Advice for creating and critiquing paintings – Part 11

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In his 1889 book, “How to judge of a picture”, John C. Van Dyke thoroughly describes how to properly assess a painting. I know, the title is weird, particularly with that preposition “of” stuck in there, but that’s the correct title. John Charles Van Dyke (1861-1931) was an American art historian and critic. He was a professor of art history at Rutgers College and was also elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1908. He authored two series of books related to art, the first were critical guidebooks, the second covered the history of art in America. The purpose of this blog, and others to follow, is to share with you some helpful guidelines, offered by Mr. Van Dyke, that will help us critique our own work and the work of others. We will not agree with everything, but all his comments are worth serious consideration before rejecting them out of hand. Remember, this was written in the 1880’s. The ability to effectively critique art, or anything else for that matter, requires a significant amount of factual knowledge and understanding, otherwise what is offered as a critique is really nothing more than an emotional reaction. Mr. Van Dyke is helping us gain that knowledge and understanding. (Click images to enlarge)



“There must be an exercise of judgment on the part of the artist as to fitness and position, as to harmony of relation, proportion, color, light; there must be a skillful uniting of all the parts into one perfect whole. If we turn to the novel, the poem, or the drama we shall find that they are always constructed with a due regard to the importance of one person: the heroine or hero. All the other characters, the scenes, plots, and counterplots, are merely accessories leading up to and upholding the chief person. The people hold positions of relative importance according to their rank, and they all move like an army, the wings supporting the center.”

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) - "The Last Supper" - Fresco - (1498)

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) – “The Last Supper” – Fresco    (1498)


“Pictorial composition may be defined as the proportionate arranging and unifying of the different features and objects of a picture.”



Eugene Fromentin (1820-1876) - "Night Robbers" - 51.89" x 80.24" - Oil (1865)

Eugene Fromentin (1820-1876) – “Night Robbers” – 51.89″ x 80.24″ – Oil   (1865)

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) - "Moonlight, A Study at Millbank" - 12.4" x 15.94" - Oil (1797)

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) – “Moonlight, A Study at Millbank” – 12.4″ x 15.94″ – Oil (1797)


“There is a perfect analogy between any good play, poem, or novel and a well composed picture. They all depend upon the force of some leading character; they all use subordinate characters as the supporters of the hero or heroine; they all sacrifice the less to enhance the brilliancy of the greater. The proper composition of a figure picture, then, requires the superior importance of one person, object, or feature. This feature must be strong enough and prominent enough to rule every other feature in the picture.”

“The law of prominence in composition builds a picture upon the pattern of a pyramid.”

Jehan Georges Vibert (1840-1902) – “The Preening Peacock” – 18.23″ x 14.72″ – Oil

Paolo Veronese (1528-1588) - "Jesus Among the Doctors in the Temple" - 92.91" x 169.29" - Oil (1558)

Paolo Veronese (1528-1588) – “Jesus Among the Doctors in the Temple” – 92.91″ x 169.29″ – Oil   (1558)


“There must be a harmony of relation between the parts and a unity of them all for one well-defined purpose. Each part is but a block of the mosaic, and should form a factor of the whole.”

“A final word regarding composition: The light must come from one point of the compass, affecting all objects proportionately, and one atmosphere must envelop and surround the whole.”

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