See Your Art Objectively

6 Oct 2008

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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davidpyle wrote
on 6 Oct 2008 5:11 AM

Hey Steve,

What a terrific post.  I can't wait to see what surfaces in your blog over the coming months.  


trista7510 wrote
on 6 Oct 2008 4:24 PM

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.

Lou Marek wrote
on 7 Oct 2008 9:28 AM

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.


on 11 Oct 2008 9:44 AM

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 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.

Anna KH wrote
on 11 Oct 2008 7:08 PM

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!

mongoose1 wrote
on 12 Oct 2008 8:21 PM

Using a mirror helps, I also find that photographing it and looking at it as a flatter photo helps me as well.

sdoherty wrote
on 14 Oct 2008 5:03 AM

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

on 16 Oct 2008 7:49 PM

Switching the photograph over to a black and white in a photo editor is also a useful way of reviewing.


JamesBD wrote
on 20 Oct 2008 7:02 PM

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.