Hints 'n' Tips | Visual Arts

5 + 1: A Recipe for Critiquing Your Own Paintings

John Huges analizes a small study in preparation for a larger painting

Critiques are interesting animals; some are big and hairy while others can seem small and cuddly. Like judging in an art competition, they are all dependent on the artistic paradigm of the person doing the critique. Sometimes the best critiques are the simplest ones, like when my wife Teresa walks into my studio and says, “I love it!” as opposed to, “It’s nice.” I can usually tell right then and there the painting is going to be snapped up right away, rather than sitting on a gallery wall for a while.

There are two basic categories of critiques. A simple expression of how eye-catching a piece is, like Teresa’s critique above, is a good indication of a piece’s salability. I call these critiques type B. Type A critiques are more complicated. They are the ones dealing with the aesthetic merits of a painting. For years I wondered what made one painting seem so “right” while other paintings just didn’t have that same magic. Type B critiques, which looked at the whole, were not much help and I would often frustrate Teresa and myself by pressing the issue for more information on what went wrong. (By the way, Teresa is also good at type A critiques, but it was a skill that took years to develop, for both of us – nowadays she can pretty much tell me not only which paintings won’t be hanging around too long, but also give me valuable insight when something is not working in a painting. How good is that!)

My basic problem back in the early days of my work was to find a way to break down the painting process into its component parts and be able to assess a work artistically based on how all the areas come together. I used to devour “how to books,” attend demos and workshops, gallery hop, museum hop, attend critique groups, enter shows and hang around with seasoned artists in my area in an attempt to gain understanding. In my studies, I found that artists all had their pet systems, some quite elaborate, to explain the nuts and bolts of a good work of art. The job was to find a way to approach all this information and distill it down into a format that I could relate to. And one I could use on my own. What I found was that even though everyone had their own way of approaching this complex subject, there were basic fundamental principles that ran through each. The 5+1 system of self-critique is what I finally came up with.

Without having a starting place, direction, and a logical concluding point, it is a daunting task to pinpoint what is and what is not working in a painting. Something like the 5+1 system gives you a structure to do just that. The information presented here is nothing new; I did not invent it by any means. The 5+1 system is only one artist’s approach to understanding knowledge that has been around since the beginning. It comes down to five basic areas:

1: Drawing
2: Color
4: Edges
5: Brushwork, or Texture.

The Plus 1 refers to Drama. More on that later.

The logical place to begin is where a painting begins: Drawing. The category of Drawing encompasses line, placement, size, direction, composition and design. In other words it’s a category for all of those things related to laying out the basic design of the painting. For some artists this may be quite extensive and for others the drawing might reside mostly in the mind. Either way, at this stage in the critique you are asking yourself, “Are there any problems with the drawing?” Questions like – Are the proportions right? Does the linear movement of the painting flow? Are there annoying parallel lines? Is there a certain amount of oppositional lines for balance? Is there variety in my spacing? Is there variety in size and shapes of objects? Is there a certain amount of continuity of shapes to hold the painting together? — are a good place to start.

Color – Questions in this grouping might include: Is the color beautiful in the painting? Do I have a balance between neutrals and more saturated colors? Do my colors clash? Do they seem real? Do they portray the mood I am after? Do my colors transition into other colors effectively? Again, not all the questions that could be asked. There are many possibilities.

Value – Is my painting too light or too dark? Do the values seem real? Are they effective? Have I fractured any of my masses by having too many value jumps? Is there a simple value structure to the painting? Are my values representative of the way light behaves? Etc. Etc.

Edges- Are the edges in my painting too hard, too soft? Are my edges juicy? Do they transition well? Do they depict the way light behaves? Are they interesting? On and on . . .

Brushwork or Texture – Is the brushwork exciting? Is it expressive of the things being depicted? Are all my brush marks the same and therefore dull and boring? Am I using the full range of brushwork from a simple wash to heavy impasto? Is there continuity in my handling of the brush? Some of these questions may even seem contradictory, but it’s all in what you want to say in any given painting. Sometimes continuity in your brushwork might be the answer and at other times a little more variety might be just the thing. Only you can decide that, but it either works or it doesn’t and that is what you need to be sensitive to it.

Finally, drama. Drama is that certain something that each painting needs to make it exciting enough to hold the viewer’s attention. It could be a spotlight on the horizon created by an opening in the clouds or just a fleck of raw paint in a strategic place in the painting that captures the eye. Whatever it is, it’s the hotspot or icing on the cake that says, “Look at me.” Each painting needs a certain amount of drama. Sometimes it will be very dramatic and at other times very subtle. But it should be there.

John Hughes

One final word, lest the reader think that a painting can be broken down to a few simple formulas. It’s not that easy, if it were all the mathematicians and accountants would be the artists and the rest of us would be chopping rocks in Sing Sing. It’s the heart, mind and spirit that make an artist, and when they all work together great art can be the result. And when a painting doesn’t speak to your heart or spirit, it’s time to use your mind to figure out why.


An award-winning artist and teacher who has been painting the landscape both in and out of the studio since 1983, John Hughes maintains a studio in Taylorsville and teaches students in private workshops and in a course at Salt Lake Community College.

Categories: Hints 'n' Tips | Visual Arts

3 replies »

  1. It was fascinating and rewarding to read this treatise after writing my own review, elsewhere in this edition, of the works of Sandy Brunvand and Al Denyer. I still believe what I wrote there, which disagrees with almost everything John Hughes says, but it’s proof to me of why I love art as a topic as well as an experience: both can be true at the same time, because they apply to only two or three local zones in an enormous and infinitely rich human enterprise.
    One thing I would change, though. The title of this system, 5+1, unduly sets Drama apart from the other principles of appreciation, as though it were the ultimate determining quality. Yet it is not. Drama has waxed and waned in art as much as any other quality. Byzantine mosaics lack the illusion of depth, a feeling of weight, realistic color, or predetermined values. They also lack drama. Yet their principles were promulgated for a thousand years, and they remain popular today.
    Maybe it should be called the 6 system. Or the 5(+1) system. Or the Special Six, the Select Six . . . or maybe I should shut up and hope everyone gets that a system for critiquing landscapes and other paintings in the Era Since the Rise of Historical Painting will not answer in every situation.

    Great job, John. Nothing less than what I always expect from you.

  2. Thanks Geoff,
    I appreciate your comment. I think your last paragraph summed it up accurately, this way of critiquing a painting probably applies best to the world of realism even though the same principles of design, color, values, edges,texture and drama might be of concern to the abstractionist. I’ve seen some really fine work in this area and am really drawn to abstract expressionism which I believe has helped the work of many realists tremendously.

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