Wednesday, 30 January 2013


Critiquing the work of others is rather fascinating. But also quite difficult. Recently, I did a critique session for an art group.   One particular painting, a seascape painted from a clifftop, bothered me.  There was a strange sensation of the sea in the foreground somehow tilting towards me.  I felt that perhaps it an optical illusion, caused by the handling of the reflection of some foreground rocks down into the water, and the treatment of the surface of the water.  I commented upon this rather unusual effect.....and several of the audience agreed with me, so clearly it was not my eyes playing tricks.  HOWEVER, the painter - an artist with considerable experience, said that she simply had no idea what I was talking about, and nothing I said, or explained, could shift her from this position.  In the end, I had to suggest that we agree to differ...because I could not "see" it differently, and seemingly, neither could she.

To my mind, this can often be a problem.  What one person sees, another simply does not.  Who is right?  Or rather, is anyone wrong?

When we show our work to others, we have to accept certain types of specific criticism - for example,  if the perspective is all wrong - this is straightforward and difficult to argue with.  If tone values have not been properly assessed - this can cause all sorts of problems with, for instance, the effectiveness of aerial perspective, or even the atmosphere of a piece.  When painting the figure, if the proportions are all wrong, this cannot be easily contested!  So we have to accept this type of criticism, and learn from it.

 HOWEVER, where the design or composition of an image is concerned, things are trickier.  Design/composition issues are rather abstract, and what feels like a wonderfully-well designed piece to one person, may not appeal in the same way to another. 

Picking a painting apart is a very difficult thing to do, for both tutor and artist,   because everything happening within the rectangle depends on everything else and modifies and affects everything else.   All we can do sometimes, is try to see what is going on beyond the subject matter....and then have the courage to change the things which are not working as well as they could be - hopefully for the better.  

The thing is, even if you haven't been taught a thing about composition, you are inevitably "composing" when you begin to paint.  You cannot put down one shape or line without creating a composition of some kind.  But without doing any research or learning, we all have a limited sense of design which might well be dominated by particular - and not necessarily helpful -  "rules" picked up along the way.

Gradually, by reading and learning,  you will gain the confidence to be your own best critic - the only one who really counts!

Over the next few blogs, I will try to pick apart a few paintings,  which may help those of you confused about the whole issue of "design" or "composition" to begin to see the thinking and structure behind the obvious surface imagery.  A painting needs to be much more than just a shopping list - 3 apples, 1 copper pot, 1 wine bottle, 1 tabletop.  No matter how well you have painted those apples, or that pot - there are many more concepts and ideas to use, which will turn a shopping list of objects into a powerful image.

In the meantime, on the subject of who is right and who is wrong..........I'd like to show you a work which shows very unconventional design choices.  Paul Millichip, a brilliant painter I have had the privilege of working with, as a student , painted this interesting image. 

"Fete du Throne" oil on canvas 24x36".  Morocco

At first glance, one could argue that it is rather unbalanced and breaks lots of compositional "rules".  The figure is running - which provides movement, but it is running OUT of the picture. The doorway is arguably too close to the left edge.  The large area of light wall seems out of balance with the rest.

However - let's do a bit of analysis. 

The eye is cleverly drawn to the figure by the dark line at the base of the wall on the left, by the darkness of the doorway, and by the linear, dark shadows of flagpole and flag on the wall, both of which point directly to the figure.  

The figure is dressed in white, which links visually with the flash of white on the ground, which counteracts any sensation of the figure moving out of the picture, in fact, it draws our eye back into the picture.  

There is a massive curving shape of light yellow on the wall, which is subtly, but positively echoed by the arms of the figure.  I am inclined to feel this was deliberate....if not deliberate, then certainly brilliantly instinctive, since these are the only curving forms in the image and just see how important they are.  without those echoing shapes, the picture would be much weaker. 

The doorway makes a sharp, dark punctuation mark. But more than this, the dark, right-hand edge of the doorway links visually with the back leg of the figure, and the small dark shadow on the ground, forming the start of an important L-shape which holds the eye in place.  The horizontal base of the L is echoed across the image with other vertical marks,  so strengthening the "hold" within the rectangle:

So - a bad composition or good one?

 I am unlikely ever to paint an image like this.  It would not suit my style, and frankly, I am not brave enough...Paul is a very brave and very distinguished painter.  However, I tried to analyse the image in order to see beyond the surface.  

That is not to say I know I am 100% right here.  There may well be other reasons why Paul painted this image in the way that he did. However, my instincts told me that there was more to this image than met my eye initially.  I am still unable to explain that blue sky shape at the top. Even if I am wrong and Paul had quite different reasons for doing what he did, nevertheless analysing in this way often provides a learning experience for oneself.
   I hope I have been able to show you that with some knowledge, certain aspects of the art of painting become easier to "read", and easier therefore to use.


Just to let you know that I now have a small stock of my original pastels DVD's - 
Learn to Paint Gardens - 60 mins;  
Pastels Workout 130mins (2 DVD's - part one, first steps - part two, capturing light and colour) and 
Learn to Paint Flowers  60 mins.
I am happy to release these at half price, so if interested, do drop me a line to and I will give you a price including postage to your part of the world.


  1. Jackie, absolutely fascinating explanation of all those elements that make this a wonderful painting. I loved it the moment I scrolled to the first image. Then you explanations were icing on the cake. I think you hit it perfectly. So, when you mention the blue sky, I scrolled back to the image. I also see that light line between the top of the building and the sky. My only thought is that it creates a visiual stop from the upward movement of the door and everything happening in that left side. Whatever his reason, it works! Thank you so much. I look forward to your future posts about design and composition!

  2. Hard to explain the swell of an ocean, but there's a good example of the viewer's behavior. This is true in much of landscape painting, and think of the table top sloping queerly in a still life. Easy to show that as a mistake.

    You make a good illustration of how artist's don't see their own paintings. I gave a crit to an artist last night, and offered him this advice: line up your 7 images, and rank them from 1-7 and think about why for each one. Now discard (mentally or actually) the worst 50%. Well, in this case it would be 2, but my advice is that you can double your quality if you learn to only show your best half of your work!

    I got an impression after doing one of the best outdoor fairs on the planet, which is Sausalito, California, that many artists overdo the negative space. Andrew Wyeth did not overdo it in Christina's World, and I sometimes take it apart for students and show them the actual proportions - Christina is bigger than you think! That is my chief complaint @ the example you show here.

    Hey - I look forward to this series of yours!

  3. Thanks for giving me a lot to think about, Jackie. At what point do "safe" or predictable compositions become boring to the artist and the viewer? I find myself attracted to unbalanced rule-breaking paintings and would love to be able to pull them off successfully!

  4. I think your question is anybody wrong? is exactly the right question! there are so many underlying meanings to any painting that, if the painter is proficient, that is, are shown by all kinds of what may look like awkward spots.

    That sliver of blue sky, for instance,in the painting you analyzed -- cover it with your thumb and see what happens to the composition. It falls apart. The sky is a locking device both in terms of color balance and in terms of shape, and the directionality of the work. It's a terrific work, daring, and I think compositionally very successful.

    Thanks so much for this discussion. I look forward to more!

  5. I think there is never a real right or wrong when it comes to art, everyone sees a colour or shape in a different way, and a picture relates and creates different feelings and throught in all of us, one can feel calm when they see a empty room, while the next person feels panic.

    I gone to many crit meetings (both through school and art groups) and they can become very interesting, some artists (amature or pro)really either cant take a note that what they hear when its not to their liking or they will not accept a different view of their own work (positive or negative)... Or like you wrote, they just cant see what someone else sees and lot of times I think its because they spent so much time with their piece so its hard to see anything other than. Sorry, I hope that made some sense.. (sounded better in my head, lol).

    I like the post about composition, very interesting. To me the painting makes me wonder what the person is running towards too, but my friend looked at it said she wanted to know what he was running away from. One of my old art teachers was so against anyone drawing or painting anything walking in teh direction out of the picture, drew me crazy not everything can face in.

    Great post!!!

  6. I like the picture and your analysis of it. I find the bit of blue sky gives a lot of depth of field to the painting.
    It is nice to see your critique and see if I can understand it.

  7. Jackie, I was shocked to view your article about one of Paul's magnificent Moroccan paintings only to find that you say that PAUL IS DEAD. HE IS NOT DEAD, BUT VERY MUCH ALIVE, AND STILL WORKING AND EXHIBITING, LOOK HIM UP ON THE INTERNET AND BE INFORMED!!
    Shirley Millichip - his wife. 12.12.2013 PS Jackie, as a matter of interest you attended one or two of Paul courses at home and abroad, including Vasilliki, Lafkada, Greece

  8. Jackie, just read your article discussing one of the 'late' Paul Millichip's magnificent Moroccan paintings and was very shocked that you claimed he was dead. HE IS NOT DEAD, BUT VERY MUCH ALIVE AND PAINTING - please see the internet for updates. We live at the same address as ever, The Barn Studio - His latest self-portrait was shown at the Borchard Collection recently, Kings Place Gallery, Kings Cross.
    This note comes from his wife, Shirley Bradford Mllichip - see both of us all over the internet.

  9. Clearly Shirley has had a problem with posting, as I have had a problem with replies. I have tried, several times, and am now trying from a different computer. I was horrified to learn that I had been given MISinformation regarding Paul, so sorry for causing distress, and DELIGHTED to hear Paul is alive and well! What more can I say.....damage done, impossible to erase, but so thrilled to hear he is fine. I hope everyone reads this! I am now going to try to edit the above post. Might work, might not.


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