Advice for creating and critiquing paintings – Part 3

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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 image to enlarge)


Tone and Gradation

Van Dyke defines Harmony and Tone in this way: “Harmony is the relation of color qualities; Tone, the relation of color quantities. Harmony has more particularly to do with the problem of whether one color is congenial or well suited to another, while tone involves the grades of different colors used and their proportionate relationships  to one another. A picture out of tone would be almost equivalent to an orchestra out of key.”


“Tone requires the accord of all the notes of the color gamut with some leading color, precisely as in music all the notes are pitched in a common key to which they pay allegiance.”



Jean Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) – “The Augustan Bridge at Narni” – 13.39″ x 18.9″ – Oil   (1826)


Van Dyke believes that the lightest light should be placed near the focal point in a painting, and the focal point should be near the center. “Any picture in which the brightness or light placed at the sides or corners equals or excels the color or light of the center, may, as a general rule, be set down as poor work. Almost any of Corot’s landscapes will answer as an illustration of good tone and gradation.”

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