Advice for creating and critiquing paintings – Part 7

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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. (Click images to enlarge)


Perspective and Atmosphere

In Part 6, John Van Dyke explained linear and atmospheric perspective and its effect on value, edges, and color. Part 7 continues that discussion.

Constant Troyon (1810-1865) – “Cows Grazing” – 26.22″ x 39.76″ – Oil


“Viewing a tree on a hillside that is known to be covered with green leaves…with this knowledge our mind affects our sense of sight, and instead of our eyes telling our intellect what the color of the tree appears to be, our intellect tells our eyes that it is green. If however we partially close our eyes and look for color alone, we shall find we have been deceived, for the tree does not appear green, but bluish-gray. In the landscape, atmosphere generally makes dark distant objects appear lighter, and light objects warmer in tint. Aerial perspective, then, as distinguished from linear perspective, is the effect of atmosphere upon objects, lights, or colors in nature, and is produced by proportionate intensities or depressions of coloring and light. In effect it blurs the outlines and modulates the color of objects, and its proper use results in sharp lines being graded into rough forms, and rough forms finally disappearing into mere patches and blurs of color as the distance increases.”

Jules Breton (1827-1906) – “Sur la Route en Hivor, Artois” – 30.51″ x 58″ – Oil

Charles Francois Daubigny (1817-1878) – “Washerwoman by the River” – 7.76″ x 13.74″ – Oil


Scumbling white, gray, or bluish-gray paint over the background of a painting in order to produce a sense of atmosphere is oftentimes bad. Instead, produce the effect by mixing the gradations of line and tones of color using the appropriate color and value.



Givseppe de Nittis (1846-1884) – “I Pioppi” – 16″ x 12.76″ – Oil  (1870)

George Inness (1825-1894) – “Harvest Scene in the Delaware Valley” – 30.25″ x 45.25″ – Oil  (1867)


Mr. Van Dyke believes that Givseppe de Nittis, Charles Francois Daubigny, Constant Troyon, George Inness, Jules Breton, among several others have properly understood, applied, and admirably rendered perspective and atmosphere. He is not so kind to Jean Gerome, William Bouguereau, or Alexandre Cabanel; he believes these men have very little sympathy with atmosphere, and show perspective more by gradations of form than of color.

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