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Learn to Critique Your Own Artwork

by Lori Woodward on 1/5/2011 10:20:30 AM

Today's Post  is by Lori Woodward, Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. She also writes "The Artist's Life" blog on American Artists' Forum. Lori is a member of The Putney Painters, an invitational group that paints under the direction of Richard Schmid and Nancy Guzik.  Find out how you can be a guest author. 


If you've been painting or making fine craft for a time, you're probably aware that it's quite easy to critique another artist's work, while it's difficult to get a objective idea of our own. Some of us are way too hard on ourselves and keep overworking a painting when it was just fine hours or days before. Other artistic personalities overrate their work - ignoring the fact that it is quite amateur, and thinking that if it's marketed well, there is much money to be made. The rest of us fall somewhere in between the two extremes.


Look At Your Work Objectively

We're all different in our approaches to creating. Some plan, do thumbnails and sketches -- others just go for it, painting from start to finish in a plein air or alla prima fashion. There's no sense in comparing yourself to others. What works for you IS what works for you. Accept your approach and grow with it. But when it comes down to a final self-critique, before that painting goes online or to the gallery, it's important that we use a set of principles to judge our work by. Take your feelings out of the process, because feelings aren't always accurate and can change from day to day.


Here are some of the techniques and principles I use to critique my own work:

  1. Stand back from your work every so often. It helps to work standing up sometimes; otherwise I tend to get lazy and resist taking a look from a distance. 
  2. Turn the painting upside down and sideways, look at it in a mirror, or photograph it and flip it backwards in your computer's photo-editor. You'll be amazed at how different the composition looks, and furthermore, problems that other viewers would see (because they're seeing it for the first time) will become quickly apparent. Look for balance; if it's a landscape a crooked horizon line will easily show up. Lop-sided teacup or plate elipses reveal themselves when a painting is upside down or on its side. Unequal eye sockets or "off" perspective with facial features become obvious.
  3. Value masses: Great painters of the past knew that a strong composition with 4 or 5 main values were eye catching. When value shapes are broken up with too many light and dark spots, the composition will appear like a polka dotted dress from a distance.
  4. Your center of interest (not all paintings need one), should have a great deal of contrast, more saturated color, and a harder edge. In fact, with representational painting, one edge should be harder (meaning easy to see when your eyes are half-closed) than the rest of the painting's edges. Some edges should be soft or completely lost. If you're a photographic realist and don't like to physically soften your edges with the brush, you can lose edges by putting similar values next to each other.
  5. Plan for accent lights and darks. Ideally, your composition will have one accent dark, also called the darkest dark. If you make all your darks the same value, your viewers eye will have no stopping place. The same goes for the lightest light. By the way, value is more important than color because our eyes and brains are designed to see value more easily than color - that's why we can enjoy a black and white drawing.
  6. Color: this is such a complicated topic. I can hardly scratch the surface here in a blog. But for starters, make sure your painting is primarily warm or cool in temperature. Usually, it is the color of the light source that determines the coolness or the warmness of the light on objects. The shadows are the opposite of the temperature of the light. Warm light, cool shadows; cool light, warm shadows. But... The accent darks are always warm. Try this out: make a very dark shadow on the blue side and then experiment with a warm brown in that shadow - such as Burnt Sienna. The warm brown will deepen and darken the shadow more than any cool color ever could.


If you're a representational painter - meaning that one can recognize the objects in your painting, all of the above terms should make some sense to you. If they do not, it may be time for further education. There are many good books and videos out there - that weren't available 20 years ago. Knowledge will get you further than painting without it. One caveat though, you'll always know more, head-wise, than you'll be able to produce with brush and paint. Great painting takes practice as well.


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mimi torchia boothby watercolors
great post. I just installed a mirror in my studio and was scratching my head trying to figure out what was wrong with the painting i was working on. I turned it around and looked at it in the mirror... and GASP! it was so OBVIOUS!

thanks for taking the time to put down these pointers. I will definitely save your list.

Virginia Giordano
Excellent ideas. I have found that putting the work away for days, weeks etc gives me objectivity. The photograph works best to critique my work, the camera offers an objective view, almost like another person. I was also trained to keep notes in my artist journal and so I track my thoughts and feelings as I progress through a work.

Michael Cardosa

Excellent posting as usual!

Personally, I love to have my work critiqued. The downside to critique is that you have to keep in mind that the other artists have their own style and ways of doing things and that is going to color (no pun intended) their comments. The issue I always run up against myself is when is the painting finished? I've certainly ruined enough things to know that there is a real danger in overworking a painting.

With the desire to get better all the time it's easy to keep painting and hoping for better but without planning on what you really want it never happens. The painting just winds up with more paint and really gets you nowhere!

Anyway, I know my paintings are better than they were and will hopefully get better than they are no matter what I really think of them!


David W. Mayer
Hi Lori,

These are good criteria for a critique of your own artwork. I try to limit my evaluation categories to these 4: Shapes, Values, Colors, and Edges.

Then, however, I have found (and I teach in my workshops) that one also needs to take an approach one level higher up.

First, ask your self "what is working and why". Then ask "what is NOT working and why."

For example, which values are working and why? Then which values are not working and why?

If you can't answer these 4 very key questions throughout all areas of your painting, then you will just be "pushing paint around" and you cannot expect to grow as an artist.

If you don't have the answers right away, then dig in and study (books, DVDs, workshops, museums, galleries, other artists work) until you can answer all of your critique questions.

Print out these key questions and tape them up near your easel. Pretty soon you will find it second nature to do the asking and answering ... and you can expect more rapid growth.


Dave Mayer
West Creek Studio

Great points Lori and I'm a big Richard Schmid fan. His book, Alla Prima should be required reading for all representational painters.

Maureen Sharkey
Lori, I always look forward to reading your articles--they are always among my favorite.

In regards to your one statement: " It helps to work standing up sometimes; otherwise I tend to get lazy and resist taking a look from a distance." --I have dicovered a technique that lets me get back from the easle, then slide right up close with ease, thus eliminating the 'lazy' problem. It came to me because of my broken foot a couple years ago. My boyfriend set me up with a chair with wheels so I could scootch around the apartment whle staying off my brocken foot. Now I use that while painting, and it works marvelously well! I only hope my neighbors downstairs don't mind. The old neighbors moved out after I started rolling around, though. (are you on the floor laughing right now?)

Sharon Weaver
It is wonderful to have a check list with practical steps for evaluating my work. For me, one thing that never fails is putting the painting away for a few days or weeks and then looking at it. A fresh eye sees those areas that need work right away.

Lori Woodward
Michael, the trick to stopping before you ruin a painting is to stop when you're 80 percent satisfied. Set it aside and then take a look at it a few days later.

I've often been frustrated with how my progress is going, but after I put it out of my site for a day or two, I find that it isn't so bad after all.

I'll check back later this afternoon here. I'm off to do a private critique on one of my student's work. I plan to post the critique on my email newsletter at some point. Bye for now!

Bonnie White
Great post! Thank you for reminding us to look at our work objectively. But, most of all, thank you for the information about the website where we can purchase and/or rent videos to help get us through these cold, northern winters, in a really exciting way.

JT Harding
And, if you can, get Stapleton Kearns to critique your work on his blog!

Carolyn Henderson
Lori: Excellent article, well written, with well enumerated points.

In critiquing his work, Steve has come up with the Low Light test: he turns off all of the various lighting that he has had on the piece while working on it, and looks at it in ordinary room light, preferably around dusk so that the light is even lower and more subdued. If the essential elements of the painting come through, then he knows that he's on track.

Essentially, it's like a real life Notan.

Tom Weinkle
Great tips Lori. I like Number One the most. It's easy for us to get too close, and lose a sense of reality by not stepping back and even taking a break.

I don't know about you, but I find that a piece of a painting seems to be working really well, and resembles what I was trying to capture..until I take a break. I come back in the studio, and suddenly it's not what I thought it was. I call it "rapture of the moment", where your brain starts to make the leap without the reality being there.

I think as one masters the craft, the gap between recognizing what you think is on the canvas and what really is on the canvas gets shorter and shorter. Experts can stand back for a moment and see what needs to be done. Aspiring artists (like me) need to take longer breaks.

Thanks for sharing your ideas.

Bonnie Samuel
Very helpful tips, Lori. I do look at my work from a distance and in different light and very often catch something "off" I didn't see close up. Will try also some of the other ideas you mentioned. Thanks!

Trent Gudmundsen
The best advice I ever received:

Constantly (half an hour each day AT LEAST) look at the best examples of artwork from the past, and the best work of living artists as well. (I just have files of downloaded works, organized by artist). This practice fine-tunes your ability to see what makes good art. If you are constantly refreshing your view of what makes it good, you will more easily recognize it when you see it in your own work.

This has helped me immensely in my own efforts.

Virginia Giordano
Trent - Very good. I do that but haphazardly, I like the idea of making a regular daily practice!

Carol Schmauder
Thank you for great tips Lori. There are certainly great tips from others who have commented, as well. I am sometimes guilty of comparing my work to others who are much more advanced than I and it does nothing but cause discouragement.

Sandy Askey-Adams
This is a great post. Very important, helpful and informative. Thank you again Lori.

Want to thank also each artist who has left their comments of what and how they critique their own work. I do not always find it easy to do. I know what is bothering me while working on the painting, etc..and even afterwards, but I still question the completed work. I think it does take knowledge of all those 4 evaluation categories that Dave had mentioned.

I do use a mirror all the time. Have been doing that since forever and forever. Amazing the difference it can make in realizing those "bad and not working" areas. But, it still takes a well-rounded knowledge of what Dave had mentioned...and of course all that Lori has written in her post.

Sometimes I find if I take a black and white photo of the "close to completion" or "completed" work that can help also.
And I too will take the painting into different lighting...and will put it aside for days and then see it with a fresh eye.

I think this post also helps validate that we are on the right track when we critique our own work.


Carolyn Henderson
Carol -- yes, it is very easy to get discouraged when you look at other people's work and think, "Oh, God -- they're so much better than I am!"

I know that Steve dealt with this in his early years of painting by focusing on the works of dead artists. We used to joke about his graveyard of buddies out in the studio.

One thing that Steve and I have found in our respective fields (his, painting; mine, writing), is twofold:

1) discouragement is not necessarily all bad. Sometimes it is a crucial step to go through before we can move forward. After all, you cannot improve what you're doing if you don't realize that you need improvement.
2) there's only so much discouragement you can take by looking at what everyone else is doing and comparing it to yourself. At this point, you step away for awhile and work with what you've learned. You have your own style, your own technique, your own approach. You'll never find this if you're always holding up what you do to what someone else is doing.

By continually reaching and moving forward, you advance, and the next time you re-visit certain works, you may find yourself critiquing them based upon what you've learned and absorbed.

Carolyn Henderson
By the way, does anyone know why, every time I type an apostrophe, it shows up as quotation marks? This doesn't look good for my status as a writer!

Sue Martin
This is such a great post that I've reprinted it in my blog and linked to it from my FB art page. Standing back more often is key. All too often, when I think I'm through, I finally get some distance and ask myself, "what was I thinking?" Thanks, Lori!

Marian Fortunati
It's so interesting that you posted this just now as learning to REALLY critique my own work has been in my mind as a major 2011 goal. (Soon to be posted in a blog.... ;o) )
I've decided to begin to take classes again after a hiatus of about a year and a half. I plan to study with someone who paints en plein air and in the STUDIO from his studies and whose knowledge I respect. When I told him what I hoped to get from taking his class, this is what I told him.... I want to UNDERSTAND what it is that makes some of my work "good" and some not so good.
I like a lot of my work... but often what I think is "good" gets panned in shows...

I will print out your list as reminders of what I do know but I will used it deliberately as I evaluate my own work.... I imagine the teacher I will be studying with will suggest the same things... but some of us take a lot more work than others to "own" the understanding.

Thanks again, Lori!

Diane Spears
Thanks, Lori, for reminders. Recently I discovered that if I desaturate a photograph with photo-editing, that it will quickly reveal trouble spots such as unsuccessful shading for 3D illusion or an object that seems to disappear that should be the focal point or focal area. I did this recently on a painting that I painted a long time ago that has not sold. Now I know why it has not sold.

Carol McIntyre
Mirrors and upside down are always good, but I always love it when my hubby walks in and says, for example, "I see two eyeballs staring at me." ....and the painting is not about eyeballs. First I groan and then I am very grateful for his observations. I swear there is no way we can have completely fresh eyes when we look at our own work.

Thanks Lori for the great reminders!

mimi torchia boothby watercolors
wait, so what DOES it mean when he says two eyeballs are staring out at him?

Joanne Benson
Great post Lori!
I have used many of the methods you suggest and will put this post in my keepers folder as an excellent reminder. The place I notice problems the most is when I photograph the work and then look at it on my computer monitor. The great "AHA" happens and I see problems I didn't see before. Also, using photo suite to put the painting into grayscale can be helpful as well. I have sent paintings to our local papers to advertise art shows and sometimes they print them in color and sometimes black and white. Depending on how I have achieved my areas of contrast, color vs value, the painting my not look so hot in black and white. The difference is amazing. Now I test them out before sending so that I know a given painting will look good either way! I often put paintings aside for days, weeks, months or even years and come back to them. I have been working on resurrecting some older watercolors recently and by doing that I have confirmed what the art books all say, if the composition is bad, you can't really do anything to fix the painting...unless of course it is croppable.

Thanks again for a great post and thanks to every one who contributed as well!

Donna Robillard
I, too, like the rest of you, use most of the methods of critiquing my own work. The one I do need to use more of is moving it to a different light source. Having said all this, my best critique comes from my husband1 He definitely has a keen eye and a sense of what could be done differently or in a better way.

Mandar Marathe
Great tips explained in a concise but precise way!
I do upside down, mirroring, turning the photo image to black and white to check values too but showing the painting to my family members is another important test that works for me. I do not always agree with their thoughts but at least I get several other viewpoints!

Jo Allebach
I have a friend who can pick out a winner or a loser in a second. I show him a completed or nearly completed painting and he says "keeper" if it is good. This has been amazing because these are the ones I mostly sell so others must be seeing the same. I do a lot of stepping away from my work as I usually work on a larger scale and need that distance to see the whole picture.
Everyday i learn something new. thanks

Michael Cardosa
Hi Lori,

Thanks for getting back to me on that. I like the 80 percent idea. I have a large painting that I worked on, really liked with it was going and then didn't know when to stop. It's a very large cloud painting. Pretty much ruined the cloud. Then left it alone for a couple of months. Did a minor tweak and I'll be posting it on my site this week! Stop, leave them alone and then go back. That's my new motto!

Thanks again,


Carolyn Henderson
Marian: Regarding things being "panned" in shows -- sometimes it is best to not take this seriously.

Many shows are juried by ONE person, and your work is subject to his or her personal preferences and prejudices. While some judges are well able to look at work outside of their own sphere and judge it on the merits of its artistic skill, others are too shortsighted to do so.

For years, we were responsible for finding judges for a local art exhibition, and we tossed out many a potential judge because of their narrow mindedness. Some of our finest judges were representational artists who were also graphic designers. Their day job required that they have an eye for excellence in media and subject matter outside of their preferred one.

Steve recently finished judging for a regional show in which the art society members told him, "We juried in the artwork; but if you think any of it needs to be tossed out, then do so."

He replied, "Why would I do that? You are all artists, and you all served on the jury that allowed this artwork in. It is not my place to refute your decision."

They were in (pleased) shock. They informed him that one judge had refused to judge their show because they didn't have enough abstract art, and he required 60 per cent of the work in the show to be abstract.

What arrogance.

So, it's a crap shoot. If the show has a confident, secure judge who takes time to thoughtfully review the work, then his or her comments, if they are given, can be valuable indeed.

Any judge who publicly "pans" a piece, however, is stepping over the line, and any critique he or she gives is questionable.

Sandy Askey-Adams
Recently I read the very interesting, open and honest blog of Bill James, a well known, national award winning artist with a ton of credentials. He works in several art mediums and has won awards in every medium.
When it comes to judging work and doing a critique of our own work, he has words on all of this.
He even has a list of judges(artist) he considers not good at judging work and some are well known arists...and he also has a list of judges (artists) who he consideres to be fair judges. It took courage to write what he wrote. We may or may not agree with all he has to say.
You should go to his blog and read it.
let me see, I think his web site is..


Tom Weinkle

Carolyn Henderson
Sandy: Thanks for the link. I followed it and very much enjoyed the article. What bodacious audaciousness -- I love it!

Tom: You are right -- some people seem to thrive on the negative energy created in a hyper-critical environment, and I would venture to say that "happy" is not an accurate description of their day-to-day life. Their loss. We can either smile at them and tip our hats as we pass, or opt to cross the street and walk on that side.

Sandy Askey-Adams
Carolyn....Yes!!!! Amazingly bodacious audaciousiness... And a good article. Hope more artists read it.
But, it also took courage and knowledge about what he speaks of to state what he wanted to say. With his credentials, he can easily let his thoughts be known. He bows down to no one...he is his own person.

Sandy Askey-Adams
Oh, Carolyn,
I am not a writer, and I too get those quotation marks also where there should be apostophes... plus, I wish I could go back and correct the typing errors that turn out to look like I do not know how to spell. LOL Hmmmmm

Marian Fortunati
Carolyn... Thanks so much for your kind and candid response to my post.

I probably shouldn't have used the word "panned" as I know too well that jury judges are just people with opinions just like the rest of us.
HOWEVER... I honestly and really would like to get to the point with my own work where I UNDERSTAND (for example) why one of my paintings (which I like)gets awards and into several shows and another of my paintings (which I also like) doesn't.

My desire to be able to critique my own work better isn't really about getting in to juried shows, getting awards, or even about selling. I just want to UNDERSTAND what makes a painting excellent so that I can use that knowledge to approximate it more frequently.

That's really where I want to go on this journey of mine.

Tom Weinkle
Bill is a great artist and illustrator. Master of his own domain Sandy!

Carolyn Henderson
Marian: As you observe, shows are juried by individual people with individual tastes. That an artwork wins an award, or not, may have very little to do with quality and skill.

Perhaps a less frustrating, and more fruitful, journey would be do continuously look at your artwork -- as a professional artist -- and figure out what makes it better, based upon your knowledge, expertise, and wisdom.

Steve listens to the responses of both art professionals (whether they be fellow artists, gallery owners, museum curators, or what not) and that of ordinary people, the latter who respond to a work on a more visceral level ("I like this because . . .") since they do not have to sound like artistic geniuses.

The ultimate goal is to improve one's skills as an artist, so that the visions inside of your soul are successfully transferred to canvas, paper, or bronze.

Sandy, I AM a writer, and I KNOW that I am hitting the ' key, and yet I'm seeing "!

spencer meagher

I recall as a young artist being confused by "professional" artists who had written books that "their way was the only way". Now that i've matured I realize if it gets the results you want it is a legitimate technique.

Sandy Askey-Adams
Yes, I truly agree, I know Bill is a great artist and illustrator. That is why I mentioned his blog.
Yes, myself not being a writer, I too am seeing the apostophe key I am hitting, and yet it comes out as the quotation key. Frustrating.

Joanne Benson
I totally agree with your response to Marian. Jurors are just people with opinions like the rest of us. I think you need to strive to please yourself and improve your work and hopefully that will touch a chord with someone else and they will become a collector or at least a fan!

I juried a children's art show with my daughter and another artist friend. I really didn't agree with all of their choices but we had to there is no perfect jurying process.....I do think we need to be honest with ourselves though. I have put work in frames that I look at now and say "What was I thinking??????" I probably needed something quick for a deadline and probably should have just let the deadline I am stuck with the task of taking the works out of their frames and either fixing or destroying them as I can't tolerate them.

George De Chiara
I find a mirror works the best for me to get a fresh view while working on a piece if there's one available. Otherwise I just step back often. Even doing all of these things it seems like I see more after a few days of not working on the painting.

Esther J. Williams
I am late in commenting on this because this article went into my spam folder. So glad I found it because both the article and responses are GREAT! Thanks Lori for an informative list on critiquing one`s own art.

First hand, Carolyn and Sandy. I have had that apostrophe problem for months also, one day I hit the top upper left key on the keyboard which is an apostrophe and it worked. It is just below the Esc button. I was always hitting the single quotation mark on the middle row next to Enter, that will come up as a double quotation mark.

For example, can't was typed using the single quotation mark next to Enter on the keyboard.
But this can`t was typed using the apostrophe just below Esc and to the left of the number 1 key.

I hope this worked and helps everyone! If not, then someone at FASO please help!

Lori, I am my worst critic, I have been using a mirror, a value chart, color wheel and all kinds of questions run through my head on how I am doing. I hit the books if I am perplexed also. Some days I don`t need a thing to lean on, everything flows freely. Don`t you just love those days? At times, if I need a second opinion when I feel something is out of place, I have a great 17 yr old daughter who can spot a flaw in a nano second. She is turning out to be a fantastic artist. All those years I showed her my work and she observed me painting or drawing has helped her and now she helps me by being an objective eye. I really listen to her, in fact I am a little worried she will outshine me someday. She wants to study Environmental Science in college though. Maybe she will just paint on the side.

I just found another checklist in a chapter on FINISHING by Thomas Buechner in his book called "How I Paint - Secrets of a Sunday Painter" that I found very valuable.
Some of what he says, "First, I decide what the picture is really about and then what I can get rid of, what is not contributing to the central idea, what is distracting." "Usually, these problems are caused by small contrast that divert attention, such as shifts in color or value, or intricate details painstakingly observed and proudly rendered."
There`s more, but I am giving only a little here. So, it really helps to read what a former master artist uses to critique his/her works.


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