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Critique of “Discovery” by Phil Holt

DiscoveryI recently offered to pro­vide a pub­lic cri­tique of paint­ings and draw­ings that any­one might want to send to me. In response, Phil Holt has sent this one. It is “Dis­cov­ery,” 12 × 16”. I assume it’s in oil as he describes him­self as hav­ing painted in oil for sev­eral years. He notes, “Obvi­ously painted from a photo. I morally pre­fer to paint from life but was intrigued with the facial expres­sion on my grand­daugh­ters face.”

It takes some courage to send an image that you’ve spent many hours on and send it off to a stranger to look at and cri­tique pub­li­cally. That’s espe­cially the case since a com­puter image of a paint­ing is never per­fect, par­tic­u­larly when it is not pro­fes­sion­ally shot. There are, for exam­ple, a few strange color/value tran­si­tions that I think are almost cer­tainly pho­to­graphic arti­facts. One exam­ple is the lack of gra­da­tion in the paint around the girl’s right hand. My guess is that it isn’t there in the paint­ing itself (I’m sure Phil will cor­rect me if I’m wrong about that) or that the photo exag­ger­ates what’s there. So what I’m doing here is look­ing at a photo of a paint­ing and doing my best to imag­ine what it looks like with­out dis­tor­tions intro­duced by mak­ing a photo of a paint­ing and send­ing it as a JPEG file to be viewed on some one else’s com­puter screen.

I am always trep­i­da­tious about giv­ing feed­back on paint­ings, espe­cially when I’m not hav­ing a direct con­ver­sa­tion with the artist. The last thing I want to do is be dis­cour­ag­ing. If you take a look at this paint­ing, you imme­di­ately real­ize that Phil has devel­oped some real skill with a brush. This is a very pleas­ing piece of work. Nev­er­the­less, I’m going to focus more on con­struc­tive feed­back than on com­pli­ments, because that’s what I think a cri­tique is for, and that’s what I want when I ask for a cri­tique. I always want to know, “how could I have done this bet­ter?” and (more impor­tantly) “how can I do bet­ter next time?” I am no kind of author­ity on paint­ing, but I can try to address those ques­tions as best I can.

I don’t have any moral pref­er­ence for paint­ing from life, myself, but I do find that work­ing from a snap­shot

That’s my first impres­sion here. I’m sure the pho­to­graph does a great job of cap­tur­ing a per­fect moment. But it’s not the sub­ject I would have cho­sen for a paint­ing. Why? Because pho­tos are usu­ally bet­ter than paint­ings at pre­sent­ing per­fect moments. Paint­ings are at their best when they take many moments and pull them together into one expres­sive, quin­tes­sen­tial image. If I have a snap­shot that I think is a great per­fect moment shot, my pref­er­ence is to print out the photo and frame it. That’s just my opin­ion, of course, but I’ve looked at a lot of paint­ings based on snap­shots, and this point of per­sonal taste reads fairly strongly for me. Part of it is the long tra­di­tion, from long before the advent of pho­tog­ra­phy, of paint­ing from life or imag­i­na­tion, because back in the day those were the only options. Work­ing that way doesn’t pro­duce paint­ings that look like snap­shots; they are more sub­stan­tial. That’s the case even when paint­ings do cap­ture some bit of infor­mal drama, such as the “cheat­ing at cards” paint­ings by Georges de la Tour. There is no rea­son why that his­tory must limit us as artists, but at the same time it usu­ally seems to just work bet­ter that way.

Mov­ing water is very dif­fi­cult to paint con­vinc­ingly. Here, it looks the way mov­ing water appears when it is cap­tured by a cam­era with a high shut­ter speed. That strongly enhances the over­all “snapshot-y” look of the piece. It took me a few moments, when I first looked at the paint­ing, to real­ize what the white fluffy stuff was. Then, of course, I had an “oh duh!” moment. I won­der how Phil might have painted the water if he were sit­ting in front of a mov­ing water foun­tain and try­ing to cap­ture what he saw. I sus­pect it would look dif­fer­ent than this, and I sus­pect that it would look more like human vision rather than cam­era vision. If I had been try­ing to work from this snap­shot, I prob­a­bly would have ignored how the water looked in the photo, and instead sat in front of a water foun­tain and tried to fig­ure out how to paint it as it appeared to me. That’s another point of pref­er­ence, of course.

The impor­tant thing about a paint­ing is not how some anony­mous inter­net guy (me) reacts to it. What’s impor­tant is whether the artist believes that he has com­mu­ni­cated effec­tively, and whether the audi­ence for the paint­ing reacts to it in the way the artist intends. That’s for Phil (and those who view the paint­ing) to fig­ure out. I rec­om­mend to him that he think about what I’ve said here and decide for him­self whether it makes sense to him. If so, then good. If not, then he should ignore what I’ve said and paint for himself.

I’d like to thank Phil for send­ing me his work. I wish him the best and hope he finds this useful.

Posted in art technique, painting.

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3 Responses

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  1. Phil says


    Thank you for the very pro­fes­sional cri­tique. I have been a reader of your blog site for a few years now and have found a lot of inter­est­ing and infor­ma­tive, and have come to the respect your knowl­edge of the arts. You were cor­rect that some of the color/value tran­si­tions were not the best and this was pre­dom­i­nately do to the photo. I am still using my first 1.2 MP dig­i­tal cam­era and have noticed the color repro­duc­tion is not as clear as it once was. I will be replac­ing this cam­era soon.

    I very much enjoyed the process of cre­at­ing this paint­ing, and it was the first time I worked directly form the image on my com­puter screen. This lets you adjust the bright­ness and con­trast to see bet­ter in the dark areas. The lack of inter­est in the darks is often one of the big prob­lems work­ing from pho­tos. The other big prob­lem is every thing is in sharp focus, which is not the case when the human eye views a subject.

    I very much enjoyed try­ing to cap­ture the frozen moment of the water, but you are prob­a­bly cor­rect in that it may be bet­ter to cap­ture the water in motion. I had been think­ing of paint­ing the image again and mak­ing it more painterly. Your obser­va­tion that some of the edges should be soft­ened is right on. I was think­ing some of the areas around the outer edge of the sweat­shirt should be softened.

    Thanks again David for your help, I would love to do this again sometime.


  2. David says

    Thanks, Phil. Good luck with your next painting.

  3. Triecia says

    Very infor­ma­tive cri­tique, thank you for shar­ing it David. Thank you also to Phil; I enjoyed see­ing your work.

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