The Making of a "Good" Painting . . .

When my wife and I watch a movie, whether or not it is at home, within a few minutes our senses perk up and one of us alerts the other that this movie isn’t going to be very good.    Then again, there is absolute silence and rapt attention when the movie appears to have the necessary substance to receive, an above average rating from us.

We employ a scoring system of rating the movies on a scale of 1 to 5, 5 being the absolute best.   Of hundreds of watched movies, it seems we have only awarded two movies with the 5 rating.    Nearly all others, save for around 30 that have received 4’s, the rest fall right in the middle with ratings of 3 or lower.

How is it that we can sniff out those that come off early as unworthy of our time or attention?    Have you noticed similar reactions to seeing paintings?    What is it, in our senses, that tells us to not bother spending any time looking deeply at certain paintings?  

For most of us there is a feeling just behind our navel that sets us off.   We can’t define the feeling, nor the cause of the feeling.   We just “know” that it is there.   And the same goes for many painters in the throes of making a painting.   “Something isn’t right . . . I can feel it . . . .darned if I know what it is!”

For most beginning and many intermediate painters, they focus on the aspects of the subject matter of the painting.   “The perspective on the box seems a little off.”  “Or those birds should have 26 feathers in each wing.”   “The joints in the fingers aren’t quite right.”    These comments are made comparing absolute “reality” with the painting . . . . . . .in other words, the person making the critique is seeking a photo reproduction of what is ‘real.’   In my mind, this sort of criticism is useless to a painter.

Perhaps you might have seen the play “The Lion King.”   If you did, you probably remember the representations of the various animals using poles and stilts and all sorts of never before seen means of suggesting the gait and confirmation of the animals.   In my case, those illusions were so effective that they were shocking and fascinating!    I couldn’t take my eyes off them.  Of course, the musical background added to the mesmerizing effects of the illusions of the animals.   I can recall some of the moments in that theater production as if they were mere moments ago!

For a painting to win an award from an astutely qualified judge, many of the same things must occur in a painting . . . . .

Nothing should ever stick out and seem as though it doesn’t belong.   In other words, there must be some sort of relationship between all the parts . . . . .and I am NOT speaking of the things or objects in the subject matter.   The “parts” are the value shapes, the color shapes, the textures, the brushwork, the sizes and placement of the parts the painter wishes the viewer to focus on.   There must be a sense of a unified whole about the painting where the parts harmonize in a way to suggest a quiet relatedness with the rest of the painting.  Yet, while harmony must exist in the painting, there should be areas where there is indeed a contrast or a significant shift away from that relatedness to call attention and, yet, not appear wrong.   (That is a mouthful, I know.)    A good painting must at once hold excitement, mystery and belonging. In other words, a bit ambiguous.    For example, in painting a group of people, a few must stand out, so they can be clearly understood as to ‘what’ they are, while many others must be a singular big shape where there is little individual identity at work.   Within that shape should come variations of color and value so that the viewer gains some feeling of internal difference and is entertained, but whose attention isn’t averted from the whole.   The whole must move in a way to support that one big shape.

Omigosh!!   The words are confusing!    Consider the following words as the true parts of a painting, whether or not it is realistic or non objective:   Line (edges), Size (scale, proportion, measure, perspective), Shape, Direction (Horizontal, oblique or vertical), Color (intensity, temperature, value and Hue),  Texture and Value.

How the artist controls color and its four aspects is a good look at the artist’s creative talents and how he or she uses that creativity.   It is way more than copying what he or she thinks he or she sees.   For example, the turn of a surface toward a shadowed side can be shown with a mere value change and the color grayed into that shadow.   Or, the artist can use a big shift in hue and temperature to show the same affect.   Which do you think would be more entertaining to the viewer?

If the artist was to use that latter method, it cannot be alone in the painting.   The rest of the painting must use a similar method to express transition from light into shadow.  In that way, the rest of the painting is in support of that piece of creative license.

Take the seven words above, and tie them to the eight “Conditions” of design.   Some experts call them “principles” of design.    I speak of these words as the conditions that are the resulting conditions or states that are created by the seven elements noted above.   The eight conditions are:  Unity, Harmony, Dominance, Contrast (Conflict), Repetition, Variation, Gradation (transition) and Balance.  

Each of the elements, such as Line, can be assessed by all of the conditions within a painting.  For example, there is a simple line and there are all the edges (which are indeed lines) . . . . . .one can assess just the aspects of Line in a painting by considering the Unity of Line throughout the painting, the Harmony of Line, the Dominance of Line, the Contrast of Line, Repetition of Line, The variation of Line, the Gradation (change) of Line, and the Balance of Line.  (Consider substituting the word “Edges” for ‘Line’ in the last few sentences.)  Yes, each of the elements will have some of these conditions existing in them in a painting.   It is up to the artist to determine the degree, or the amount or quality of the conditions.  For example, how much contrast is called for?   Is it a quiet contrast or is it strident?   Does the contrast chosen find harmony in the painting ?   Or, does it stand separate and away from the other aspects?

This is much to digest, I agree.   It is also the reason there are so few masterworks in this world.

There is another aspect in judging a painting . . . . .that is the choice of what the artist chose to paint.   The “WHAT” combined with the “HOW” is the quality that stops the viewer (the judge) in his tracks to take a much closer look at the depth of the artist’s work.   That aspect of “What” . . . .or subject matter . . . . .can be, for the artist, a trap.    I agree that a fine painting must have some form of emotional content or message . . . . . . . a pictorial story, if you will.    There comes a challenge, however, when the emotional content is sappy or saccharine or overly sentimental.    ( Remember the comment about the movies at the first part of this article?   Does the word ‘corny’ come to mind?”)    What has been seen before, thousands of times, is no longer interesting.   For example, simple reproductions of flower blossoms is a trite subject . . . . . ( I used to paint them myself!!) . . . . . .UNLESS it is done in a highly designed way so as to cast the sense that that image has never been seen before.   It isn’t in the “how well” the artist reproduced the image, but in HOW the artist was able to create an interesting illusion.

Obviously, there are infinite ways of painting the same idea or thing.   What sort of emotional aspect, which is included into the painting, is completely determined by the artist.  How the artist imbues those feelings is really a manipulation of Line, Shape, Sizes, Directions, Color, Values and Texture.   A good judge will turn his or her back on corny, over done subject matter (as seen on greeting cards) because it has been seen so many, many times before.

Creativity is word used often without fully understanding the idea of bringing forth something completely new . . . . .something nobody has done before.   Of course, as millennia elapse, more and more paintings of “new” work closes out the range of our possible choices, it seems.   Yet, artists everywhere are coming up with new ways of saying something visually every day.  

I am reminded of a specific artist who was creating incredibly beautiful non- objective paintings.   She submitted her painting into ‘that big show in New York’ only to be refused entry into their annual show.   Not put off, she submitted the very same painting the next year.   Refused!   And the next.  Refused.   And the next and next and next for 13 straight years !   The same painting!!   Finally, on the 13th year her painting was accepted.   Then for the next two years, submitted similar, highly creative work and was accepted and awarded her signature status.    Was it her paintings that were the problem, or was it the jurors who misunderstood her work?
Remember!!   It takes that sort of courage to stand for your work!!