I 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.
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.