See Your Art Objectively

While packing to move into our new offices, I came across a self-portrait I painted several years ago that was lost in a stack of papers. I immediately recognized that the face was drawn inaccurately—an error I didn’t see at the time I created the oil painting. Clearly I was unable to evaluate my own work with the same objectivity I bring to judging work by other artists. That realization helped me understand how I can make better decisions during the painting process. Here are some of the methods that help me:

I look at my painting in a mirror.
When I simply reverse the image, I immediately see problems in the drawing or the composition of shapes and values.

I turn my paintings against a wall.
Putting a painting out of sight for a few hours or a few days gives me a fresh perspective on a work in progress.

I turn my sketch or photograph upside down.
When I stop thinking about the subject I am painting and focus on the abstract relationships between shapes, colors, and directional forces, I see pictures objectively.

I measure what I have done.
Measuring with a plumb line, calipers, or value scale is often the best way to make corrections.

I show the image to a friend.
I e-mail photographs of recent work to artist-friends and ask for comments. They can point out problems and successes I can’t see on my own. If you don’t have an artist-friend available for this kind of feedback, you can get advice from fellow artists on the American Artist forums

I display my paintings in the office.
Before I decide to use a plein air sketch as the basis of a large studio painting, I place it on a shelf in my office so I can look at it while I’m on the phone or typing. That helps me decide if the sketch is worth enlarging and what parts should be changed.

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M. Stephen Doherty

About M. Stephen Doherty

I've been interested in art since I was a child,  and I was fortunate to be able to take Saturday art classes at the Cincinnati Art Museum from the time I was 9 years old until I finished high school. I majored in art at Knox College and graduated summa *** laude, Phi Beta Kappa (proving artists can use both sides of their brain!).  I then earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking from Cornell University; taught art in public schools, a community college, an adult education program, and a college; worked in the marketing department of a company that manufactured screen printing supplies; and was hired to be editor of American Artist in January, 1979.

Thomas S. Buecher introduced me to plein air painting and it immediately became a passion of mine because it got me outdoors and allowed me to continue learning when I traveled to judge art shows, attend conventions, give lectures, and interview artists. Over the years I've exhibited my paintings at Bryant Galleries in New Orleans, Trees Place Gallery on Cape Cod, and in a traveling exhibition titled From Sea to Shining Sea.

I've written 10 books on artists and art techniques and contibuted articles to magazines, websites, and exhibition catalogs. Now as I prepare for semi-retirement, I'm trying to hone my painting skills -- especially those related to painting portraits.

I've been very fortunate to have met thousands of talented artists who have enriched my life with their art, their friendship, and their advice. I am grateful to Jerry Hobbs and Susan Meyer who hired me in 1979, to the talented people who worked with me on the magazines, and to the artists and advertisers who supported American Artist, Watercolor, Workshop, and Drawing  magazines and the related websites.

I've also been blessed with a supportive, talented wife, Sara; a daughter, Clare, who works for an insurance agency; a son, Michael, who is a computer enginner in Austin; a son-in-law, Shawn, who can fix and carry anything; a granddaughter, Amanda, who has me wrapped around her finger; and my mother, Dotty, who has advised and encouraged me from the beginning.

9 thoughts on “See Your Art Objectively

  1. I agree, this is a very good post. I too have a very hard time looking at my work objectively. I have to put it away and come back to it later. Then I will see the things that need to be changed. I have had to learn over the years and process to be patient in the process. I like to be finished sometimes and be done with a project and not come back to it, but that is not always the best thing for my work. I have found that too for my writing papers in school, I hate proof reading, but it needs to be done. If I walk away from the paper for a couple of days, then come back to it, I can find the errors and make the corrections. Great ideas, thanks.

  2. I have a studio in the back yard and I walk into my livingroom frequently as I paint and set the painting on bookshelves facing my chair. Everything in the livingroom is what I like to think of as normal light. I watch tv at night and continue to look at the painting jumping up every so often to go back in the studio and correct. When I think it is at a point where I need a different viewpoint I set up my digital camera and take a good phot that I immediately download to my computer in my studio and then I can see it on Adobe Photoshop. Here I desaturate for value checks and sometimes I move objects around, add objects I have in my reference library, change color so on and so on. Sometimes I’ll print these versions and tape them to the wall for side by side comparisons. I will do all this usually on paintings where I feel lost and floundering.

  3. This is the exact subject that I was talking about yesterday to my sculptor husband. Being a painter, I usually photograph my work, and upload it to my hard drive, and then I view it in Picasa (google’s photo sharing/editing free software.) I can then go into the Effects tab, and change it to black and white or sepia, and I can tell instantly if my values are correct….it is like doing a 3-value study overlay, but much quicker! I do have Photoshop, but it is faster to view and then change them back in Picasa.

  4. I am practicing the adjustments with mirror often, it always works for me. I also observe my finished work that is hanging on a wall in my studio. Sometimes it’s too late to correct it and valuable time is lost. Now I am sure it is not going to happen. I will definitely try all these wonderful ideas. Thank you Steve!

  5. Thanks to everyone who added comments about what works for them. The more ideas we have, the better we will be at seeing our work … and recognizes ways of making it better. Thanks, Steve

  6. photographing and inverting the image in a program like photoshop is another method with sometimes dizzying effects (particularly with the illusion of space). I’m not sure if its because I’m seeing it objectively or if its the way the eye moves differently through the picture. probably a bit of both.