Jerry Lebo, 2005
Thanks to all who have commented recently on my blog. I read all the comments and am grateful for the support. In fact, I try to go to every blog that people send--so keep it up.
Today, I want to write about what I see as one of the biggest problems artist face: how to see their work objectively. I have gotten a lot of comments recently on my blog by people who want me to look at their work and send some comments. As artists, we are often "too close" to our own work to be able to see it clearly--or as others might see it. One of the questions I always ask myself is, "what would I think of my paintings if it they had been made by someone else?" Not always an easy question to answer.
I recall when I was studying at the Washington Studio School, group critiques were always very popular events. People want feedback--and I think this is one way to get outside opinions. But group critiques can only go so far, the artist must make thousands of decisions in the course of making a single painting, so a critique often comes too late--the painting is already done. How many artist go back and repaint a painting as the result of critique? In any case, if you cannot see your work objectively while you are working, you are bound to be making a lot of wrong decisions during the process. How many times, for example, have you finished working on a painting and walked out of the studio--only to come back the next day and say "What was I thinking?!?" A painting can look so good on the way out of the studio, only to look pretty crappy the next day.
The ability to see your work objectively is one of the most important traits for any artist to develop. In fact, I have a theory that this ability is what separates the great artist, from the average, or even above average. I remember reading James Lord's biography of Giacometti. There is a scene where Giacometti is walking out of the studio onto the street and exclaims, "Look at those trees, I don't think I have ever seen those trees looking like that!" At first I was puzzled by this comment, after all he must have looked at those trees many times in the past in all seasons. What was he trying to say? In retrospect, I believe he was reacting to his own artistic vision at the moment, in that, HE really had never seen them like that. That is, at that moment, it was as if he was seeing those trees for the first time, even though he had seen them many times in the past. Imagine the power of being able to look at your work as if you had never seen it before each and every time!
The good news is that most artists are not like Giacometti, but still seem to get along just fine. We struggle to see clearly while we are painting, and even afterwards in judging our own art. If you already have a natural ability to see like Giacometti, I suspect you are not reading this blog because you are too busy getting ready for your museum show. For the rest of us, the good news is there are little tricks and exercises that can improve your ability to see your work more objectively--many of which you may already be using. Here are a few I recommend:
1. Use a Mirror. This is the tried and true method of getting some distance from your work. Put a mirror behind your easel and every so often turn around and look at the reflection of your work in the mirror. Alternatively, you can use two mirrors (one in front at an angle, and one behind--its a bit tricky to get them lined up correctly) and look at your work in the reflection as you paint. I don't know why this works, but it does. Seeing your work in reflection puts some distance between you and the work--it is like standing back from the easel (which you should do frequently anyway) and looking at your painting from across the room. Try it.
2. Paint Upside-Down. I love this one, because it always is a bit freaky. After getting a good start on a painting, so you have the basic composition and masses laid down, turn the painting upside down and look at it--or even paint on it upside down for a while. Sometimes, when things are going very badly in a painting, I turn it upside down and paint on it for 10-20 minutes. In fact, I have finished paintings completely by painting them upside down. No joke. I think this works because it allows you to see the painting more objectively--instead of as individual objects, everything in the painting becomes an abstract element, which allows you to see the balance, composition, tones, and shapes much more objectively.
3. Work on Multiple Paintings at Once. I have discussed this approach in previous postings. Essentially this comes down to switching what you are working on very 10-15 minutes or limiting the time you spend on any one painting. First, if you limit your time, you will make better and bolder decisions. Second, trading out what you are working on regularly gives you a chance to see each painting as if you were just starting on it for the day. One downside of this approach I have found is that you will often reduce the variation of colors and tones in your paintings if you do not take the time to clear your palette before switching out paintings. That is, if you are working from the same mixture of colors on your palette for each painting, there is a risk you will make all your paintings merge toward the same color harmonies. So clean your palette and remix your colors when you change paintings.
4. Take Frequent Studio Breaks. This works very well for me, if I can be disciplined enough to do it. If I simply walk out of my studio door to go upstairs and wash some brushes or get something to drink, when I walk back in the studio I can see my paintings much more clearly. I am often surprised by how different they seem to me after only a few minute break from them. The problem with this approach is that the effect of being able to see clearly, at least for me, only lasts a few minutes--so you have to do it regularly for it to work. In fact, this approach works best if combined with the other methods described here--otherwise you will tire yourself out walking in and out of the studio every 5 minutes.
5. Take Pictures or use a Video Camera. This is an approach I started using a couple of years back as digital photography and video improved, and the cost of the technology came down. I have described how I use digital pictures in previous posts, but this can also work with video cameras. I have in the past set up a video camera connected to a small black and white TV just to the right side of my easel. I point the camera at my easel and watch myself painting both from a distance and in black and white. This is a great way to practice tonal control and composition. If you only have a digital camera, stop every five-ten minutes or so and take a shot of your painting. If your camera has a black and white setting, you can take a picture and look at the tones (you can do this on your computer as well) and see if your tonal range is correct, or if you are too dark or light in certain areas. If your painting does not look good in black and white, it will never look good with color.
So, there are some tips to improve your "artistic vision". Hope you find them useful.
All the best, sixtyminuteartist.