Constructive Criticism at NYAA

The New York Academy of Art requires a diploma project for commencement. Once the work has been completed and the grades have been submitted, the faculty gather for three days to publicly criticize each piece by the graduating class. This harrowing ordeal provides the nascent grad with one last chance to receive constructive criticism (read: pointing out problems that really should have been overcome) as well as to instill in the younger students a sense of fear and dread which should be sublimated into a healthy work ethic.

Three days, fifty-some-odd works at around 15 minutes apiece by a dozen or so highly talented and intelligent professionals: here is the distilled wisdom of contemporary masters. Note that what NYAA fosters is quickly becoming what, at least for the moment, is known as Conceptual Figurative art.

Perhaps it is worthwhile to take a short aside and get at a working definition of Conceptual Figuration. Basically, it is a movement dealing with image-making that is in complete service of some larger idea or concept. It differs from so-called conceptual art in that Conceptual Figuration deals with time-honored, traditional mediums and does not require that the viewer read a page of text to appreciate the final product. That is not to say that Conceptual Figuration is neccessarily simple. On the contrary, Conceptual Figurative artists tend to pride themselves on not using the most obvious or traditional method to say something. With most artistic movements, particularly in painting, the movement is defined by the language of paint applications; the mark-making vernacular. For example, it is very obvious that one is looking at a Cubist work because Cubism is defined by a specific language and style that was novel in the early 20th century. With Conceptual Figuration, everything must be in service of the concept, including the mark-making vernacular, which means that the works themselves cannot be categorized by any particular style. About the only thing they visually have in common is the use of the human figure to express an idea. Of course, not all contemporary art dealing with the human form falls within the Conceptual Figuration camp. There are many works of art that simply are about depicting a beautiful naked woman. Sorry, but those do not qualify.

If that sounds like the type of art you are interested in creating, then all of the following comments will be of use to you. If you are interested in creating technically proficient works, then almost all of the following comments will be beneficial.

  • You need to fully commit to what it is that you want to represent.
  • Observe; it’s all about illusionistic representation. Make studies from life and capture them as accurately as possible.
  • Illusionism requires that some of the edges become soft or even lost. Hard edges everywhere smacks of illustration.
  • Different objects should be painted differently. Objects with different textures need to be visually, palpably different.
  • Don’t think about filling in areas; this causes a painting to look overworked, labored and tiresome. Don’t beat the paint to death.
  • Avoid filling things in with local color. Tonal accuracy is just an under-painting.
  • Patterns tend to flatten images and must therefore be avoided. Likewise it is a tendency to make gaps between objects occur at regular intervals—this tendency should be fought. Find and ruthlessly eliminate patterns in your work.
  • Watch for inappropriate linear continuities, i.e. edges of two different objects joining to form a single line. This should be avoided as it destroys the illusion of depth.
  • Objects in a painting should have a chromatic identity in addition to a tonal identity; move beyond the under-painting.
  • Identify the temperatures of the light mass, shadow mass and the turnings. You need to understand the rationale for each pairing. (i.e. warm light-mass or cool turnings.)
  • Temperatures can be rich and still hover around the neutrals. Don’t allow cool to turn too cold or warm to get too hot.
  • Keep in mind contrast: you don’t need to use black to represent darkness and you don’t need to use white to represent light.
  • Most of the real chroma is caused by the reflected light in the half tones.
  • Think about the morphology and internal logic of objects, particularly natural objects. Rocks and trees and light all have their own logic. Understanding this logic will allow you to depict them more accurately.
  • Light has its own logic: humans tend to understand this intuitively, so you must have a deep understanding of the way light works.
  • Blue in the shadows is not just blue with black. Look more carefully and avoid recipes which suggest an arbitrariness in your decision-making process.
  • Think about the differences in the hard stuff and soft stuff of the human body; they should be painted differently.
  • You have to attend to every detail. Every square inch of the canvas should be lovingly rendered.
  • You need to draw something a thousand times from observation before you will be able to do it credibly once from imagination.
  • Note that the best works are almost exclusively done from observation.
  • Overlaps are one of the best ways to show depth of space—don’t be afraid of them.
  • The meaning of an image can’t be a sum of the details. It needs to work as an integrated whole. Juxtaposition is a useful tool, but it can’t be allowed to break the whole. Painting is no longer an amalgamation of symbols that add up to a whole.
  • A complex composition is meaningless if it doesn’t support a larger theme. Don’t fall in love with an image.
  • Don’t try to make your painting into something that it isn’t.
  • Be generous to your viewers. You can be generous even within a single color—vary the temperature and the hue.
  • Think about the flow and rhythm of the internal forms, particularly with the human figure.
  • Think about figures interacting with and responding to their environment. Think about the weight of objects.
  • Create a unique spacial experience; create a world.
  • Depth and volume problems can not be solved with chroma. You need to nail the drawing first, then you have the opportunity to get the chroma correct.
  • You should use studies to investigate the solutions to the problem of image making. Treat each painting like a research project. However, that does not mean that you are passive once you start on the final support; you can still solve problems in the final hours of work.
  • Clear horizontals and verticals evoke the rational; diagonals are dynamic or chaotic and may therefore be more interesting.
  • It is human nature to seek meaning and order. You need to be able to give them this, or at the very least control their response through an understanding of their needs.
  • Where is the nobility of the human form? Perhaps it is a cliche of contemporary art to denigrate the human figure and depict the grotesque. This is of course easier than reaching for sublime beauty.
  • Sublimity is associated with the light. This is especially true in landscape painting. You must capture the light.
  • Note that reflections must favor the station point and therefore the viewer. (Think of the reflection of the moon on the water; each viewer sees the reflection in front of themselves.)
  • Don’t be afraid to push your painting past ‘nice’; you need to risk failure to achieve greatness.
  • Before you start down the path of self-referential images, think about how the subject can speak to a larger audience.
  • Breadth of information and meaning is still very shallow. Think about depth of meaning instead.
  • Great painting is not the depiction of a condition, but the evocation of the condition.
  • Tip: When your work is in progress, take a digital image and look at it in black and white. Also, you can print out a copy to do color experiments on.
  • Critics are going to use the artist abstract statement as a means into the work. Ensure that the two are complimentary.
  • Art is trying to destroy painting, and has been for over a century.
  • The path of the great artist requires one to ruthlessly follow your own vision but also to be cognizant of criticism.
  • Once you have a concept, make sure that you look at other artists who have solved similar problems: you must learn from them.
  • Different formal languages evoke different philosophies. Think about how your language suggests your world view.
  • Make sure that you haven’t edited yourself out of your painting.
  • Think about the the timing of the reading of your image. Obscurity of gesture can cause the viewer to look at your work longer.
  • Think about the proportions of the subject to the support. Perhaps you can get away with a more obvious and traditional pose if the subject is a small part of the whole image.
  • A successful painting is as powerful as a weapon, and like a weapon it needs to remain focused on the target.
  • Degas said, “A picture is something that requires as much trickery, malice, and vice as the perpetration of crime, so create falsity and add a touch from nature.”
  • Note that when working from photo-based references there is a tendency to regularize objects (e.g. the distance between trees). You need to fight this tendency.
  • Irony and ambiguity are defense mechanisms employed by artists to inoculate themselves against criticism. This is weak.
  • Develop a technique and a mark-making vernacular to reinforce the concept.
  • A painting needs to hold up at a reasonable viewing distance, not just at twelve inches from the surface.
  • Real artists invest time to become familiar with every other artist out there, not just the old masters. This is a requirement.
  • Commitment to your work is critical. Work overtime—don’t let anything else get in between you and your painting.

As a wise man once said, there is a differnce between knowing the path and walking the path. Next year will be difficult…

– Jeremy

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Melanie Drape

    I cannot believe all of the data that you accrued at the crits for the dps. Although it is mind spinning it pretty much boils down to three things to me. One follow what you believe and let your idea be represented by your belief. Two research and become well versed in all imagery you are depicting. Three work you a## off and between you and me and whoever else will read your site I plan to do all three. Can’t wait to see you…Miss you this summer. Melanie

  2. Rachael

    Hi Jeremy! Great notes – I should have postponed my trip until after the dp crits. Was there any fighting? I hear a lot of Martha in there, some Jacobsmeyer, and probably some Schuman. 😉 Wish I could’ve gone.

    Anyway, happy 4th. We’ve all been missing you. Hope you’re enjoying yourself! Hi to Julie and the ferrets. 🙂

Leave a Reply