An honest critique

When is the last time you had an  honest critique with real people looking at your actual work? It’s been a while for me. My biggest critic is my husband. I’ll walk a painting out to him, and he’ll usually say ah hmm m.  That means it’s OK. The longer he pauses, the worse the critique will be.  I love my husband, but he knows nothing about art. He does have a good eye, though.  And that’s great. Periodically, it’s good to get specific, targeted feedback in an honest, informed setting. What specifically do you want feedback about? Being specific and targeted, in my opinion, is a great way to advance your skills. Maybe you want to improve your compositions or edges, or have been working on specific subject matter, like trees, water or rocks.


As an art teacher, I bring my students through a four-step approach to looking at art. It’s a systematic approach. It is how I was taught way back in college. It’s actually simple. First, you describe the art.  “I see…” just the facts, as if you were on the phone and describing the art to someone who can’t see it. Next, you analyze it, getting into how the artist used the elements and principles. This will make you sound artsy and smart. “I like how the artist created a sense of rhythm with repeating the trees” or “Notice the variety of textures the artist used” Thirdly, you interpret the piece. “I think the artist is trying to say wilderness is a formidable, lonely place, but you can find peace”. It’s a juxtaposition of sorts “blah, blah!” And lastly, you evaluate or judge it. Is the piece successful, to you? Do you “like it”? That’s the basic approach.  It works in a general sense and is a great method for discussing artwork you are unfamiliar with, especially in the academic sense.  But in the practical “what do I need to improve” sense, it is lacking a bit.

One of my goals for this year is to get my art properly critiqued. In order to do that, I and my art must get in front of people. Plein air events and paint outs are wonderful. Lots of knowledge there. Ideally, you want a critique from someone who you admire. Someone who has proven themselves. Climbed the art ladder. I am suggesting you organize a critique. Find a public venue to display your art. Invite about a dozen people to participate. Encourage participants to pick a topic to discuss when critiquing. In school, we tend to steer away from negative comments (it’s school, after all), but there are ways to suggest an artist try something without sending them sobbing into a corner..  Posting your art online is another option. There are a few sites where you can post either works in progress (WIP) or finished works and seek criticism, as opposed to just thumbs up and likes. Wetcanvas is a site I regularly use.

Lisa David, The Chase

Lisa David, The Chase, 16″ x 20″. Remember chasing the ice cream man with your dollar?


True Story: I entered a show locally and received a modest award. The juror went around and gave feedback on each specific work. My work really resonated with him. Yay, I thought. Until he started giving some criticism. Shhhh people gabbing- I wanted to hear every word. I had been so immersed in the making of the art, I overdid it. I added detail to the details! Rather, he suggested the work would have been stronger if I didn’t have so many sharp edges. That night, I went home and read all I could about edges. Now, it’s something I work to improve in each painting.



Keeping up with the Monets

Paint Brushes

Paint brushes ready to go to work!

Darn, I need a new brush. And, that’s how it starts. You notice one tiny bristle veering off to the right when the rest are going left.  Before you know it you are on-line guessing at what brush to order.  But gee… you could use more flat brushes, or a blender. Then, a new mop brush might be in order. So, you log on to your favorite art store.  While you aimlessly order brushes (multiple, because you can’t just order one), you decide it’s probably time to order some paint. Oh yeah – that podcast you listened to suggested a Marine Violet or a Cold Grey. Okay, well, time to paint. Wait! You forgot a new palette knife because yours has a divot in it making random lines. Speaking of palettes, are you going to switch to a limited palette? Then maybe you don’t need all those recommended colors. But you need new solvent. Or wait, are you switching to being solvent free? Then you better get new fancy paper towels…. And so it goes.

You have probably had that conversation with yourself, right? The circular reasoning of keeping up with the Monets. Except it costs a lot of money to be a Monet!

Tubes of paint

But tubes of paint are so fun to display! I can’t throw them out!

True Story: It’s February in New York, and everything is drab, which reminds me I need more grey palette paper. On Mondays, I attend a weekly figure drawing session. I noticed two artists with the same portable easel. Bummer. I bought my new easel last season. I bought it based on reviews online but didn’t talk to any actual plein air painters. It’s too soon to justify purchasing one like theirs. So instead, I Google “used lightweight plein air easels”. I listen to many art related podcasts like the Creative Pep Talk and the Plein Air Podcast.  Often, the host or guest will reference a certain book or author. Before finishing his next sentence, I have already visited Amazon and placed an order!

Shipping boxes

Too. Many. Boxes.

In the past few months, my investment in supplies has reached its limit. I can’t justify buying another tube or brush. There always seems to be something new, some gadget. Last fall, I bought a brush holder. Sure, it’s handy, but did I need it? And what do I do with all my old stuff? Old brushes, old paint tubes, paintings that will never see the light of day. My studio is getting smaller by the day with my collection of supplies and paintings that were once new and fresh. Now, they sit all crinkled and used. I hate throwing out old tubes of paint. They are like battle scars.

All the new supplies and money spent. For what? The promise? Hope? The next great painting? The maybes? The what ifs?  The next big one?

You see, all the gadgets, gimmicks and must-haves won’t make me a great artist.  And, what is a great artist, anyway?  What will help me advance is hard work and passion. And I have plenty of that! But come on, who doesn’t love a new brush?

Tell me about your “must haves” and buying sprees. Surely, I’m not the only one! And don’t call me Shirley.

Tubes of paint

Tubes of paint with no caps. #lazy



Don’t wait for the lights to change!

Plein air painter in winter
Norwegian artist Frits Thaulow painting “En plein air” circa 1900

Last summer, I caught the bug. Bad. Everything changed for me. I was asked to teach a plein air workshop in our town. How hard can it be, I thought? I’m a studio painter and art teacher so I felt pretty good in my ability to teach a handful of adults. The workshop was in September. In June, I thought I should see what plein air painting was all about. I had painted outside once or twice before. I even owned a French easel. So, I packed up my supplies and headed out. The first painting I did was a hot mess. Working alla prima (all at once) in the studio was hard enough, but outdoors is an entirely different mindset. Changing weather, bugs, people and remembering everything were only a few of the challenges. But soon, I became addicted. I caught the plein air bug. It’s going around! More and more artists are finding painting from life is exhilarating and adrenaline-making. Fast forward to today, just a few months later. I now struggle painting from a photograph. While the numbers decrease, many hardcore plein air painters paint outside in winter.

Lisa David painting plein air outside in snow. I brought WAY too much.
The lovely birch tree in the sun with amber and violet tones.

Yesterday, I ventured outside to paint. It was about 25 degrees in upstate NY. I live near the Saratoga Spa State Park. The sun was out. I schlepped my gear (including hot chocolate) and found an old gnarly birch tree. It was blackened in a few areas and its shadow provided a strong compositional element. Two minutes after setting up, clouds rolled in and I lost the sun. It was almost immediate. My colorful violet shadows turned to drab shades of gray. The tree with its lovely highlights turned gray. It reminded me of the Seinfeld episode when Jerry sees his girlfriend in bad lighting and realizes she’s not that attractive! I stuck it out and did my best to paint the tree. I really wanted to use color and there just wasn’t much. Believe me, I looked. My hands started to get really cold despite using hand warmers in my mittens and boots. You may be asking, so why? Why do I feel compelled to paint outside in winter? Unless you have tried it, it’s hard to understand. Being outside, drawing, seeing and recording is supremely satisfying. It improves my skills and while yesterday’s painting is definitely not a favorite it will serve as a memory and a reminder. Lesson learned? Be ready because the lights sometimes change.

Best I could pull color from tree after grey clouds rolled in. Not much to see here….move on…..!

Stop Painting! For a little while, anyway.

Stop painting…for a little while, anyway!

Plein Air Painting by artist Lisa David

Saturday in the Park, 8″ x 10″ Oil on Panel Plein air painting by Lisa David. Painted outside on a cold (18 degrees) day in Saratoga State Park, upstate, New York.

Do a painting, post a painting, do a painting, post a painting, update website, send emails, order supplies, look through photo references, paint another painting, post another painting. See the problem? I do. I’m not stopping for reflection and honest critique. No learning, no reading. My rhythm is all about making. I mistakenly think, if I don’t paint, I will get out of the groove. Does this sound familiar?

I am realizing it’s okay to stop.  Artists need to pause and reflect. The paint will be there waiting. We need to evaluate what we did so we don’t keep making the same mistakes. This may mean reading a book. I have about a dozen that have been waiting for me. It may mean spending money on a workshop or a class. It might mean sitting and watching videos. Or it might mean getting a mentor. If all we do is paint and post, there may not be growth. Mistakes are good. Honest criticism is healthy. Learning feels good. As an art teacher, after every project, my students have a critique. We talk about what worked, what didn’t. We discuss what they would do differently next time? I need to apply this critique to my own work. SLOW DOWN. It’s okay to spend time relaxing with a good book about composition or color.  So instead of going into my studio, I’m going to critique a painting I just finished. Here it is. A plein air painting I did in a park. It was a mere 18 degrees. Speed was necessary. I did not work on it back in the studio.

Plein Air Painting by artist Lisa David

Saturday in the Park, 8″ x 10″ Oil on Panel Plein air painting by Lisa David. Painted outside on a cold (18 degrees) day in Saratoga State Park, upstate, New York.

I like the looseness. Trees in the back are a bit boring- too much the same. Figures are good, lose- a bit clumsy. Tone of yellow seems too green. Texture of weeds could have more tooth. Birch trees okay- like that there are 3. Next time, vary tree line, work on the yellow tones, etc. What did I learn? Maybe premix colors when it’s too cold. Also, stop while painting and clean palette at each interval (foreground, middle ground and background). I’m sure there is much more I could learn and improve on this plein air study, but I’ll spare you, you get the point. Now, to go read!