In this post, I'll discuss how you can critique your own art. Critiquing art is no easy task, especially when it's your own. We’re either far too critical or far too generous.
But it's a valuable skill which allows you to identify areas for improvement and to give yourself a pat on the back when you do something well. Also, you will often be your own best judge. So you may as well be a good one.
I'll start by outlining a process you can use to critique your own work. I'll then show you the process in action by critiquing my recent New Zealand, Foggy Mountains (shown below).
The main challenge of critiquing your own art is a lack of objectivity. We are all biased. We see our own work differently from everyone else. We are painfully aware of all the mistakes, struggles, sweat, and tears that went into its creation. We are also prone to comparing our work to that of the greats.
I cannot provide you with a sure-fire solution. I'm sure even the great masters battle these things. It's often what makes them so great. But ruthless honesty helps. Don't hide from your mistakes and don't ignore things you did well. Shine a light on them.
Put your ego aside. What areas are weak and need improvement? Think big picture, not tiny mistakes.
Are there glaring issues?
Is anything too big or too small (perspective and scale)?
Do any colors look out of place (often meaning incorrect temperature or value)?
Is it uninviting and bland?
Is it faithful to the subject?
Once you identify a few areas for improvement, narrow down further to the root issues. Don't be vague. If the drawing looks off, why? Maybe you need to work on your dexterity and control. If a color looks out of place, why? Is it because you don't fully understand color, or is it because you don't know how to use it? Maybe you need to improve your color mixing skills?
Then, work on improving those areas. Read some books, do some exercises, focus on that weak area in your next painting. Give the weakness some of your attention and it won't be a weakness for long.
Painting is hard, so you need to give yourself credit when credits due. But again, radical honesty is needed. Don't fluff up your ego if you don't deserve it.
It doesn't need to be much. Perhaps you mixed a color just right. Or your painting is just a little bit better than the last one. Or you held your calm after making a mistake. If you did something well, give yourself a pat on the back. Acknowledge wins as they happen.
To give you a demonstration, I'll critique my recent New Zealand, Foggy Mountains painting. Here it is again:
It’s based on a photo I took whilst hiking New Zealand's Routeburn track with my brother and father. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to paint any studies on the hike, so all I have is a reference photo plus my memory. Ideally, I like to have color studies plus reference photos. Cameras are fantastic, but they are no substitute for what we actually see.
Below is the reference photo. Keep in mind, when I paint from a reference photo, my aim isn’t to copy it. It’s merely a reference. The painting needs to stand on its own.
Let’s take a look at what’s going on in the painting. This is about me trying to look at the painting objectively, as if it's not my own work.
The first thing I notice is this lovely snaking line created by the stream. This is the main reason I chose to paint this scene. It gives a sense of gesture, movement, and life. It also helps your eyes move through the painting.
There are also several more subtle lines around the mountains. This helps reiterate the overall gesture. And notice where all these lines are directing you towards—that distant waterfall. It doesn’t smack you over the head, but it is a key feature in the painting. Remember, less is often more in painting. If I made the waterfall stronger, say with lighter colors and more detail, it would compromise the sense of depth and atmosphere.
Notice these other subtle lines on the right-hand side. They help convey the land’s form. I want you to feel the land as it changes, tilts, and leans in space.
Let’s take a look at the sky. The clouds and blue sky are woven together, creating a sense of movement and ambiance. If you look closely, you'll also see a subtle change in color saturation. The blue gets just a bit stronger around the area circled below. It’s not obvious, but small details like this can play an important role in the big picture.
In terms of the overall color strategy, most of the colors are compressed around the middle-value range, except for a few dark accents (circled below). These dark accents are small but powerful outliers. They create interest and command attention.
Here’s the painting in grayscale to show what I mean. Notice how, apart from these dark accents, most of the colors are around the same value. Even the sky is not that much lighter than the foreground. This creates a subtle link between all these colors, even though they might vary in terms of hue and saturation.
Let’s move onto my overall critique of the painting. What could be improved:
1st. The sky appears a touch too dark. Though in this case, the darker sky seems to work with the overall theme of the painting. But that wasn’t intentional, so I’ll put it in the "area for improvement" category.
2nd. The distant waterfall was very close to being overworked. I actually had to scrape this area down and try again. Luckily, it worked out, but it could have just as easily gone the other way. I need to be careful about reckless brushwork in future paintings.
3rd. The brushwork I used for the river is a bit sloppy. I painted with too much guesswork and not enough control. It also needs to swing further left on the nearest turn.
Now, what went well:
1st. There’s a good sense of depth. Which is important given that’s basically the whole idea of the painting.
2nd. I finished the painting at a good point. I didn’t overwork it.
3rd. I used a wide range of techniques to get the desired marks. Such as using the tip of the palette knife to scrape details into the painting and add subtle directional lines.
Tip: Every time you use a new technique or do something unusual, it’s worth giving yourself a pat on the back. It’s very easy to get caught up in your own ways, doing the same thing over and over again. Make sure you mix it up and experiment with new things.
All in all, I like how the painting turned out. It reflects how I remember the scene, which is what’s important. But, as Peter Fiore suggests in his quote below, the next painting will be better!
“The best thing about painting is the next painting. It’s going to be the best painting. Because if it wasn’t that way, you wouldn’t pick up a brush again. If you fell in love with a painting so much that you're afraid to paint again, what is the point of that." Peter Fiore, from his Savvy Painter interview.
(Peter Fiore is featured in my Exploring the Masters series. You can sign up here if interested.)
- Critiquing your own art is a valuable skill. Often, you are your own best judge. So you may as well be a good one.
- Be objective. Pretend it's someone else's work.
- Be honest with yourself. Shine a light on your weaknesses and strengths (don't hide them).
- Painting is hard, so make sure you give yourself a pat on the back when things go well.
Thanks for Reading!
Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I appreciate it! Feel free to share with friends. Want to learn more about landscape painting? Check out my Landscape Painting Masterclass.