Common faults found in paintings

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You’ve probably heard the saying, ”The more things change, the more they remain the same.” Years ago, I clipped and saved some articles of interest found in some very old American Artist magazines. Going through some of these recently, I came across an article that lists five common faults often found in what would be considered unsuccessful paintings. See if you agree. Is this same old story?



Drawing is the absolute foundation of representational painting. Without a knowledge of linear and aerial perspective, the ability to represent objects truthfully within a given space, accurately proportioned, will be limited. Good drawing is as important to painting as a solid foundation is to house construction, yet many students of art want to brush over this stage because it is the most difficult and time consuming. The American Artist article, way back then, recognized that artists wanted to create complete paintings before equipping themselves for the task. The author’s recommendation: “Spend more time in making studies of objects.” Draw any and everything.

Frederick John Mulhaupt  (1871-1938)

Frederick John Mulhaupt (1871-1938)  – Several important drawing principles are demonstrated here: 1) All perspective lines of the buildings ascend to meet at some point on the high horizon line. 2) The buildings diminish in size as they recede into the distance. 3) All structures are accurately proportioned to one another and occupy their own distinct space. 4) There is less detail indicated as distance from viewer increases.



It’s important to always view the painting as a whole, not an assemblage of individual objects. Focusing our attention on each section and object within a painting without giving proper attention to their relationship with everything else in the painting, will cause the work to be “broken up, some objects being too prominent, others too remote.” This becomes most obvious when 1) All the edges are sharp and defined. 2) The amount of detail is the same throughout. 3) Little attention is given to atmospheric perspective, thereby creating inconsistent relationships of value, color and contrast.

John Carlson, in his famous book, “Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting”, explains it this way: “Art is the expressive putting together of parts into a beautiful whole, and not the parts themselves. This putting together must be done not alone with the desire to create a harmony between the parts, but the parts must be arranged in their order of importance to the idea of the whole – in their proper progression or sequence.”

Anton Mauve  (1838-1888)

Anton Mauve (1838-1888) – No individual object is overly rendered as to detract the viewer from the whole. Shapes are kept simple and grouped. Notice how the tree overlapping the roof, works as one value shape with the roof and other dark tree shapes. All the dark shapes touch, greatly simplifying this painting to basically three value shapes, each distinct and of unequal proportion. All these qualities contribute to a beautifully unified painting.


Correct Planes

The author suggests this as a general fault found among landscape painters. “A cottage in the middle distance is either far beyond the middle distance or too near the foreground. This is usually because the tone values are wrong, the objects being too light or too dark. My advice is therefore; keep an eye on the distance each object is supposed to be from the foreground and watch your tone values.”

John Carlson has an excellent chapter in his book detailing the four planes of the landscape and their value relationships to one another. The four value planes are: sky, flat/ground, slanted/hills, and uprights/trees.

Willard Leroy Metcalf  (1858-1925)

Willard Leroy Metcalf (1858-1925) – Clearly there is a foreground, middle ground, and background. Additionally, there is a clear distinction between the values of the various planes; from lightest to darkest: sky, grass (flat plane); distant hill (slanted plane); trees (upright places). Notice also the proportion, value, and color  of the structures and how beautifully they fit convincingly into the landscape.


Balance of tone/Composition

The author says an obvious fault of many paintings he has viewed is that there is a poor balance of tone…too much dark tone on one side of the painting relative to the other. I’ve seen this a lot in my teaching. This is really a compositional problem. A helpful way to look at composition is to always consider unity, but also diversity. We want all the elements in a painting to properly relate to one another in proportion, in space, in value and in color, but we should also strive for variety within each of these areas. The best paintings have an observable variety of shapes relative to one another; variety in space: a foreground, middle ground and background; variety in value: an unequal distribution of white, light gray, middle gray, dark gray and black; and variety in color of hue, intensity, value, and temperature.

Anders Zorn  (1860-1920)

Anders Zorn (1860-1920) – Remove the platform on the right and this would be a totally unbalanced composition. Zorn is a master of the nontraditional composition. Actually, the dock is very close in value to the water, so that simple dark, diagonal shadow brings the whole painting into balance. This is a totally brilliant painting.



The author sees that, “Color seems to be a fetish with many, whilst tone is forgotten. Let me say that tone is more important than color, and good color will never make up for bad tone. Tone must be considered with color.” This is such an important principle; once the value is correct, good color will follow.

Edgar Payne  (1883-1947)

Edgar Payne (1883-1947) – This painting is very colorful, but Payne is such a master of values and light that this work becomes a great example of the truth…if the value is correct, good color will follow. Also notice how the value becomes lighter, and the color more neutralized as it recedes.


All pretty good advice don’t you think?


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