Friday, 1 May 2009

Do I Really Paint Like That? The Artistic Post-mortem (EMG Zine March)

Even if your time is limited, there is one part of any project which is critical to help you improve. Whether you spend five minutes or a week, doing an artistic 'post-mortem' on completed works is a good habit to get into.

So what do I mean by this? Well, at my day job, we have what's called a 'post implementation review' -- it's where a bunch of people get together and dissect how the project went. Sometimes it's full of people patting each other on the back; other times it's full of people pointing fingers and burning effigies.

An artistic 'post mortem', for me, is where you apply the same principles to a completed piece of work and reflect on what went right, what went wrong, and more importantly, where the opportunities for improvement are. We don't always need a bunch of critics to tell us what is good or bad. One of the most important things an artist can learn is how to be critical of your own work. To help you become more reflective about your own work, try asking yourself some of these questions the next time you finish a painting:

  1. What one thing would I do again?

    This can be something as simple as using a particular color, waiting for a wash to dry, or using a particular stock photographer. Sometimes the smallest thing that works can lead to a brilliant new style or technique.

  2. What is one thing I'd never do the same way?

    Everyone makes mistakes. Some are small, some are huge. Even if something is successful, you might decide for example that you never ever, and I mean never, choose to paint a picture with more than five roses in it.

  3. What one thing did I do in the piece that I could improve on for the next one?

    Be critical. If you took a shortcut like placed someone's hand behind their back, or relied too heavily on one photo reference, aim to paint at least a few fingers or sketch a hand. Don't get stuck and never improve. Everyone can improve.

  4. If I could do the piece in a different medium, what would it be and why?

    Sometimes when you finish a piece, although it was a success, you feel that it may have turned out differently if you'd made a different choice in media. Would a pencil sketch be better as a digital painting, should you have used oils instead of watercolours, or would a photo have been more effective?

  5. If I had twice as long to do this piece, how could I have improved it?

    Time is always a factor. When you are doing this part time, sometimes you have a limited window in which to complete work. Even if you paint full time, you might have several project on the go at once. When you are finished, work out what you rushed through, what you slaved over, and see where you skimped.

  6. What part did I take the longest on, and could I have been quicker?

    You can get bogged down in the details. That 8 hours you spent painting fur -- will it actually be noticed when the piece is printed out as a greeting card? Practice speed painting to improve your abilities to render image quicker and more effectively.

The key to asking questions about your own work is to work out what you need to do to improve. It's not about beating yourself down, comparing yourself against others, or giving yourself a complex. It's about learning to take off the rose coloured glasses and see your work as it is. If you can't see you own strengths and weaknesses, you can't necessarily take criticism, and you certainly can't improve or grow.