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Self Critique, Beginning To End

Learning to gauge one’s work and ask the right questions is as important as all the painting techniques one can learn. As you know, painting is mostly a solitary sport. The ability to critique oneself is the cement of great art and the pro’s ace up their sleeve. One must develop a split personality to see their work through fresh eyes. One ‘personality’ does the work, and the other ‘personality’ critiques the work. We start by divorcing these personalities - the ‘maker’ MUST step away from their work in a ruthless operation of honesty and thought. There may be tears but it won’t hurt — much. With lots of practice, the artist and critic will become one and share great insights into the work you’re producing.

My basic painting method is the Donna McDonald “egg salad” method. It’s a yummy layered method of creating a painting. Solid on the bottom and solid on the top with all the mushy goodness in the middle. The solid bread pieces at the beginning and the end are the critique-y left-brained thinking parts. The mushy part in the middle is the actual painting part. It’s the bready, solid parts that I’m going to discuss here.

I have said this in many newsletters before - 90% of most problems in a painting occur in the first 5 minutes of painting. It’s in this first slab of bread that we begin. Before you even put the first marks down you must ask yourself a few things. WHY are you painting this scene or WHY have I chosen this reference photo? WHAT do you want to say? Is this scene/photo WORTHY of a painting? Do I have some of the necessary elements to make this painting READ? Does the shape of your canvas help or hinder the overall theme of the painting?

Here are the “Big 5” elements that you can use to set up your painting.

#1 Dominant Motive/ Space:

One of these must be drastically different. Foreground, Mid-ground, Background ie. Is the sky large, medium or small? Do you have a dominant space and two receding spaces?

#2 Centre of Interest:

When in doubt and things seem a bit floaty… Do you have a primary, secondary or tertiary spot of interest? Less is more. How much do I have going on here? What can I reduce or simplify to get a better read?

#3 Value Composition:

One value must dominate. Large, Medium, Small AND Dark, Mid Value, or Light. One of these must dominate. The other two must be subordinate. Do I have too many values in this scene? Are the values separate, or are they too close to each other and getting jumbled up?

#4 Direction of Light:

Is this painting about light or about the shadow? Ideally, look at a 70/30 split for lights and darks. Do all my items in this piece have the same direction of light and are the shadows all the same?

#5 Dominant Temperature:

Is this a warm or cool painting? Have at the minimum a 70/30 split between temperature families. Any less than this and your painting gets uneventful.

Remember the hierarchy of painting!





70% of painting involves the first two. The other two are split. With this in mind, it stands to reason that any errors in your work will most likely come in one of the two first sections. To clarify…


  • Physical drawing

  • Composition, Centre of interest, etc...


  • Composition of Values

  • Direction of Light

  • Unequal Distribution of Light and Dark

Once you have this figured out it’s time to paint.

Paint and just paint.

Don’t get all think-y at this stage. This is the free-range fun part where you get to create. Listen to that voice inside and let go. Step back once in a while and see what you need and keep the flow going.

Once you get near the end of the painty part it’s time to put the top bread on. This is the other left-brain thinking part. Solid. Re-evaluate and go back through the ‘5-Things’ checklist and see what you need to fix, repair, enhance and make changes. You should then have a beautiful sandwich to enjoy.

Of course, this all sounds wonderfully easy, and for the most part, it is. With some practice, this method will flow fairly smoothly… However, we all have those paintings that just don’t want to play ball. When this happens we may need to dig a little deeper. Here are a few more thoughts:

I’m a big proponent of seeking a second set of eyes. Asking another artist their thoughts can go a long way. Even a family member can aid. After all, it’s more than likely you will be presenting this work to the general public anyway, so running up the flagpole to see who will salute isn’t such a bad idea.

Again, painting is a solitary lady and therefore most times we need to work through this on our own. I suggest you have a solid checklist for the paintings that won’t spill their guts and tell you what they need.

When the obvious things don’t appear I have a few other questions I ask to get a little deeper into the work.

● Meaningful subject?

● Is there an organized movement throughout the painting?

● Are your objects grouped artistically or are they scattered all over?

● Is the perspective correct without being mechanically boring?

● Have you created a strong sense of depth, or is the painting flat and boring?

● Is the overall value range consistent with the mood you’re trying to achieve?

● Is your light and dark design interesting?

● Are your negative shapes interesting and varied?

● Is your brushwork expressive?

● How was your detail? Too much, too little, is it in the right spot?

● Is everything harmonized?

● Do I have any bad tangents? Is anything sticking out and annoying me? is the overall presentation attractive?

● Strong patterns?

● Middle tones?

● Interlocking gradations?

● General gradations?

● Echoing shapes?

● Flowing design?

● Alluring counterpoint?

● Lost and found edges?

● Focal point?

● Big and small?

● Round and square.

● Brushwork vs linear drawing.

● Overall simplicity? Complex shapes?

● Arial perspective?

● Sophisticated colour?

● Natural believability?

● What could be?

● What it isn’t saying.

I know the ‘Write Drunk, Edit Sober’ phrase was attributed to Ernest Hemingway, but the truth is, he never actually said that. Though he drank a LOT, he wrote every morning faithfully and didn’t start drinking till the afternoon. That being said, a good blast of potato water can free up the wall that may be surrounding you in order to take in some constructive criticism. “In Vino Veritas” (In Wine There is Truth), said Plato. I say paint sober and edit drunk.

Happy New Year!

Your friend in art,


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anna key
anna key
Mar 29

Good day everyone! If you are constantly looking after your physical health and watch your diet, you should consider taking care of your mental health. I suggest you go here and explore mental health products. With the help of such natural medicine, you can forget about pain, stress, insomnia and bad mood.


It is so true that you know if something will work in the first 5 minutes.. It is also true that I can still keep working on it for hours trying o save it :p

Thanks for sharing,



The one time I tried "drinking while painting," I created a masterpiece. Until the next day.

Thanks Doug.

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