Advice for creating and critiquing paintings – Part 1

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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. (Click images to enlarge)


“Neither books, nor theories, nor lectures make the eye of the connoisseur. Studying the canvas – not one but thousands of them – can alone give practical knowledge, accurate judgment, and good taste.”


Of first importance

“In looking at a picture the first question we should ask, ‘Is it well executed?’. “The musician who knows not pitch, scale, and fingering will scarcely be able to interpret Wagnerian passion; the poet who knows not grammar and rhythm will not move us to tears by flights of sublimity or depths of pathos; and the painter who knows not how to draw, model, color, and in short, paint, will never excite our emotions by dramatic effect or poetic feeling.”

William Adolphe Bouguereau – “Le Crabe” – 31.89″ x 25.79″ – Oil   (1869)


“That which is said is undoubtedly the higher and the nobler aim of art, but it is attained only through the manner of saying; and if our artist stammers over his alphabet, how shall he tell us of great truths and beauties, or reveal to us his power or imagination?”

Van Dyke goes on to say that the artist should be technically skilled in order to command one’s attention to his ideas. Therefore, a critical examination begins with the foundation of painting…DRAWING.


Warning regarding color


“It is my purpose to point out what I deem to be false and crude in art, as well as to indicate what is good; so that the first caution I may offer regarding color is: Beware of your natural taste: beware of bright pictures for they are generally bad. You will understand me now not as saying that every bright picture is bad. On the contrary, some of the greatest masterpieces, especially among the Venetians and the modern Spaniards, are highly keyed in color and brilliant in effect. The caution is used only regarding the great majority of pictures, and is to be taken with its exceptions. In fact, throughout these talks almost everything I shall say will be subject to exceptions, and if I attempt to lay down a rule you will understand it as a general one only. I say then, in a general way: Beware of the gaudy pictures, for they are bad. You ask if bright colors, such for instance as those of an autumnal wood, are not natural and harmonious without gaudiness, and I answer, ‘Yes;’ but there are many things in nature beneath the artist’s notice, and there are many things quite beyond his powers of realization.”

Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida – “Cosiendo La Vela” – 86.61″ x 118.9″ – Oil   (1896)


“Color does not mean brightness alone; and that a ‘colorist’ is not one who deals in flaming colors with the recklessness of a crazy quilt maker, but one who justly regards the relationship, the qualities, and the suitableness of his colors one to another, whether they be in shadow, half-tint, or bright light. To unite these features and produce color harmony is one of the most difficult things in all painting.”

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