As a judge, my responsibility is to judge, and perhaps to be as kind as possible when handing out my evaluation of the exhibit. I don’t enjoy judging art any more than I enjoyed disciplining my children.
As a teacher, on the other hand, my responsibility is to critique, not to judge. My hope is that when I judge, I also act as a teacher and that by being clear about my criteria and sharing my evaluation privately with each artist, I encourage working harder on weak areas while acknowledging the strong.
I have to assume that the artist has chosen her entry from among her best paintings, unless the primary goal is to sell rather than exhibit. If the intention is to sell, perhaps getting rid of less-than-stellar inventory, the artist has already judged the painting and there is no need for me to explain why I didn’t give it an award. Quite honestly, there’s a better chance of selling a painting when it’s one of the best in one’s inventory.
There’s an important exception to my assumption. When familiar with an artist’s work and I see that the painting is not among his best, I can’t help taking that into consideration and being more critical when evaluating the work. However, when I recognize the hand of an artist and I see she has stepped out of her box and attempted something new, I take that into consideration, too. Though the work might not be technically proficient, it may have great strength in its expression of discovery and exploration and I can’t help but give my support to such courage. In this case, I understand the entry as a risky test to get a feel for the response to the new direction. An exhibit is an excellent test ground for such work. Does it hold its own among the other paintings? Maybe yes, maybe no.
The most common reason paintings score poorly is due to lack of focal points. Where does the artist want me to look? What inspired the painting? The elements of art, the tools of our trade, are meant to help us express ourselves more clearly, to guide viewers to pay attention to the area that we care most about, our reason for creating the painting in the first place and our reason for choosing it to share with others. If we want to leave viewers guessing, we might as well take a snapshot of a scene, still life, figure, etc. and let the them guess what it was that inspired us.
A film director would not give top billing to an actor to play a minor role while giving the major role to a novice. If the dominant elements of the overall painting are value and texture, the values and textures in the painting should be strongest at the focal points. If the dominant elements used for moving the eye through the entire painting are not doing their job because there are no focal points, there is a problem. Once again, the viewer is left confused and simply moves on to the next painting.
Variety is often the key; for example, hard and soft edges, full intensity hues and neutralized hues, cool and warm colors, lights and darks, big and little shapes, linear and organic shapes, different spacial illusions. When all the seasonings in a stew are strong, they cancel one another out. Stage lighting focuses on the main actors, it tells us where to look. All of the instruments in an orchestra don’t play at the same notes at the same volume simultaneously. No matter how well the instruments are being played, the sound would send the audience running.
Evaluating Your Own Work: A checklist for Self-Critique
It’s easy to be seduced by color and have so much fun with it that the skeleton of the painting is, perhaps, neglected, forgotten or lost along the way. Remember the order of importance when it comes to creating a painting or a drawing.
1. Basic units (shapes), generally not more than six or seven.
2. The values of each of those basic shapes
3. The temperature of each of those basic shapes
When evaluating your painting, ask yourself the following questions without concern for the objects or the subject matter of the painting:
A. What are the basic units (shapes)? Do they vary in both size and shape while still allowing one size and one shape to remain dominant while the other shapes act to support the dominate shapes? Do the Basic Units fit together well, either interlocking or creating strong barriers (if that is what you wish)?
B. When I squint, or when I take a black and white photo of my painting, does the composition work? Do I still have strong shapes and a strong understructure (skeleton) for my painting? Are the darks linked? Are the lights linked? Is there a dominant value that the other values support?
C. Edges. Do I have a variety of edges (or intended lack of variety)? Do my edges work to create the transitions I desire between shapes, objects, values and colors? Are my edges supporting my expression or contradicting my expression?
D. If I want my space to be flat, have I used my color saturations and my edges to create flatness? If I want to create depth and space in my painting, have I used my color saturations and my edges to create depth and space?
E. Do I have one or more focal points? Are my shapes, values, edges, textures and colors working together to make direct the viewers eyes to my focal point(s)?
F. What excited me or inspired me to create this painting? Have I allowed that visual inspiration to drive the painting? If it isn’t clear to the viewer, why isn’t it?
I know that those are a lot of questions. Those are the questions I ask myself during the painting process and near the end of the painting process. Often the power and beauty, the freshness and energy of a painting is lost by the application of too many final touches.