In this post, I’ll share some of the tests you can use to check the accuracy of your paintings or to diagnose mistakes. I’ll use my recent painting, Elora and White Roses (shown below), to demonstrate my points.
Why These Tests Are Important and When to Use Them
Of course, the key benefit of these tests is to produce more accurate and believable work. But it’s also about honing your judgment as an artist. It’s impossible to hone your judgment if you’re naive to your own shortcomings or mistakes.
You can use these tests at any point throughout the painting process. I find them particularly useful for the following:
- At the start of a painting when you’re establishing the foundation, especially for complex subjects.
- To make sure you’re on the right track midway through a painting.
- Once you have completed a painting to verify your accuracy.
- When you need to diagnose a mistake or problem.
1. Squint Test
Squint at your painting and the subject and look for any glaring issues or irregularities. Squinting reduces the “noise” of what you see and makes everything appear hazy and a touch darker. It’s an effective test for the big-picture aspects of your work, particularly in relation to value (how light or dark your colors are) and the major shapes.
2. Thumbnail Test
Look at a thumbnail photo of your painting. If it looks realistic, that’s a good sign you got the fundamentals right. You can also compare a thumbnail of your painting to a thumbnail of the reference photo to spot any big-picture irregularities.
3. Use a Collage App to Compare Your Painting to the Reference Photo
Compare a photo of your painting to the reference photo. I use a collage app on my phone, but any editing software such as Photoshop or Canva will do (Canva is free and beginner-friendly). This tests for issues of scale, perspective, and drawing. Portrait painters would find this test particularly useful.
4. Grid and Key Measurements Test
Place a three-by-three grid over a photo of your painting and your reference photo. You could also place vertical and horizontal lines that go through the middle. Use the gridlines and intersections as reference points to take key measurements with which you can test the accuracy of your drawing, scale, and perspective. I typically only do this for complex subjects involving people, animals, or architecture.
I used grids and key measurements in Elora and White Roses to ensure my drawing of Elora was on the right track. It was critical that I got her scale, shape, and proportions right. On several occasions, I got out a ruler and measured the exact distance between parts of Elora and the nearest gridlines. I then had to compare this to the relative distance in the reference photo. Tedious work, but I wanted to get this one right.
I was particularly focused on the areas circled below and their positions in relation to the grid.
I also used the gridlines to check key lines and angles. For example, to verify the accuracy of Elora’s left arm, I mentally drew a line that extended from her arm to the nearest grid line. If the line intersects the grid in the same spot as the reference photo, I know all is right.
5. Grayscale Test
Grayscale a photo of your painting. This will allow you to clearly see the value structure (how light or dark all the colors are). You can compare this to a grayscale of your reference photo. Pay particular attention to the lightest lights, the darkest darks, and the arrangement of light and dark shapes. See below a grayscale of my Elora painting and the reference photo. A few key observations:
- My painting is more compressed in terms of value. That is, the lightest lights are a bit darker, and my darkest darks are a bit lighter than that of the reference photo. This is by design, as I wanted the painting to have a softer finish with less value contrast.
- I’m missing a dark accent on the architecture at the top. This was also by design, as I didn’t want to draw attention to this area and away from Elora. But, it could have worked nicely with the bright, overcast sky as a backdrop.
- My painting has less value contrast in the background (see the trees at the back and the sky). I made up for this by using subtle changes in hue and visible brushwork.
6. Color Checker
7. Negative Space Test
Compare an area of negative space in the painting to that of the reference photo. Negative space being the area between objects and things. For example, I could verify the accuracy of my drawing of Elora by looking at the negative space surrounding her and the shapes that space forms. If the negative space has a different shape to that of the reference photo, then something is wrong with my drawing.
A Word of Warning
Don’t get caught up trying to verify every decision you make in a painting. That would sap the joy out of painting.
Also, there are times when it’s OK to be wrong. Perhaps you want to exaggerate or restrain a certain detail. Or perhaps the error is insignificant and not worth fixing.
Reserve these tests for critical and fundamental aspects of your painting. Things that really push the needle. For example, if you’re painting a portrait, it’s critical that you get the eyes and nose right. But it’s less important to get the exact layout of the hair or the exact skin tones.
Want to Learn More?
You might be interested in my Painting Academy course. I’ll walk you through the time-tested fundamentals of painting. It’s perfect for absolute beginner to intermediate painters.
Thanks for Reading!
I appreciate you taking the time to read this post and I hope you found it helpful. Feel free to share it with friends. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
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