Troubleshooting Your Painting
Before you throw it away, go through this list..
These paintings are from an exhibit in the Austrian Museum of Art.
The exhibit was called "Bad Painting, Good Art"
really, no kidding.
The major elements of your painting are: concept, composition, drawing, values, light, shadow, color, and edges. So, it makes sense that if something just isn’t working, it’s probably going to be one of these elements that needs to be corrected. Here are some questions to ask yourself if you find that a painting seems blah, or uninteresting, or just doesn’t seem to have that “flow” that you are aiming at. Or maybe just plain wrong somehow… (it happens).
Did you start with a clear idea of what you wanted to communicate, or were you just painting things?
If you didn’t have a clear idea, can you frame one now? Can you select a focal point, and then decide which parts of your painting will help communicate that and which might be unnecessary?
Helpful hint: If you are feeling the need to fill every inch of canvas with something, then it is likely that your center of interest isn’t interesting enough, and you should work at emphasizing it more. Do this before you try to add more “stuff” in there!
Is your center of interest placed so that the viewer takes a journey into your painting? If your center of interest is on the left hand side, did you create a visual path to keep the viewer engaged while reaching the focal point?
Is your center of interest smack dab in the middle? That’s usually not a good placement. Can you move it?
Helpful hint: Did you remember the “tic tac toe” rule of thumb in arranging your still life?
Helpful hint #2: Sometimes, cropping a painting down will condense the composition and make it stronger. You can do this in photoshop or equivalent, or use some cardboard or paper to frame in your painting in different ways to see if cropping might help. I frequently use what I call the "band saw editing" process. (ie, cutting down a larger painting into a smaller one)
Have you used perspective correctly? Are you sure?
Are objects that should be symmetrical, actually symmetrical? (vases with handles, or other complex shapes are especially bad about getting out of whack!)
Helpful hint: View your painting backwards in a mirror. This gives you a more objective view of what you’ve painted, without your own preconceived notions. Many flaws are revealed this way, unfortunately! But it’s a great way to find the flaws so you can correct them!
Does your painting have a good range of values?
Where is the darkest dark and the lightest light? Do these areas coincide with your center of interest?
Are there too many little value changes? Lots of choppy little areas? Can you simplify the values (NOT the colors) to only have 4 or 5 major values?
Helpful hint: try using color temperature INSTEAD of value changes to show form and light/shadow changes.
Did you select a single light source? If not, can you eliminate all but one light source? (this is especially noticeable in painting highly reflective objects like metal or glass)
Is your subject effectively lit?
Is there a flow of light across your painting? If not, how can you create that?
Have you given visual clues that there is intense light? (halation, letting colors flow into the atmosphere around them, reflected lights?)
Is all of your light the same color? Do you have areas that look like there is warmish golden light on them, and some things that look like there is bluish cool light? Light needs to be consistent in color.
Helpful hint: If everything looks the same as far as light goes, try putting some things into shadow, or lessening the value changes on some of the less important elements, so that your center of interest can really be the star.
Do your shadows have too sharp edges? Remember that cast shadows are most sharp where they touch the object, and become more diffuse and softer the further away from the object they go.
Are your shadows warm enough? Remember the rule, cool light/warm shadows.
Warm light/ cool shadows. Unless you are painting morning or afternoon light coming through a window, your light on a still life is probably cool. That means your shadows should be painted warm. Shadows even on a white cloth should not be blue, but a warm orangey green.
Form shadows might be a cooler, darker version of the object, but cast shadows will always be warm.
Do your shadows reflect the shape of the object? Form shadows should follow the contours of the object.
Hint: If your shadows look flat, or solid, they are probably not warm. Try adding a whisper of cad yellow, red, or orange to your shadow mixture.
Helpful hint #2. If you can’t decide what color your light is, put a piece of white paper under the light. Place something on it that will cast a shadow. Look at that shadow, and observe the color. Warm or cool? The answer will tell you what color your light is.
Color is tough! There’s a couple of important things to note about color:
- Color should serve the greater purpose of the painting – which, if realness is what we’re after, is to condense and find the truth and the essence of something. Color shouldn’t be used just because it’s “pretty”, but because it enhances that reality. Intelligently choose your colors!
- Lots of bright, out-of-the-tube color, all juxtaposed next to each other, usually does not serve to create an effective sense of light. Decide which is more important to you: bright color, or a light effect, and then plan your color.
- There should be a certain color strategy for your painting, and usually, the focus of attention should have the richest, warmest color. Some color strategies are opposites (for example, a red focal point against a green background, or variations of purple and yellow) or use of rich color against NO color.(for example, an orange against a neutral gray background)
Ask yourself these questions if your color seems dull, or muddy, or icky.
- Do you have a color strategy?
- Have you mixed your colors too much? Try to avoid mixing more than 3 colors at a time in any one mixture.
- Would adding small areas of pure color enhance your objective? Especially on your center of interest?
- Do your white objects have enough color in them? White is never really “white” except in the very lightest highlight. Mix a “dark white” for the local color of a white cloth, for example, and leave room for both highlights and shadow color.
- Are your transitions too blended? Color needs “boundaries” to exist as color. In other words, we recognize color by comparing it to what is next to it. If everything fades into a blur, colors get lost too. Think about using transition colors to show form instead of blending everything together.. Maybe try mixing a light, dark, and middle value for the objects you are painting.
Helpful hint: Select an area of your painting to receive the richest color (usually your center of interest) and use it fearlessly there!
The more I paint, the more I am convinced of the importance of edges.
Are your edges dynamic? (do they vary between hard and soft?) If they are all the same, can you sharpen some edges, and soften others?
Can you look for a place to “lose” an edge? This would be where two values or colors are quite similar.
Are your inside edges (where light meets shadow) soft enough?
Can you create a sense of depth and space by using softer edges in background objects?
Have you inadvertently painted an “outline” around anything?
Does your background seem to purposefully turn around your objects? (this is bad)
Helpful hint: Look at your center of interest, and check to see if it has a variety of edges.
If none of these things seem to point you towards a solution, then you have my permission to scrape it all down, or throw it away. It is, after all, only a painting. Learn from it, and go on. But first, go have a cookie. Cookies cure lots of things.