I had a really interesting experience a few weeks ago when I had one of my paintings critiqued by Frank Eber. The critique was sponsored by the Northwest Watercolour Society. The painting was one I did a few years ago. I always thought it was a good painting but it always seemed to be missing something. It never really spoke to me or anyone else. Frank’s comments were that it showed a good mastery of watercolour but as he asked “What is the story?” In other words what was I trying to say. When I thought about it I realized that my motivation was just to copy the photo. I really liked the photo and I wanted to translate it to paint. It is a good copy all right but to paraphrase Frank: what’s the point?
Here is the original photo of the subject from the Slocan Valley.
This is the painting I did. It’s an accurate copy of the photo with the addition of a couple of cats. One important way to understand the issues with this painting is to look at the sign post. It’s so detailed and right in the front but does it add anything to the painting or does it actually stop you from going further into the painting?
So I re-analyzed the painting in terms of What’s the story? Here are 2 cropped versions of the painting. I believe that they have a stronger impact than the original.
The Aha Moment
As I continued to reflect on the critique I realized how frequently my purpose was just to copy a photo. See something, like it and copy it with paint.
Here is another example. It’s a painting I completed from my last trip to England. Here is the photo. I loved the architecture and the people.
Here is the painting I did.
Now I asked myself the new question: What’s the story? I realized for me it’s the people as they interact in this coffee shop. Here is a study that represents my new thinking.
It definitely has a very different feel and I believe it’s a more interesting painting. Long live the story!
This is a fairly recent work. I loved the subject but once again I never asked myself why I wanted to paint it. Virtually everything that was in the photo ended up in the painting. I think it’s good but not nearly as strong as it could be
Again, I thought about why I wanted to paint it. What I really liked was the colour, the light and the connection (or lack of it) between the 2 figures. So I did a study that emphasized those elements.
And again, for me, it’s a stronger composition.
Summing It All Up
I have to thank that critique for showing me what I needed to learn. I am now so much more aware of asking myself, “Why do I want to paint this subject? What do I want to say?” The best part is that I now ask myself these questions before I start the painting.
Incorporating this thinking process into your art is an essential ingredient in becoming a better artist. It’s something that doesn’t always come intuitively. It’s a skill to be practiced.
And most importantly it makes painting so much more fun and more rewarding.