Advice for creating and critiquing paintings – Part 4

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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)


Light and Shade

“Light and shade independent of color is often called chiaroscuro. There is always a point of high light and an opposite point of deep shadow, and in art it is the maintenance of the just relations between the light and the shade that gives to objects that rounded and real appearance which they hold in nature. Chiaroscuro, or light and shade, then, may be said to be the art-means whereby objects are cast in relief upon a flat surface and made to assume the appearance of reality.”

Correggio (1489-1534) – “Virgin and Child with an Angel” – 30″ x 22.36″ – Oil

Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875) – “Le Torrent Pierreaux” – 19.76″ x 24.25″ – Oil


“In landscape there is never a patch so large as one’s hand of the same color or shade, unless it be sky or water.”

“All objects in a picture, then, require to be rounded out and placed in proper relation by giving to each a due proportion of light and shade. The intensity of the light is immaterial provided it is continuous, and extends proportionally throughout the scene.”

Bartolome Esteban Murillo (1617-1682) – “The Young Beggar” – 52.76″ x 39.37″ – Oil

Rembrandt (1606-1669) – “Descent from the Cross” – 62.2″ x 46.06″ – Oil

Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) – “Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani” – 21.47″ x 15.87″ – Oil


Along these lines, Van Dyke says, as artists we can’t even remotely capture the intensity of the sun or the density of shadow at night. “But this is of little consequence provided the proportionate relationship between the lights and shades is kept up. The artist is like the singer; he may not reach such high or low notes so he transposes the key, yet retains the relationship. The necessity of this relationship being maintained, no matter what the key, is absolute. Though the intensity of light may be immaterial provided the shadows are in proportion, yet the quantity of light, if it exceed the quantity of shade, will make a garish show upon the canvas.”


A painting is best if the quantity of light does not exceed the quantity of shade


“Corot, with all his love of light, never failed to relieve it with quantities of shade. Leonardo, Correggio, Rembrandt, and Murillo cannot be said to have used too much shade, because they always offset it by high lights in strong contrast. The effects they produced may be called ‘forced’ effects, but they are not the less brilliant.”

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