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How do you judge your own work?

It’s an impossible task.  You’ve just spent hours … days … weeks (whatever) and the painting is done.  That is, you think it’s done.  Or at least, you don’t know what else to do with it (which is not the same thing as  done).

So you try to look at it as dispassionately as possible and say, “Not bad.” Or, if you’re lucky, “Wow, really great.” Or, “Nah, I’ll paint something on the back.”  And you know, whatever you decide at this moment, your judgment could be very different next hour, next month or next year.

The first painting I ever did that I was really proud of … after framing it and hanging it up on my office wall, I asked my mentor what he thought.  After some thought, he diplomatically responded, “It’s the best thing you’ve ever done, and there will come a time when you will be happy to take it down.”  In one sentence, he praised my work and told me I would get better.  The other message was that what you like now you may not like later.  Six months later that painting was down.

Some artists automatically love whatever they have just painted;  some reflexively are disappointed in what they have done.  I like to think I’m realistic about my work: I know when what I have painted is very good and I know when it isn’t.  But the problem lies with the vast number of paintings that fall somewhere in between. When I’m not sure what to think, I ask my painter friends whose opinions I value or I ask Frank O’Cain, my teacher at the Art Students League. Sometimes they don’t  agree.  But sometimes they do…

A case in point: Hraunfossar is a wonderful series of waterfalls in Iceland; this is the second painting I’ve done based on a few photos I took last year.

Hraunfossar II

Hraunfossar II

My artist friends like it; Frank liked it. I like it too.  But, as I was painting it, I didn’t like it at all.  When Frank first looked at it, I was ready to turn it over and paint on the other side (except there was already something I hated painted on the other side). Frank’s comment was that I needed to do something to bring the white (water) forward.  So, even though it was already white, I added some white paint, in a few places tinted with the blue or burnt sienna that I’d used elsewhere in the painting.

Nothing magical, and certainly something I should have seen myself.  But judging your own work is often very difficult. Teachers, friends and critics will often tell you just what you should have known but needed to hear.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. 09/16/2013

    This is a great piece – free and energetic. I often don’t like my work — but the old trick of putting it away for awhile and then bringing it out again after you have taken a new tack has helped me. Just as a personal way of working, I never ask someone what they think of a piece that I’m working on…I’m worrying that their response will color my reaction to it too much and I’ll lose the thread of what I was thinking as I was working….

    • 09/16/2013

      I agree. I only asked in this case because I was about to give up on it. Waiting awhile also works, as does turning it upside down. Once I have scanned a painting I am happy with and see it on my computer screen, that’s when I often find smaller problems (fortunately fixable ones).


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