Sunday, January 20, 2013

More Thoughts On Critique: Your Comments

Toronto Workshop 2012

There were many thoughtful comments to the last blog post on the Art of Critique: A Conversation with my friend Rebecca Crowell.  Several people wondered about the importance of putting words on paintings and if doing so might distract from insights that cannot be captured with words. One friend wrote today to ask me if there were guidelines to exploring painting in an non-verbal way.  These are great questions.

Non-verbal communication is what painting is all about.
I fully understand about the difficulty of putting words onto a painting, and the way that they limit.  It must be like translating poetry from one language to another.  Something is lost in the translation.

Here are a few non-verbal guidelines I've developed when looking at my own work.  I wouldn't necessarily use all of these when I look at someone else's work.  They are just places where I begin.

-First, I feel the piece. How does it make me feel?  Calm?  Happy?  Joyful? Agitated? You don't have to put words on it. What's the energy like, is it really busy or soft and quiet. Am I relaxed and calm when I view the painting?  What am I aiming for?  Am I aiming to make a piece that is calm?

-Also, I LISTEN to the piece. Often my paintings seem to make a sound, a sort of music or a  swelling note.  I remember an earlier series of paintings made a deep chanting sound.  My new paintings make a much higher swelling sound like a violins playing together in an orchestra.  Are the paintings noisy or quiet.  Are they yelling, or are they speaking softly.  And what is it I am intending them to do.   Am I aiming for them to yell? Am I aiming to make music?

-I often put a painting in a place where I'll walk by it regularly so I can see how I live with it.  Is it growing on me? Am I continuing to learn new things about it?  A really beautiful but shallow painting is not what I'm after.  I want something that is even deeper than I meant it to be.  Does it live on it's own, separate from me? 

-Another way of looking at a painting is to pay attention to where my eyes travel as I look at the work.  Do my eyes just keep moving around and around and around, never stopping to rest?  That could mean that I'm looking for a resting place that isn't there.  Should I revise the painting then to make a resting place?   Sometimes my eyes go back and back and back to a certain spot, not resting, but in an agitated fashion.  What that usually tells me is that there's something wrong with that particular place...maybe the colour is too bright, maybe that place can be deleted.  I might hold my thumb up near my eyes as I stand back and look at the work, covering the difficult area.  How does it look if I delete that area?  

-Another thing I aim for in my painting is movement.  You could call it energy I guess too.  I want the viewer to feel it bending and flowing, back and forth, in and out, as though it were alive and you could hear the music it makes. 

Silence Red 10   36 x 60" Oil/cold wax on panel © 2013 Janice Mason Steeves
But let's talk about words now. To give feedback to another artist requires using words, no matter how inadequate they are. Trying to use words to give feedback or to discuss a painting, can encourage us to look longer, more carefully, and perhaps feel the painting in another way. It also gives us the language to communicate.  I'll talk more about that in my next blog post and address these thoughts in my upcoming studio workshop in April and at Cullowhee Mountain Arts in June.

Please feel free to comment on this post.  I love hearing your thoughts and questions.  They help me go deeper into my own ideas.



  1. I too think of music in relation to my own work. I like repeating riffs and a lyrical lightness. Sometimes. I've been thinking about how they are arrangements of things but of course you want to sum to be greater than the parts. I am only beginning to understand and be able to talk about what I do instinctively. Part of me doesn't want to do that at all and while I regret not having to defend my work in a Master's thesis, I know it would have been (probably) good for me.

    1. HI Judy,

      Thanks for your comment. I think that it's difficult putting words on intuitive things too. But we can learn to do this in a relatively painless way. Everyone associates critique with pain....honestly, my workshops are very gentle and kind.

  2. This is so helpful! I never thought of listening to a painting before but I will now. Thanks for opening up these new ways to appreciate art.

    1. Hey thanks Chris,
      I will love to know if you can hear your work, and also, what you hear! Thanks for taking time to comment.

  3. Nice post, Janice. I think every painting speak differently to every viewer. It is interesting to compare what other people hear and see. Sometimes the painting says something completely different on another day!

    1. Hi Michelle,

      Thanks for responding here. I love that idea of the painting saying something completely different on other days. I guess it would be interesting too to know if the series of paintings actually makes music together...or is it a cacophony? Ha!

  4. Jan, I love these ideas. Especially the idea of a painting making sound. Even seeing your work only on a computer screen - I can hear the sounds they make. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

  5. Hi Pat,

    Good to hear from you. Wow, that's amazing you can hear them too! I've never asked anyone that before. Do you hear your own? What sound do they make if you do?