Taking Your Work to the Next Level: Learn from Your Mistakes

Red Awning - oil on canvas, 2007. Although I was not happy with this painting, it was done at a time when my work was going through a stage of evolution. By focusing on the elements of the piece that I felt were strong, I was able to push my subsequent pieces in a new direction.

"Red Awning" - oil on canvas, 2007. Although I was not happy with this painting, obejctive self-critiquing allowed me to identify its succesful elements. I was then able to use some of these elements to push my subsequent pieces in a new direction.

As I mentioned before the holiday, I plan to have the next couple of articles focus on creating the best product (your paintings) you can, because I believe that is the best way to remain viable as a professional artist in a bad economy. Producing work that is fresh, new and energetic is vital to keeping collectors, curators and gallery directors interested in it. If you constantly produce the same subject in the same style your work quickly becomes formulaic. While an artists’ style should be recongizable, there should be some variation, especially over time, to show growth and evolution.

Growth comes from experimentation, and an awareness of the subtleties of the elements in each piece that you create. To become aware of these subtle changes, you need to learn to objectively critique your own work. Self-critique, when done objectively, can provide you with some of the most valuable feedback you can get:

  • you’ll be able to spot early stylistic shifts that you can focus on pushing further,
  • you’ll identify characteristics that tie inidividual paintings into a cohesive body of work,
  • and you’ll become more aware of the elements that set your work apart and make it unique

To objectively critique your work, you need to provide honest answers to the right questions.  I like to break things down into two categories: general impressions and technical proficiency. Some of the things I ask myself include:

General Impressions

  • Am I pleased with the piece and why or why not?
  • What are its strongest points?
  • What are its weakest points?
  • Does it communicate what I intended? How?
  • How does it relate to the rest of my work in terms of subject, style and direction I wish to go in?

Technical proficiency

  • Have I used brushwork efficiently and effectively?
  • Does the piece have strong color harmony?
  • Is the composition balanced?
  • Is there a sufficient range of values to create depth and dimension?
  • Have I used the medium to its best advantage?

On the painting above, I was not happy with the following items:

  • the format was too tall and narrow, it made the composition feel “squeezed” and the buildings looked distorted
  • there were too many things going on at the same time: too many colors, too much movement–while color and movement are always top elements in my paintings, I didn’t get the balance quite right in this one and it became too busy

Things I liked and chose to carry forward in future paintings included:

  • really loose yet efficient brushwork
  • semi-abstract feeling in the handling of the taxis, figures and buildings, getting a bit further removed from the realism of my earlier work

By focusing in on those elements that were succesful, as well as those that could be improved, I was able to make myself aware of the strengths I wanted to carry forward into subsequent work, as well as to be aware of the areas that I needed to pay attention to in order that they didn’t become repeat offenders.

I think the painting below is a good example of how self-critique builds awareness that can carry forward to future work. Although it is a completely different painting of a different area of NY, the strong elements in the one above can be seen here : loose brushwork and semi-abstract qualities; while I avoided its pitfalls by using a better proportioned format and a more limited palette. The point is, be aware of your mistakes, admit them, and learn from them–then move on to your next painting and use what you’ve learned. That’s how you get to the next level.

SoHo Scaffold - oil on canvas, 2008 - using a better proportioned format and a limited palette, but keeping the loose brushwork and semi-abstract figures and details creates a succesful painting as a result of objective self-critique.

"SoHo Scaffold" - oil on canvas, 2008 - using a better proportioned format and a limited palette, but keeping the loose brushwork and semi-abstract figures and details creates a succesful painting as a result of objective self-critique.

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