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Stay Away From “Sort Of”. . . Make Your Next Painting POP!

A co-worker of mine once remarked, “You can tell which people have degrees: they use phrases like ‘kind of’ and ‘sort of’ and ‘type of’ when they talk.”

I’d been noticing those phrases as well, for some months now, and it made me wonder why this trend exists. Eventually I’ve come to think that the phrase “sort of” (and other filler phrases like it) may just be upgraded versions of the phrases “like” or “totally.”

In other words, these phrases are a habit of speech that have been pushed into common usage by how colleagues speak. . . a kind of peer-group behavior, which my co-worker and I both noticed.

How does this relate to art, you ask?

With art, people love a for sure statement, not a “kind of” statement.

Have you ever stood in front of a painting (yours or someone else’s) and wondered why it doesn’t really say anything? It just doesn’t “pop!” It may be pleasant, but it isn’t notable in any way. At best, it’s benign, and paintings like that aren’t likely to be chosen to grace a wall.

It’s a “sort of” painting.

They’re sort of pretty, or sort of big, or sort of colorful. But they don’t make a clear, unambiguous statement.

It’s my belief that almost all paintings need editing, just as the written word needs editing. And even when I have edited a painting to my satisfaction, I find that the comments others make can cause me to look again, more carefully, to see if there’s a way to take away the “sort of” and create a statement that stands alone, without any filler words.

If you are working on a piece by yourself, there are still a lot of ways to take a fresh look at it, so you can do some of that editing.

Here are the tricks that work for me (you may know of some already):

1. Place the painting on your easel upside down. Let it sit that way for a day. You will find that unbalanced areas of color, value, or shape call attention to themselves as the subject becomes abstracted in your eye.

2. Take the painting to a mirror and view it backwards. . . or better yet, photograph it digitally and then reverse it in a photo editing program and print out the result. You will see it with a fresh eye.

3. Use a computer program to reduce the image to greyscale and study it. I find that digital editing is a wonderful new wrinkle in the painter’s world. (It can be a friend or foe, so be careful not to believe the colors you see on screen too literally. Colors on the monitor look different with light behind them than they will look on the wall.)

4. Hide the painting away—face to the wall—for at least a week and then look at it again. You will see different things the second week than you did at first, and will be able to look at the painting as a semi-stranger might. I also like to put the painting outside the window of the house and look at it from inside. Does the composition sparkle, or is it ho-hum? Is there consistency in the values I have chosen—no terribly errant darks or lights that detract from the whole?

5. You could even make a painting of the painting to try new colors or change the placement of elements.

6. Or if that sounds like too much work, a more primitive technique for making decisions can be used during the preliminary blocking-in. I have pieces of scrap board and paper in the studio, as well as mats with various shaped openings. Holding up shapes, colors, or frames to the work in progress is a great way to decide whether to put a splash of red here, or darken a whole corner there.

This list can be improved upon, but the important thing is to take a critical look at your work, and whenever possible, have other canny artists take a look and make comments as well. Be brave. . . it’s not terminal to hear that someone doesn’t like something. (In fact, this is the best possible practice before you tack it into a frame and subject it to the eyes of the public.)

So let that “sort of” painting stay in the studio until you decide what’s wrong with it. . . then either fix it or throw it out!

*Note: this post may contain affiliate links*

Plein-air painting—or, painting outside in the open air with all the perils and dangers that entails—is a very odd, and perhaps silly thing to do.

Why not stay in your nice cozy studio with the central heating on, away from the vagaries of weather, biting insects, nosy people, gusts of wind blowing your canvas away, constantly changing light, and rapidly incoming tides?

Why. . . read more

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