Updated: Jul 10
Well, we're reopening the School for workshops next week, so it seemed a great time to give this article on reassessing one's work an airing. It was originally written for a New Year edition of A&I, but after the lockdown the 9th of July certainly feels like a liminal day for me.
Interestingly most crises are times of rapid change, so the one thing that's not in this article which I'll be carrying forward onto our 'new year' is how impressed I've been with what online tuition can achieve, and how committed we are to doing it in tandem with our physical workshops going forward.
New Year- New You
We need to be honest about your painting this year and talk about failure. It’s not been fashionable to fail, but I’m attached to it, because implicit in the possibility of failure, is potential for success . I don’t mean to sound glib, but it is possible that some pieces of Art are better than others, in fact believing that obvious truth is the first and best way to improve your painting. And yet, we are encouraged to believe that ‘all Art is good’ , our creative outpourings have ‘merit’, and that ‘we can’t really judge art’. Reader, I encourage you put all of that behind you for 2020 and embrace failure, look it in the eye and teach yourself how to win.
Which works are good, and why? As a professional artist whose family relies on me getting it right, it will come as no surprise to you that I take self critique seriously, so much so that I have a system which I’d like to share with you. Pour yourself a coffee and pull out all of the pictures you have, put them against your studio wall, and let’s get started. I encourage you to spend an hour or so with your work, and don’t paint. Look, evaluate, consider, reflect, sketch even - but don’t paint. Here are the criteria I use for my self critiques:
1. Look Backwards Chronology is no measure of merit in Art. As Picasso wryly observed, Art ‘has been in decline since the era of cave painting’, a sentiment echoed by Greyson Perry when he noted that ‘everything was contemporary once’. So my first rule is that good art stands the test of time. When copying the latest thing or jumping on a new bandwagon ask yourself where it’s been before, and whether that wasn’t, in some ways, better?
When you see art you like, Google it, if you like a style start a Pinterest board. Look at everything, discount nothing but be date blind.
2. Abstraction Kandinsky, on returning from an evening stroll, saw the ‘most beautiful picture he had ever seen’. To his surprise, it was his - only seen at twilight, and on its side , stripped down of all the details he had painstakingly worked into it the picture looked both finished and beautiful. Its underlying abstraction had been revealed.
He realised then that a good painting - whatever else it may be - is fundamentally an arrangement of colours and shapes
3. Value is King Our vision is surprisingly dependent on gradations of light and dark; Values as we painty types term them. I was once (correctly) bumped from a good gallery for not having ‘strength’ in my work; they meant Value.
On a flat picture plane, we read Value changes as representing forms, dimensionality and all that. So a good figurative piece needs positive Value changes.
In the absence of ‘realistic’ or ‘figurative’ painting, we still need Values to create pattern and linear direction in works, or they can appear lifeless and flat, despite having strong colour. If you’re a colourist, don’t forget that Value and colour are inexorably interrelated. Thanks to our visual system, strong values make stronger paintings, and in a business with few absolutes, that’s worth knowing.
4. Colour control Value might be the strength of a painting, but colour is it’s soul. Kandinsky went as far as to observe that a painting will have both a subject which the painter intends, and a ‘power’ or ‘narrative’ derived purely from how we react to its colour. Looking at Rothko, Hockney or Van Gogh , it’s hard to argue with his observation.
Wether we agree with Kandinsky or not, its clear that we instinctively respond to colours with absolute clarity. It’s no accident that the best colourists amongst artists are the most well known, and while not everybody could explain why a work of art is good or bad, everybody can instantly decide if it would go with their sofa. Good colour use is about selectivity and orchestration. If you don’t get colour, rediscover Monet.
5.Making the cut So going back to your line up of paintings, its time to put them in order of merit. Start by placing the visual designs which ‘just work’ to the ‘keep’ side, they will have a good underlying abstraction. The others? We’ll we can recycle those later, if you don’t have a strong start, you can’t paint your way out of a poor design. Look at the designs now, and place the ones which have compelling lights and darks to one side, this can be formal modelling, Value planning, or just linear bridging; any Value use is good.
Now do the same with the ones which rely on colour. We’re looking for images here which have compelling colour rather than ones that look as though the colour happened to them. Touches of colour which punch above their weight, inherently pleasing schemes, unexpected chromatic twists or powerfully committed blasts of colour are in, drawn and coloured in images are out.
Once you separate your works into those which have a good underlying abstraction, strong values and successful colour, and those that do not then it’s time to go to the next level. If design, colour and value were the only measures of success, then everything in the Tate or National would be equal, but clearly they are not. The key? Narrative and Orchestration
6 Narrative Art is made by and for people, so it follows that the best art addresses that, and is in some way connected to the Human Condition.
This boils down to asking questions of ourselves or others. The questions are universal, and very simple. ‘What happened?’, ‘What is happening?’, ‘What happens next?’ Put that into your work, and it may become Art rather than craft.
I don’t mean you have to paint people of course, my paintings are of places but about people. Paintings Of things are always weaker than paintings About things, and paintings about us are the strongest of all.
7. Orchestration I’ve written this a dozen times, because I want you to grasp the above points in as clear and cogent a way as I can manage. If I took the preceding 1024 words and jumbled them up, my voice, my direction, my intention would all be lost, but the raw visual data would still be there. That’s orchestration, and artists don’t do enough of it. When Degas said that the art of painting was to make red lead appear as vivid as vermilion, he wasn’t talking about colour mixing, but communication.
Which is your best work, and how could it be better?
In summary then, good work is a disciplined colour and strong value on an inherently pleasing underlying abstraction. Better works convey something about the human condition, and great works orchestrate that in a way that is both compelling and can speak down the centuries.