What makes a great painting?

Metropolitan Museum of Art

What makes a great painting?

The answer to this question is, of course, subjective and there are probably as many opinions as there are people who think about it. When I used to run the arts center and gallery, I was often asked this question.

My general reply is this:

  • Impact – when you walk into a gallery or museum, which artwork are you most drawn to? What is your initial reaction? Sometimes you may be attracted to beauty or color.  Sometimes you approach with curiosity.  Sometimes it is horror.  But what initial impact does the painting make on you?
  • Size – a wall-size painting is not always good art but it usually has impact. I have seen some pretty bad giant paintings but they usually get your attention, at least initially.  As an aside, young artists often want to create these very large pieces before they have any real talent or anything to say.  That makes them large bad paintings.  On the other hand, Monet created some huge murals of waterlilies which required a special museum to be built but that was towards the end of his life. And Picasso’s Guernica will only fit into spaces of a certain size. Size might matter but not always.

    Pollack’s iconic painting at the Met. Questions remain today about quality of workmanship but he certainly explored new territory in his time.

  • Composition – how does the painting flow? Although there are many rules of composition, the golden mean being one of the most well-known, I find it is more of a feeling of flow and balance.
  • Evokes a feeling – this is often related to composition but not necessarily. How do you feel when you view the painting?  Is it calming, exciting, emotionally disturbing?  What does your gut tell you? Does it touch the mind and soul of the viewer? Does it make you want to keep looking? It should be something beyond just wall decoration.
  • Originality – a great painting should provide something new to look at. Is it the same flower arrangement that dozens of other artists crank out or has the artist treated a common subject in a new way?  I think a great painting should explore new territory.

    Great paintings make you want to look closer.

  • Quality of workmanship – I admire quality of workmanship and appreciate how the artist actually handled the materials. An artist who cares for the process of the art will often care for the longevity of the art, too.
  • Memorable – will you remember this painting? Will it haunt you long after you have left the gallery or museum?  What will you remember about it?  This was a question that I often asked customers when I sold my work at art fairs long ago and they couldn’t make up their minds which painting to buy.  Which painting will you remember and regret not buying long after you’re gone?  And there usually was one piece more than the other.

As I said at the beginning of this post, this is a subjective list.  I’m sure there are many other opinions but most of these points would be generally agreed upon to answer the question, what makes a great painting.

What are your thoughts?  What do you think makes a great painting?

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3 responses to “What makes a great painting?

  1. Good analysis…..

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  2. The same can be said of good gardens….the ones that you remember vividly and want to visit over and over again! The ones that were innovative, that used familiar plant material in a new way or combination, or had introduced totally new species or colors, that perfectly framed vistas, or held surprises as one rounded a corner…..

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    • I agree, Carolee. I love gardens, third only after art and books. 😉 It seems as if most Americans don’t put as much emphasis on design as do people of other countries. Just my opinion. My husband and I love to run over to the Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis. It has something new to look at nearly any time of year. And Longwood gardens in Pennsylvania is a place than one could spend days looking at. On the other hand, I got some really great ideas for planting color combinations from a trip to Disney World many years ago so you never know. Which is why I love reading your blog posts, too. Thanks so much!

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