Summary of MasterWorks 2021 by Barbara Coleman
I was very impressed with the organization of the images that you prepared for us to jury from. I appreciated the spreadsheets and that the paintings were numbered and alphabetized. I also really appreciated seeing the paintings in each category as thumbnails, before enlarging the images to study them in detail. It gave me a good overall impression of the entries. Thank you for organizing it so beautifully so that I could really focus on the paintings and not worry about anything else. Great job!
The premier quality that I look for in a painting is good design. The design of every painting affects it as much as—and usually more than—the subject. Many artists are looking for good subjects to paint, when in fact what we need to look for is good design. I don’t think we are really painting the world “out there”; we are instead painting a design that we impose on the scene or subject. John Carlson puts it: “If you approach nature without some idea, she is merciless in the way in which she piles lumber in your way.”
That “idea” Carlson is referring to is the design, the overriding structure we use to develop our painting. Design is the arrangement of visual elements and principles of composition independent of subject matter. Elements of design are line, shape, color, value, texture and space (positive and negative) and depth. Design principles are balance, contrast, movement, rhythm, emphasis, proportion and unity. The design elements are the common visual tools we share as artists to make art.
I’d like to share how I think about and use these tools and principles. First of all, I think design is driven by motif—what made the artist stop in his or her tracks and have to paint that particular subject? Or, what is the intent of the abstract artist? What is the painting about? Is it the narrative? Is it about a pattern of light and shadow? Water reflections? The moody atmosphere? Color? An object or shape? A mountain, or the valley in front of the mountain? The motif guides the way we divide space on the canvas.
I next simplify the painting into three to five value masses of different sizes and shapes. I determine the focal area and how I am going to move the viewer’s eye through the painting. This design structure helps me subordinate some areas of the painting to others. It helps me determine active and passive patterns in the painting and to develop variety (interest) and unity (harmony.) Then, of course there are the challenges of painting itself: adjusting values, color, shapes, edges, appropriate detail and developing form.
I used my knowledge of these elements and of design to evaluate the paintings for Masterworks. In a representational painting, I looked to see if the drawing and perspective were accurate. Had the artist developed form? I looked at how well the artist moved my eye through the composition, how they had established and refined shapes, values, edges, color, relevant detail and quality of brushwork. For abstract art I looked for a good compositional structure, which incorporated strong design principles developed through our common language of line, shape, color, value, tone, texture and space. I found good qualities in almost every painting, either by experienced or inexperienced artists. I also found that sometimes the paintings didn’t come together because the artist had created harmonious color but had poor composition, or the reverse. Or the shapes could be good, but the values were noticeably off in a representational painting. It made me want to give individual critiques. In my view, it is a real achievement to accurately portray what lies before us; we create works of art when we have succeeded in arranging and manipulating the visual elements to create a cohesive whole. A well-designed painting that embodies the passion, emotion and vision of the artist is a privilege to experience. Many of the paintings I selected for this show embody these qualities.
Overall I found the pastel and watercolor paintings had a higher degree of technical expertise with their mediums and often with drawing skills. In general, it seemed like there were more paintings by less experienced artists in the oil and acrylic category. It may be that the technical skills needed to manipulate the paint in oils and acrylics take a longer time for some artists to master, but I don’t really know.
- The most frequent problem that I saw in numerous representational paintings was a lack of understanding values in nature. Carlson’s theory of angles gives us a good understanding of how light falls on objects and surfaces, whether they be the ground plane, slanted planes (like mountains), upright planes (like trees) and the source of light (the sky.) There are always exceptions to any general statement, but the paintings that made these “mistakes” in value structure were not in unusual lighting conditions. Not understanding the value structure resulted in many paintings that were unbelievable or confusing.
- The other big problem I saw was that many artists did not know how to create form. When an object (like a bush) turns from sunlight into shadow, there will be a soft edge where the light goes into shadow. Many artists are making hard edges here, where they should be soft. An overlap of one object in front of another will create a hard edge, and a hard edge in the right place will help to create the illusion of depth. Edges properly used help us see and understand form. Also, there was a lack of awareness in many paintings of the fact that each change of plane will result in some kind of value change or color shift.
- One other big misunderstanding was how to paint the colors of sunlight and shadow. To mix the colors of objects in sunlight, the artist needs to mix the local color and value of the object and modify that color with the temperature of the light source. Shadows are created by mixing the local color of the object that the shadow is falling on, modifying it by mixing in the color which is the complement of the light source and then adding in the color of the ambient light source, usually the sky. (For example, a tree casting a shadow on reddish dirt. The local color of the dirt is a light reddish color. If it is sunset, the light source is the setting sun, which creates a warm orange light. The complement of orange is blue. Let’s say that the color of the sky that time of day is violet. So you’d mix up the reddish dirt color, add a touch of the complement of orange (blue) and add a further touch of violet for the influence of the sky. This gives you the color of that particular shadow. Some artists in the show just painted purple shadows. Knowing what to look for helps you to see it. Painting with this awareness enriches the color harmony and variety of the color enormously.
- In many paintings, I couldn’t tell the direction of the light source or whether something was in sunlight or shadow. There often was no contrast between sunlight and shadow. I’ve noticed when teaching that many students have no idea what type of light in which they are painting: whether they are painting a shadow, a reflected light in shadow, sunlight, dark accent, light accent or halftone. All of this can be learned.
- Many of the paintings had no motif—no sense of what the painting was about. Everything in the painting was given equal weight, equal emphasis, or equal divisions of areas in sunlight and areas in shadow. The same type of problem occurred in some of the abstract paintings—no design of the dark and light values, no sense of what the artist’s intent was. This resulted in poor design.
- Every good representational painting has a good abstract design supporting it, in my view. It is so fun to see the design structure in both representational and abstract paintings. There are many overlaps in representational and abstract works. Part of jurying was to see the underlying design, or lack thereof.
- Drawing is a perennial problem. I saw a lot of errors in perspective and in not using overlaps and diminution to create the illusion of space in a painting.
- Lastly, I think the creation of beautiful shapes is difficult. I saw a lot of paintings that had many repetitive shapes of the same size and same conformation and were evenly spaced from each other. This is a real “nono” in my view. We need variety to create interest in the painting. This problem occurred in both abstract and representational paintings. It is a matter of seeing and being sensitive to design. It is always hard because our “left brain” is wired to make repetitive patterns and shapes and wants to take over and organize something that should be a “right brain” process.
- There were many fine paintings submitted. Those paintings had all the right ingredients and you could experience the poetry of their vision. There were paintings that had creative subject matter ideas, but the best paintings didn’t rely on subject matter. I gave a number of “tens” in each category. The hardest paintings for me to score (emotionally) were the ones that had real mastery of an element or two, but fell flat in some other way. I wanted to give the artist a higher score because of what they got right. But I ended up looking at the “big picture” of each piece. Did it work as a complete, whole work of art?
- Painting is hard. Jurying this show ignited my passion to teach a workshop on each of these problem areas!
It has been a true honor and privilege to view these paintings and act as jury for this show. I enjoyed every minute of it, and look forward to seeing the show up and seeing the final selection of all of the jurors. Thank you for inviting me to be on your jury.
Summary of MasterWorks 2021 by Grant Macdonald
Here are my impressions and thoughts, based on experience:
Among the works I juried there were both accomplished and emerging entries. I hope all these artists, at whatever stage they are in their endeavors, will realize that art is a never ending quest. Leonardo da Vinci once said: “A work of art is never finished, only abandoned.” However much we accomplish, there is always room for improvement next time.
Experiment with your medium and look for new techniques. Use both brushes and palette knives (or other tools, such a copper chore girl!) Play with textures that suit your subject matter. Incorporate both soft and hard edges. Use glazes to enhance colors and create luminosity.
Realize that there are universal standards that derive from our common experience in the creation in which we all dwell. The beauty of nature teaches us the aesthetics of shape relationships, color harmony and linear counterpoint, regardless of your style–from realism to abstraction. I find insightful the advice given by Shakespeare (speaking through Hamlet) when he counsels actors who were going over-the-top in their craft “with this special observance, that you o’re-step not the modesty of nature.” Following this standard is limiting only in the sense that it keeps your very personal expression grounded in a universal aesthetic.
Study the work of artists you admire, and learn to be your own most demanding critic. Paint what excites you; that excitement will be inevitably reflected in your work.
I hope this will be helpful to some.