Advice for creating and critiquing paintings – Part 5

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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 guide books, 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.


Light and Shade

“Everything, no matter how small it may be has its due proportion of light and shade, and one point of the compass from which the light comes. There must be a central and predominant light, as there is a central and predominant color, and from this there is a gradation toward the sides of the picture, ending in shadow or deep color tones. There must be one center of interest marked by light, or bright color (which is in effect the same thing), to which the eye will be inevitably drawn.”

Giovanni Boldini (1842-1931) - "A Beauty with Lilacs" - 22" x 15.75" - Oil

Giovanni Boldini (1842-1931) – “A Beauty with Lilacs” – 22″ x 15.75″ – Oil

Martin Rico y Ortega (1833-1908) - The Village of Chartres" - 16.54" x 28" - Oil

Martin Rico y Ortega (1833-1908) – The Village of Chartres” – 16.54″ x 28″ – Oil


Mr. Van Dyke considered the French and Spanish artists superb painters of light…especially men like Fortuny, Stevens, Rico, and Boldini. “They paint it as it is – fresh and bright, not misty and hazy with dust.”

Mariano Fortuny y Marsal (1838-1874) - "Spanish Wedding" - 24" x 36.8" - Oil

Mariano Fortuny y Marsal (1838-1874) – “Spanish Wedding” – 24″ x 36.8″ – Oil

Alfred Stevens (1823-1906) - "In the Studio" - 42" x 53.5" - Oil

Alfred Stevens (1823-1906) – “In the Studio” – 42″ x 53.5″ – Oil


Regarding shadows, Van Dyke offers this…”You will often see among the paintings of today by these same French and Spanish painters) representations of gardens, lawns, meadows, or streets in full sunlight. You will perhaps be startled by the hard, almost black, shadows cast by the various objects in the landscape, and will be inclined to look upon them as exaggerations. You may hear some artist or critic speak of them as ‘forced’ for the sake of contrast; but before you believe the accusation, make a few observations on your own account. Place your finger over a sheet of paper and compare the shadow cast worth the finger casting it. You will find the shadow much the darker. Look at a person’s face and you will find the shadows under the chin much darker than the chin itself. Compare a shadow on the sidewalk with the object producing it, whether it be a person, a horse, or a building, and you will again find the shadow the darker. From this you can formulate the general rule, subject however to some exceptions, that in full sunshine the shadows are darker than the objects casting them; and if you will apply this rule to the landscapes we have instanced, you will not find the shadows ‘forced’ or overdone in any way, but, on the contrary, so natural that we do not recognize their truth at first. Again, objects may be rounded off or blurred by atmosphere, but their shadows are not so easily affected. They are hard, sharp in outline, and flat. It will be remembered that they appear so only in full light, for every one knows that when the sun goes behind a cloud the shadows disappear.”


Next week: Melissa Hefferlin, Daud and Timur Akhriev interview – Part 1


John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
To view his art and bio, please click HERE