How Do I Critique My Own Painting?

To critique a painting ( your own painting included), your aim is to see clearly both the STRENGTHS and WEAKNESSES in the art. What worked and was painted well? What could have been improved? Strive to maintain your objectivity in order to accomplish an impartial evaluation. Detachment can be elusive when you are looking at your own painting and are emotionally invested in your own work. Therefore, step away from your picture for a time and don’t try to critique as soon as you finish a painting. Your emotions can skew how clearly you see your work, so it helps to set the picture aside for a day or two.

‘Floating Christmas Tree’ Watercolor Painting.

AIM FOR OBJECTIVITY.

Remember, as you evaluate, consider the painting as a whole. Small mistakes don’t matter, so don’t be overly distracted by them. Set aside criticism of the little things and negative judgements of your abilities. Notice what you have done well, so that you can pinpoint what to continue doing. And note how your work could improve. Your aim is to problem-solve and work out constructive, specific ideas to try next time. If you have overworked a painting, it is not helpful to tell yourself, “This is awful!” Instead, for example, make a note to yourself to stop painting earlier (before overworking) and to stop fussing with tiny details hoping to fix every little mistake.

HOW DO YOU FEEL?

In order to critique your work, you need to know what you’re trying to accomplish in your painting — your goal. Your job as a painter is not to copy and paint exactly what you see, but to paint how your chosen subject makes you FEEL. When your painting makes you feel the same way you feel about your subject, then you have succeeded in capturing emotion and feeling in your painting.

‘Winter Sledding’ Watercolor Painting.

WHY?

All good paintings have a simple, clear idea behind them. WHY have you chosen to do this painting? What has attracted you to this image? Take the time to think about and experience what the image means to you. Does the scene suggest a sanctuary, relaxation, loneliness, or perhaps is it bustling and filled with people? The reason you painted this picture is your personal connection, and that connection should come across in the finished painting. Is your message clear?

WHAT?

As you evaluate your finished painting, you may want to ask yourself a series of questions that focus on some of the important characteristics of good art. Set your painting up so you can take a look at it from across the room. Which part of the painting do you look at first? The eye is generally drawn to the spot with the most contrast. This space should ideally be your chosen center of interest. You want to draw attention to the center of interest so that the viewer focusses here. It’s WHAT your painting is about. (Be sure to choose only ONE focus.) 

If your eye is drawn elsewhere first, you might want to increase contrast (whether contrast of value, color, shape, or edge) at your center of interest to emphasize this part of your picture. Remember that a full range of light and dark values, from darkest darks to lightest lights, can create more impact. You could also add a pop of complementary color at your focal point to attract attention.

Further, your center of interest should be the most detailed area of the picture, since detail also attracts the eye and tells your viewer where to look. Ideally, keep other sections of a painting less detailed and thus less emphasized. All parts of your picture are NOT equally important and, similarly, should not be equally detailed. How did you deal with detail?

‘The End Of The Day’ Watercolor Painting.

PLANNING AND COMPOSITION.

Did you plan your approach to this painting before picking up your brush? Did you think about rearranging the major shapes in a balanced, pleasing way to improve the composition? Did you test out your ideas first in a small value study? Did you simplify and leave out confusing details? Did you establish the lightest light values right away? Did you consider what colors would support the mood of the scene? If you didn’t do these things BEFORE painting, you may notice a jumble of shapes but no focus, values too similar to each other so nothing stands out, colors that don’t suit your subject or clash with each other, background or sky tacked onto your paintings as an afterthought, etc. Might thinking about the above questions have helped improve the final painting? 

‘The Tire Swing’ Watercolor Painting.

TECHNIQUE AND EXPRESSION.

How was your technique in this painting? What was easiest for you, and what was done well? Did you have difficulty figuring out the sequence of layering colors – what color can be laid down first, then what other colors should follow, or did you mistakenly try to paint everything at once? Were you scared you would make a mistake so your brushstrokes became small and tentative? Were you hesitant in your color mixes, ending up with timid colors? Next time, you could take a chance and try to be bolder. 

If you noticed self-criticism and discouragement while painting, be patient and kind to yourself. It will help you relax. Try to be aware of how you’re feeling as you paint, since your emotions affect your brushstrokes and the quality of your work. When you’re tense, you could take a break and some deep breaths, calm down a bit, then return to painting with a more composed attitude.

JUDGING WETNESS.

How did you do judging the wetness of the paper compared to the wetness of the paint and brush? Do you need to practice judging wetness to improve your ability to create the edges you want to create? If so, get some scrap paper and practice painting hard edges, soft and lost-and-found edges, while varying the dampness of the scrap paper. You might also rehearse ‘softening’ an edge (an essential skill) on scrap paper.

‘On The Way To Groton’ Watercolor Painting.

IN SUMMARY.

Asking questions of yourself (without critical judgement) gets you in the habit of making deliberate decisions regarding your painting. These questions help you evaluate your work objectively, considering value, wetness, color, composition, mindset, and technique. You can walk yourself through these questions for each painting. And start to decide what you like, what interests you, what you paint well, what areas you might want to improve. As you rely on your own awareness, you take charge of your painting while increasing your painting skills and decision-making ability.

Related earlier blogposts: 

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Know Your Edges!

Edge quality in a painting is important! Proper use of edges helps to direct the viewer’s eye toward your chosen center of interest. An edge is the border between shapes, the transition from one shape to another, where contrast occurs between shapes. By adjusting the degree of contrast along the edges of shapes in a painting (in addition to the contrasts of value and color), an artist can control eye movement and focus. Edges also suggest the mood or atmosphere of a subject. A hazy, humid picture might have many soft, fuzzy edges, and generate a mellow feel. Or a painting of a cold, crisp winter day might have numerous numerous hard edges.

Soft, Hard, Lost Edges – ‘Flowing Forward’ Watercolor

When we talk about an edge in painting we mean how it appears to the eye. Keep in mind that an edge in a painting may NOT be just an actual physical edge (like the side of a tree trunk, building, or rock). An edge can also be the transition between sunlight and shadow, between wet sand and dry sand, between a ripple and calm water. 

Types Of Edges And How To Paint Them.

There are, in fact, several types of edges. A good artist tries to incorporate, in each painting, as many of the types as possible to create variation and interest. A HARD edge forms a clear, crisp, abrupt transition between shapes. The contrast of a hard edge will attract the viewer’s eye; perfect to use at the focal point or between light and dark areas. Some hard edges are good in a painting, but using only hard edges will result in a flat image without depth (e.g. as in a woodcut). Hard edges are painted on DRY watercolor paper.

Hard, Soft, Lost Edges – ‘Red Bumpers’ Watercolor

In contrast, an infinite variety of SOFT edges exist. Softer, less-defined edges are used to de-emphasize, and are useful in the background or distance, within a shadow, or when you want a shape to recede further toward the background. Soft edges are gentle and a bit blurred; perfect when painting fog, haze, or mist.

The relative wetness of PAPER and brush will determine finished softness of the edge and the extent of the spread of the watercolor pigment. Try to learn to judge the wetness of your paper by observing the amount of sheen. More shine means more wetness, less suggests a damp or drying paper. It is also good to test the result you want to achieve on a test sheet/practice paper (made of the SAME kind of paper you’re actually painting on to approximate similar results). 

Soft and Hard Edges – ‘Swamp View’ Watercolor

Keep in mind that controlling edge quality has as much to do with the dryness of the BRUSH as with how wet the paper is. A brush overloaded with paint will lessen your control and may flood an area in your painting, whereas a brush with too little wetness will not allow the paint to move easily. Further, when the brush becomes wetter than the paper (from added water or wet paint) you will be in danger of creating an uncontrollable ‘cauliflower’, ‘run back’ or ‘blossom’ in your painting.

A LOST AND FOUND edge is a broken or interrupted edge that will tie the shapes to the background or other objects in the painting. It will connect shapes, allowing them to partially flow into one another.

Varied Edges – ‘Barn Interior’ Watercolor

A LOST edge is an edge that has disappeared. One shape has merged into another, as in a dark shadow. When the values of touching shapes are the same, the edge between them tends to vanish, whether soft or hard, even when there is a color change. Lost edges force the viewer to invent any missing information, and can be quite interesting. By creating shapes of equal values, you will be able to merge edges. In other words, nearby shapes of similar value tend to have less obvious edges. But adjacent shapes with more value contrast will have edges that are well defined.

Lost, Hard, Soft Edges – ‘Red Geranium’ Watercolor

When To Use Different Edges.

Sometimes the subject matter of a painting will tell you whether edges should be hard or soft, but no rules apply. Think about placing hard edges at your center of interest, where you want the viewer to look, then de-emphasize other less important areas with softer edges. Soft edges describe a subject in more general terms, while hard edges provide more detailed and specific information. It might be appropriate to paint a soft object, like a teddy bear, with soft edges. A cut glass crystal bowl, however, will have numerous hard edges. Distant objects often are painted with softer edges, while closer components could have harder edges.  Make choices about your desired mood for the painting, deciding what types of edges are appropriate in the same way you choose your values and colors. For instance, an evening painting might be low key, painted with mostly cool colors but some contrasting warm colors, and a lot of soft or lost and found edges along with a few hard edges for emphasis.

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Softening an Edge or Fading Out.

Even experienced watercolor artists may have some gaps in their skill set. One basic watercolor painting skill that every painter should have under control is FADING OUT a color, also called SOFTENING AN EDGE.  (See other “Basic Watercolor Techniques You’ll Want To Learn”, my blog post dated September 11, 2018,  for a quick review of what you may want to be sure to include in your painting repertoire.)

The most important prerequisite to understanding how to soften an edge is learning that different degrees of wetness exist. In watercolor painting, these differences in wetness determine the effect a painter gets and whether a painter’s efforts create the desired effect. WETNESS is the basis for most techniques in watercolor. With too little water, the paint will not move easily, whereas with too much water, a painter will not have much control of the paint. AWARENESS OF and ABILITY TO CONTROL the amount of wetness will determine whether an artist’s techniques will be successful. We may need to practice softening, and practice again!

Many beginning watercolor students have quite a bit of trouble understanding how to judge wetness and its effects in watercolor painting. While experience helps you to learn how to control wetness,  even experienced painters need to follow the laws of physics. If painters try to fight the law of hydrodynamics and force the water to do their bidding, they will struggle! This rule is fairly straightforward, but it is not to be disregarded. Simply put, greater wetness ALWAYS flows into lesser wetness. It doesn’t matter where or when. For example, paint or water will flow OFF a brush onto a surface if the brush is WETTER than the surface. Paint or water will flow from the surface onto the brush if the brush is DRIER than the surface. There will not be much flow at all if the two areas are of similar wetness. There will be flow only if one area is much wetter than the other. Use this knowledge to control your edges in painting, avoid ‘blossoms’, and to soften an edge or fade out color.

The technique called “softening an edge” or pulling out or fading out color uses a brush that is damp and LESS WET than the painted area to be softened. When softening an edge, you are not actually moving any paint. You are using water to encourage the paint to move on its own. Painters try to put just the right amount of wetness (not too much or too little) in the right spot at the right time to allow the paint to ‘sigh’ into the wetness. The dampness makes a path for the paint to soften into. You want to produce a smooth, graded effect.         

More specifically, FADING OUT or SOFTENING AN EDGE is done by running a damp brush along the edge of a painted shape while the painted area is still wet. This approach works best if the paint area is very wet (just painted) and the brush is less wet (just damp). With the clean damp brush, dampened with very clean water, try to lay a line of dampness down just barely touching the edge of the paint. DON’T reach into the painted area and drag color out! You are trying to lay down a damp strip that will attract the wetter paint, so barely touch the edge of the paint. If you go too far into the paint with your brush,  your brush will act like a sponge, soaking up and spreading the paint around – not your intention. It may take several passes of the damp brush in order to moisten the paper enough to make the paint edge soften. Once the paint begins to move and soften, make your strokes (with a clean damp brush) further and further away from the paint (to avoid creating a hard edge).

What kind of brush is best for softening or fading out an edge? Natural fiber brushes are much better for softening than synthetics, because synthetic brushes are less able to hold a large amount of water AND have a tendency to release all of the water they hold at once. A synthetic brush will tend to dump too much moisture at first, leaving the right amount partway, then having little moisture left and running out toward the end of trying to soften a large area. The result can be a blossom at the beginning of softening, nice fading out toward the center, and no change in an edge at the end of a stroke with a synthetic brush.

It is best to get to fading or softening quickly, because as the paint dries, it is less likely to move easily, less likely to flow. (This technique is somewhat different from painting wet-in-wet or wet-in-damp, although both produce soft edges. ‘Softening an edge’ allows the artist more control in the sense that one side of the paint stroke is preserved as a hard edge while the other side is softened – perfect for rock crevices, folds in fabric, a snow bank, rolling surf, or flower petals.)

Soft edges convey distance.

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Soft edges create a sense of movement. 

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Soft edges suggest depth and shape. 

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