaps even adding an option to purchase directly from the site. I would like to improve my skills at designing my own pictures more creatively, and to spend more time painting my own compositions. I will also, of course, persist in studying, learning, and researching what intrigues me about watercolor.

What’s next for you?

Join me and get painting tips, inspiration, and the latest news about classes, new art or products for sale, sent to you by email. Subscribe here. I’ll give you a free copy of my Color Blending Tips pdf. that you can download and print.

What do you think about this quote by Martha Beck who has said, “An artist’s real contribution isn’t what he paints, but the way he sees.”? Let me know in a comment below.

A Few Of My 2021 Painting Successes And Struggles. 

Even after painting for many years, every artist has good days and bad days. Don’t ever think that every painting proceeds smoothly. In this post, I will share a few of the successes and some struggles that I experienced in my painting this past year while teaching my weekly watercolor zoom class.

In my zoom classes, I choose the image that students and teacher (that’s me) paint together. Each picture is chosen to teach several specific art lessons. Students learn to evaluate various reference photos, create a plan of attack for each painting, and proceed step-by-step toward completion of a painting. We share our work throughout, giving each other feedback and support. 

Watercolor ‘Flowing Forward’.  (Photo: Tristan T. Haman)

My painting of ‘Flowing Forward’ is one of the year’s more successful pictures. It combines sun and shade, flowing water and ice, some reflection on the open water, warm and cool colors, verticals and horizontals, hard edges and soft to create an effective image. A complicated scene was simplified to avoid too much detail.

Watercolor ‘Where Are We?’.  (Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, Topsfield, MA.)

‘Where Are We?’ caused some problems. It was a struggle to keep the center of interest (the  stone bridge) a lighter value than its surroundings so it would stand out. Further, the ripples and highlights on the water disappointed me. Warm and cool colors were, however, used to good effect. And I was pleased with the distant trees.

                    Watercolor ‘Beach Shadows’. (Photo: Dan Scott)

‘Beach Shadows’ was a difficult picture which eventually turned out well. The contrast in values (lights and darks) was striking. The picture is a good study of how colors (both warm and cool) change when in shadow. Both soft and hard edges were painted after close observation.

Watercolor ‘Bottles And Oil Lamps’.  (Photo: pixabay.com)  

‘Bottles And Oil Lamps’ was a challenge. Careful observation of the reflections and refractions in the backlit glass was important. While there is a good range of values in the painting and a bit of ‘glow,’ the picture doesn’t seem very dynamic or suggestive of feeling.

Watercolor ‘Red Geranium’.  (Photo: Unknown artist)

‘Red Geranium,’ on the other hand, feels soothing and inviting to me. I can sense the luminous glow of the winter sunlight as it shines through the homey lace curtains and onto the window sill. Warm and cool colors, hard and soft edges, and contrasts of values succeed in highlighting the center of interest.

Watercolor ‘Water Under The Bridge’.  (Photo: Courtesy of Karen Morris)

‘Water Under The Bridge’ also employs warm and cool colors, hard and soft edges, and contrasts of values; however, a few problems distract from the painting. Sunlit ‘glow’ on the side of the bridge has been lost, perhaps because of the choice of paint color. And the yellow-green water reflection is strong and distracting. The foreground rock also needs work.

Watercolor ‘Autumn Dirt Road’. (Photo: Tristan T. Haman).

‘Autumn Dirt Road’ is a painting of opposites and contrasts, bright sunlight and shadows, and warm and cool rich color. Autumn foliage is hard to capture in a painting. Details in the foliage and on the road are simplified here and merely suggested. The viewer is drawn down the dirt road toward the orange tree and into the afternoon sunlight. I really want to walk down that road!

I hope you enjoyed hearing about some of my 2021 painting experiences. While painting can sometimes be frustrating and complex, it is extremely rewarding when it goes well. I feel very strongly that artists only fail when they give up. So, keep painting and enjoy yourself.

Is there a part of the painting process you struggle with? Do you tend to get stuck in the middle, like me? Do you have trouble critiquing your own work? Do you have difficulty knowing what to simplify? Are you not sure where to start a painting? Do you want to paint details everywhere in your paintings? Let me know in the comments.

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From Pretty Good To Better Composition!

Only occasionally, as artists, do we discover a perfectly designed composition we’d like to paint. More often, we find an appealing image that needs some improving and editing to make it more effective. Editing allows an artist to interpret a scene and tell the picture’s story in a stronger, more personal way. All the information may be there in front of us, but we may want to re-organize some of the parts. We might want to combine several reference photos, or totally remove some distracting information. We know we don’t want to just copy a reference, but how would you go about ‘improving’ a composition?

Joe English Hill Photo, Spring.

Here is an image that appealed to me. Let’s evaluate the composition though – it does have some problems. It’s hard to tell what this picture is about, isn’t it? It probably wouldn’t make a very good painting, as is. What attracted me to this scene in the first place? I was drawn to the dramatic cliff (barely visible in the photo) rising steeply behind the vibrant, early spring colors. So, my first decision would have to do with figuring out what I want my center of interest to be, and then deciding how best to emphasize it. 

I decide to make the cliff my center of interest. How could I simplify some of the shapes or eliminate unnecessary detail? There is too much information in this reference photo. I certainly don’t have to include all of the trees from the photo. I will remove some of the smaller trees blocking the view of the cliff to uncover it. I will also eliminate a few trees on the far right, but leave one tree to help frame the cliff. This tree on the right would also function to stop your eye from following the line of the top of the far hill right on out of the picture. While I think the large green gold trees on the left also function as a frame of the cliff, I want to move them more to the left to further open up our view of the cliff. And I want to increase the height of the trees on the left, hoping they appear closer to the viewer and increasing depth in the picture. And finally, I plan to exaggerate the size of the cliff to make it even more prominent in my painting. 

Early Spring Color, Joe English Hill, Another View.

Color will be important to give the picture the feel of the new leaves and grasses of springtime. Spring is a time of fresh growth, when buds and flowers burst forth. Fields and forest floors are becoming free of frost and snow, and bright green shoots begin to appear. I hope to exaggerate the brightness and variety of colors in the final painting by using bright complementary colors. Reds and greens (complements) will be used for newly emerging leaves, and yellow and green gold leaves will complement purple-tinged rocks and purplish shadows. Muted grays and browns are planned to contrast with the bright colors.

I hope to make use of differences in color temperature as well. Cooler colors on the distant hill (and minimal detail) should help it recede, increasing depth in the painting. In contrast, warm yellow greens in the foreground field and trees should advance.

Values (lights/darks) in the reference photo seem to be much too similar. By looking at this black and white version of the reference photo you can see there is very little contrast in values. If there are too many areas of equal light intensity (or a lack of shadows) in a painting, the image will tend to look flat, less interesting, or bland. I will need to create more contrast to make the picture work better! Good value contrast (with light values close by and emphasized by darks) can create the illusion of light, depth, and a center of interest.

Black and White Version of Reference Photo.

After experimenting with several small thumbnail sketches to find a better arrangement of strong lights and darks,  I chose this arrangement. 

Final Thumbnail Sketch.

The lightest values in the painting will be the green gold leaves, road, cliff, some saved light birch tree trunks. Mid-values are planned for the middle distance trees on the opposite side of the road. And the darkest values, which will help to highlight the cliff, will be the top of the hill, dark shadows and tree trunks. 

Below is the finished watercolor painting, and its black and white version, which resulted from the improved composition.

Final Watercolor, Joe English Hill.
Black and White Version of Painting.

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