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Art Tips: What Makes A Good Painting?

Updated on March 6, 2017
Robie Benve profile image

Robie is an artist who believes in the power of positive thinking. She loves sharing art tips and bringing people joy through her paintings.

All the great artworks, no matter the style or the medium, have these essential elements in common. - The content of this article is copyrighted by Robie Benve - Image: Eduard Manet, The Rue Mosnier with Flags, 1878,
All the great artworks, no matter the style or the medium, have these essential elements in common. - The content of this article is copyrighted by Robie Benve - Image: Eduard Manet, The Rue Mosnier with Flags, 1878, | Source

Every Artist’s Question: “What Makes a Good Painting?”

Knowing this will guarantee success, fans, buyers, gallery representation…. Or so we all hope.

“What makes a good painting?”

Unfortunately there isn't one single right answer to that question. Many paintings that are considered masterpieces were not well received when they were first created (think of all the Impressionists, or the modern artists) but changes in society, culture, and tastes gave them the aura they have today.

Essential Elements of Great Artworks

All the great artworks, no matter the style or the medium, have some essential elements in common.

At the end what makes a painting successful is that compositions, colors, and subject matter, all work harmoniously to deliver a unified and well executed artwork that is pleasant to the viewer.

There are a couple of main elements that typically come together to make a painting successful:

A. Technical aspects. The outcome of a painting will depend on many things, but most of all it is determined by your choice of colors and how you choose to arrange and group shapes in the picture.
B. Personal and emotional involvement. It is very important that you enjoy the process. If you paint with enjoyment and inspiration it will show through in the finished painting.

A. Technical Aspects of a Painting

Elements of a Successful Painting

Technical Aspects of a Painting:

Composition, choice of colors, focal point, and how you choose to arrange shapes are crucial for the success of a painting.

A1. Composition
A2. Focal Point
A3. Patterns and Groups

A1. Composition of a Successful Painting

There are many rules and tips on composition schemes. You can study them all and work hard to apply them. Or you can use just your guts and compose the way that looks good to you, disregarding the classic designs.

I recommend that at the beginning you simplify the decision making process of painting by skipping the formal composition rules, and just follow your instinct. Compose your image the same way that you would take or crop a picture with your camera, letting your instinct decide what looks best.

Look at the scene you want to paint and crop it with L-shaped cardboard strips in front of your eyes. Position them to form a rectangle proportional to the size of your canvas. They will help you see what looks best and choose how to crop your subject.

A2. Focal Point of a Successful Painting

The focal point of a painting is the area of major interest, where the eye of the viewer is naturally led.

What is the painting about? What are you trying to say? That should be your focal point.

Avoid placing the focal point in the center of the canvas, both horizontally and vertically, or too close to the edges.

The ideal positions for a focal point are on the lines of thirds – obtained dividing the canvas in thirds horizontally and vertically. Most often artists place the focal point on a sweet spot, identified by the points where the lines of thirds intersect.

The focal point is usually the area with

  • Highest contrast of value
  • Sharpest edges

In addition to the focal point it is good practice to have a couple of more secondary elements of interest, better yet if placed to form a triangle.

"Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida - Rocas de Jávea y el bote blanco" by Joaquín Sorolla - Museo Carmen Thyssen, Málaga.
"Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida - Rocas de Jávea y el bote blanco" by Joaquín Sorolla - Museo Carmen Thyssen, Málaga. | Source

A3. Patterns and Groups in a Successful Painting

Our brain automatically looks for patterns in a picture.

Create value patterns, grouping darks and lights into bigger shapes. It makes the painting more pleasant for the viewer. To do this, simplify differences in colors and values. For example, if painting a tree don’t paint every single leaf, but a shape of the tree canopy with a unified value. You can variate the colors within the shape, but keep the value uniform.

Also, our brain, even if we are not aware of it, tends to pair up elements. A picture with two very similar objects, like two trees or two pears of the same size, becomes static, almost boring. Odd numbers are always more interesting, it keeps the viewer’s eyes moving.

Keep the number of similar elements odd, and you’ll keep your viewer more captivated.

B. Personal and Emotional Involvement

Elements of a Successful Painting

Personal and Emotional Involvement

B1. Freshness in a Successful Painting
B2. How to Stay Fresh and Inspired
B3. Start When You Are Ready and Be Ready To Start

Each page of this book is full of great painting tips!

B1. Freshness in a Successful Painting

When you first start a painting you have a lot of enthusiasm for the scene. You are inspired by what you want to paint and you put a lot of energy into it.

Chances are that when you are into the painting things don’t look as you expected, you see some mistakes that you are not sure how to fix, and you lose your optimism.

Keep the freshness and enthusiasm up. If you get tired, take a break.

Tiredness causes lazy and unnecessary brushstrokes that more than advancing, ruin the painting.

Remind yourself continuously what captivated you about that particular scene, what was so exciting that enticed you to paint it. Keep your focus on what you are trying to express.

B2. How to Stay Fresh and Inspired:

  • Take regular breaks.
  • Work on several paintings at the same time, switching from one to another when you are in a rut.
  • Work on varied subject matters.
  • Change point of view: look at the painting in a mirror or upside down. A fresh perspective will let you see better what needs improvement.

B3. Start When You Are Ready and Be Ready To Start

I find that one of the worst enemies of artistic productivity is wasting time.

It’s important to start painting with things ready to go.

Your space should be setup to keep distractions to a minimum, with what you are going to need (paint, brushes, rags, water, etc) all easily reachable. For this it’s important to keep you space decluttered and organized, keeping all your tools handy, including your reference material.

But before you can start, make sure you have a plan.

Analyze the image/scene before you begin

  • Light source
  • Shadows
  • Dominant color
  • Focal point or main focus

Preliminary Observation allows to start with a plan. What are you going to express?

What characteristics inspired you and you want to make sure you express?

With a clear plan it’s easier to stay focused, and to react when things go wrong.

November Sunset, oil on gesso board
November Sunset, oil on gesso board | Source

Enjoy the Painting Process and Learn from Your Mistakes

Painting landscapes (or anything else) is a continuous learning experience.

Every painting presents different challenges and many times those challenges can become amazing opportunities for experimenting and self-improving.

It may not be in the current painting that you see the results, but the next ones will definitely benefit from the struggle and the problem solving that you went through today.

Keep painting.

Enjoy every step of it.

Learn from your mistakes.

Paint some more.

Have fun! : )

© 2016 Robie Benve

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    • Robie Benve profile image
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      Robie Benve 16 months ago from Ohio

      Thanks Glimmer Twin Fun, I did not plan it to be a thought-provoking article, but if that's the case I am very happy. I try to write hubs about concepts that I learn in my art journey, in the hope that it may help someone discover them a little faster than I did. Knowing some of the basics, like what makes a good painting, is surely nothing to take for granted. I learn every day from things I read. :) Glad you found the read interesting.

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Glimmer Twin Fan 17 months ago

      This was interesting to me. I came into thinking that a good painting is one that someone likes, but never thought about what else goes into it. And thinking about my favorite pieces that I've seen over the years, they all have many of these characteristics. Thank you for this thought-provoking article.

    • Robie Benve profile image
      Author

      Robie Benve 17 months ago from Ohio

      Well said Denise, it's hard to know what kind of art the public wants and likes, and trying to paint chasing the thread of what sells can be very stressful and frustrating.

      I rather paint what ignites my inspiration, and if other people like it too, that makes me happier, but I find that when I paint only for myself, enjoying the process, I get better results than when I paint for an audience. For example, knowing that I need to paint for a show, I have in the back of my mind that the piece will be in an exhibit, and that influences the way I paint.

      Even knowing that I will post a photo of the painting on my social networks does something to my brain.

      Best of all is painting for the joy of painting, having the luxury of saying to yourself: "no one needs to see this, I'll show it only if I like it, and definitely only if I want to".That frees your mind from worries about the outcome and really opens up opportunities to experiment and learn with each painting.

      Thanks a lot for your Thoughtful comment, Paintdrips.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image

      Denise McGill 17 months ago from Fresno CA

      Great information. I always love it when someone tackles the age-old question. I think there is an element of chance to any painting too. Something about being in the right place at the right time with the right composition to strike a cord with the populace. Think about Grandma Moses. Totally uneducated in art, she would have remained an obscure primitive artist painting for her own amusement if it had not been the end of a World War and the people suddenly wanted to see "back to a simpler way of life" type of pieces. Sometimes there is no knowing what the public wants and you should paint what you like no matter what. Then if people like it too, so much the better. Good luck.

      Blessings,

      Denise

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