How To Self “Critique” Your Paintings

watercolors the impressionist approach, painting day,

How do I fix my paintings?  How can I tell what needs to be fixed? How do I critique my work?  A phrase I prefer over self critique is self assessment, a much more positive and hopeful turn of phrase. I also prefer the term ‘not yet resolved’ over the dismal, its a ‘failure’.

art assessment
Ready for Assessments


Keeping it simple with just  4 areas to assess lets nearly everyone from raw beginner to more advanced gain insight and the tools into how to self assess their own paintings easily, and with far less ego damage.

I really encourage you,  to assess 5-7 paintings in one episode.

If you only do just one or two  it usually is too difficult to be Objective.  With 5,  I find its so much easier to be objective,  especially when I have a notepaper and pencil to ‘check off’   the  4 areas  for each of my paintings. Works like a charm!

A lot of the time,  beginners may sense something is not quite right, yet not know what specifically it is. And then, when the problem has been identified – there’s no real idea of how to resolve the issue.


Art Self Assessment Criteria –  top 4 areas and 4 ways to make the resolutions


1. Tonal Values

This by far, is the number one problem!  Check this first.

I’d estimate 85% of the time, there is something amiss with the tones.

Generally,  the sky is darker at top, midtone in middle, paler at the horizon. The painting will look flat if there’s inadequate tonal gradation.

Generally other objects, rocks, shrubs, hills, clouds, tables, lawns, etc….  will be Lighter on Top, mid tone in the middle, and Darker at the bottom.  Again,  it will look flat, without form if there is inadequate gradations.       Check and Double check this.

Often, we are tempted to ‘outline’  a shape because we sense it is not strong enough, its not standing out.       Stop!!   Its the background that needs to be Darker!

If you see that the light tone has been lost, you can add white or lift the paint off.  If the area needs to be darker, just add a thin amount of darker tone, in small increments. Do use a tester strip to check that the tone is right first.




2. Centre of Interest

Paintings need to have a  focal point in the correct location.

One (1)   focal point  with its location, Off centre.  Divide paper into thirds vertically and horizontally. There will be 4 intersections. The focal point may go into any One of these intersections.

Also, be sure you have just One focal point, not two.

To create a focal point –  it needs to have the most contrast.

The whitest white and darkest dark of the entire painting.   This  ensures your eye goes to the desired focal point.  Focal points will also have the most detail and textural effects.   (A hint of dry brush and splatter!)


3. Edges

Location and placement of hard and soft edges is critical.  Where the sharp, defined edges and the soft blurred, out of focus edges are plays an integral role in creating depth and perspective.

Generally,  the background is soft and blurry, the middleground a little sharper  & firmer edged,  the foreground much sharper,  with the Focal Point having the highest percentage of hard sharp crisp edges.   This progression allows the eye to travel through the painting naturally.

The borders, perimeter of the painting also should be softer.

Keep edges along the painting’s perimeter borders out of focus, blurred. You don’t want  hard sharp edges that would target your eye to that area and Out of the painting!

To soften an edge, I usually just smudge it as I go with my finger.  In watercolours,  it can be softened long after it dries.  Just put clean water over the edge, wait 90 seconds and gently smudge a little.

Your Focal Point will have about   2/3  hard edges  along the top upper half,   the bottom 1/3  will be softened off.


4.  Aerial Perspective

In several of my past posts,  I’ve described aerial perspective, warm and cool colours.  Simply put:  warm colours advance  and cool colours recede. Warm colours lean to red,  cool colours lean to blue.  Place a warm colour in Front of a cooler colour will help give the painting more depth and perspective.

Aerial perspective sequence background to foreground –   pale soft grey,  pale blue-lavender,  blue,  green,  yellow, orange, red.

Thru the Gap
Thru the Gap

If you find that somehow,  a warm is in the far background and is confusing the depth, just glaze over it with a cool blue/grey to make it recede into the background.  If a leaf in front is too cool, glaze it with a nice warm glaze of orange or olive.

Glazes are done only on bone dry…. paper.  If it is not totally dry,  the result will be murky mud.

Glazes are typically best with Staining and Transparent colours.     Stainers I like to use include:  phalo blue, permanent alizarin crimson, indanthrone blue, prussian blue,  phalo green,  quinacridone sienna,  azo yellow.

Transparents I use:  cobalt blue, winsor lemon, viridian, permanent rose,  raw sienna genuine.

Correctly done in ‘see through’  veils,  on bone dry paper,  Glazes will create an extremely radiant and translucent result.


These tips are really guidelines, to help get you started on your way.

A road map, if you will. They’re not concrete ‘laws’ that must always be obeyed forever!


But, armed with these 4 tips on how to self assess your paintings and by practicing the technique, you’ll be able to make dramatic improvements to your work in a relatively short period of time. Self Assessments can be fun, educational, productive, rewarding  and Painless!



Published by debiriley

The act of creation, in any media is a fascinating and magical process. I simply love to create. Expressing in color, line, tone, texture - as if, they were words upon a page. Creating a uniquely me, interpretation. Enjoy More of my "one-of-a-kind" expressive art at and,

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