Critique your own art and improve as an artist

Concepts in practice based on the book Art and Fear (Read the book review here)

The ability to to critique your own art is a game changer. It means you are able to clearly and without judgement assess all the building blocks you have assembled in a piece and see which ones aren’t fitting well. Then, explore and search for what will work.

On page 24, the authors discuss the consequence of doubting your own artistic credentials.  Happy accidents in your work or working off ideas you have seen in other’s artwork may lead you to believe you are not a REAL artist, which can lead to crippling doubt during times when you feel creatively blocked and your work is not progressing as you would like. During times of creative block your own art becomes an invaluable resource.

Try to make critiquing  your own art a reliable exercise that you include in your standard process for making art.

Learning to critique your own work using accepted principles of art will not only help you grow as an artist, but, will give you confidence that YES, I am an artist!

The authors go on to explain the difference between ” what art is” and “what art making is”. This Concept in Practice will help us define what art making is and help you critique your own art and improve as an artist.

powdered pigments

Be sensitive to your mistakes. Observe your work. Put it on the wall for a couple of weeks. It may be that you can learn more from the study of your own work than from others. 

John Sloan

Concepts in practice: Critique your own art and improve as an artist

Objective:  This concept in practice is about learning from your own work and developing an unemotional response so that you can clearly define, using principles of art, what you want to say and how to achieve your goal.  

Journal Prompt: Critique your own work

Look through your work and select a piece that may not have been fully satisfactory to you. This prompt is about analyzing your own work and gaining insight from it while building a vocabulary to describe your work and allow you to use that knowledge so that future paintings will begin to reflect what you want to say and give you a foundation to produce work that is satisfying.

When you review work you have completed in the past, the emotional attachment is not as strong and you can look at it with a detached eye for ways to improve and this will benefit you in future work. 

In order to analyze your work, you will have to ask questions about it. 

Here is a brief checklist to get you started:

Start with the overriding theme of the work, is there a clear focal point?

Is the focal point strongly supported by the other elements of the work?

Elements that can be used to support the focal point:


Notan structure





Now, in your journal, do a few small drawings re-imagining your work.  Look at negative and positive shapes, could they be improved? What if you took an element out? If your painting is realism, try making it into abstract shapes. Does it reveal a strong graphic statement? If not, what would you change to make a stronger statement?

Here is an example from my journal prompt:

I chose this painting I did a few years ago. I was never happy with the result, so I decided to learn from it.

My focal point was the old barn high on a hill. It was an overcast Spring day. I took a picture of the barn in it’s field with some cows and painted it in the studio. I didn’t really compose or change any elements in the photo, I just painted straight from the source.

Now, looking back at this piece, I clearly paid no attention to compositional rules. The trees and cows are scattered around the picture with very little cohesion and the value structure is weak. 

Here’s what I want to address for this redo:




Value structure

painting of a barn on a hill

But how to fit these elements into the golden rectangle?

I decided to use the golden rectangle and spiral as a guide to placing the elements.

I came to these changes through experimenting with thumbnail drawings to get some basic ideas going. Making notes on my journal page as needed.

I think the thumbnail is an improvement and I plan to continue to develop the idea.

To address the compositional element for the thumbnail I decided to investigate the golden rectangle.

I followed the procedure for constructing the golden rectangle, then added a spiral and triangles.

I decided to make the barn larger and more prominent in the landscape. The foreground trees to the lower left were moved behind the barn to allow contrast, playing up the barn. 

To balance, I moved the two large trees on the right closer in so that I could mass their foliage with the trees behind the barn, improving continuity.


journal entry

Fun Bonus:

Do several thumbnail drawings of your work, but, take an element out. Does it improve the work or was it critical to the idea?

This exercise helps train the eye to edit a scene to include only the necessary elements for a stronger statement.

For related content read this article on finding your artistic themes.