As much as we might wish all our paintings came out perfect the first time, most paintings go through a process. The ability to look at a work in progress and figure out how to improve it is a skill of its own. Want to get better at critiquing your own work? These painting solutions from acclaimed artist Nancy Reyner are a great start!
Nancy says: “All painters deal with issues or problems. In fact, I think of painting as just that: a series of problems to solve. The first problem is the blank canvas. Add something to that, and voila! You have your next problem. When there are no more problems to solve, it’s finished. It might not always seem that simple, but it is an easy way to think about our painting process.”
Problem: It’s Too Boring
There are many reasons a painting could come off as boring, but one of the most common problems is a lack of depth. The painting below only has two planes of space. The lower plane contains two different colors, but since they’re the same value, even the hard edge doesn’t separate them in terms of space. The eye wants to go back into the painting, but there’s not much there to see.
Nancy says: “A painting’s magic exists in its ability to move the eye around and within the painted image, and our job as painters is to choreograph that eye movement.”
Solution: Add planes of space
To add more depth and interest, try painting in a few mountain ranges to increase the planes of space. Start by mixing a fairly neutral color, and remember to avoid high contrast pairs that will jump forward into the foreground. Tape along the line below the mountain range to make sure it stays clean. Paint in some general guidelines first, and then focus on varying the color to make it look more realistic. The mountain range you want to be closer to the front should have more contrast than the one behind it.
Nancy says: “Even though I’m working with grays here, you can see there’s a cool and a warm, there’s light and dark, but nothing [with too much contrast]. I keep looking at it in terms of planes of space and saying, do these still go back?”
Problem: It’s Too Busy
Sometimes a painting just has too much going on. In the example above, there wasn’t enough to look at. In the painting below, we have the opposite problem. There’s so much to see that nothing really stands out or catches our attention.
Nancy says: “The way things are scattered here, we don’t really have anything to hold a viewer’s interest longer than a second of saying ‘too crowded.’ So, one solution we can do in a situation like this is to say, well, I would like more illusion of space. I’d like a little bit of breathing room, a little depth. There’s so many positive forms. I’m going to take some positive forms out, and what do I replace them with? The negative space.”
Solution: Match Color and Edit
One way to approach this problem is to decide if there are any forms coming forward and any receding into the background. Once you’ve identified a background color, choose some forms to remove and use this color to paint over them. It’s important to match this color exactly to make the planes of space work properly together. This will create breathing room between the forms that are left, making them stand out and make more sense.
Nancy says: “Sometimes we get attached to everything we paint, and we go, ‘I don’t want to take it out, it took me so long to paint it!’ But we have to look at the big picture. It’s better to take some things out and have what’s there remaining feel good, [have] enough space between those forms for a good viewing experience.”
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About the Artist
Born and raised on the east coast in the USA, Nancy received a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and an MFA from Columbia University. From creating costumes and sets for theater and film to coordinating public arts programs for the state of New York, she has had a wide-ranging career in the arts, all of which inform her work. She now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and has been painting for more than thirty years exhibiting and teaching both nationally and internationally. Please visit NancyReyner.com for paintings, blog, coaching, workshops and videos.