Written by Nancy Reyner, and posted by Renee Phillips, Artists Coach and Curator.


What Makes A Great Painting?

An answer everyone can agree on may appear impossible. For the past decade I’ve delved passionately into this question. I discovered a significant tool that makes an average painting soar into the arena of great. Using this tool in painting and for my classes revealed amazing results. This became the inspiration for my new book “Create Perfect Paintings”, and an online class I teach called “Painting Excellence”. Read on for a quick look at this wonder tool for painters.

Since a painting is meant to be seen, it follows that a solid understanding of how the human eye works can be super helpful to those of us that paint. Let’s face it, writers need to understand how people read to write a great novel. In the same way, painters can benefit by understanding how people view images.

So what makes a painting great? Simply taking time to edit. Like writers, painters will benefit from an editing process. Both types of creatives tend to jump-start new work using loose free-style methods. For this beginning phase its best to stay free of rules and limits. No editing needed here! However, after completing the rough draft, outline or sketch, it’s a good time to enter a second phase of the creative process – editing.

Writers habitually take their rough drafts and edit them over and over, until the initial outpouring becomes more readable. By editing, an author ensures the reader will get their point, comprehend the ideas, and be guided through the material in the best possible way. This makes sense! So why don’t art teachers teach this to painters, or painters use it in their process?

The most likely culprit is a misguided fear that analysis will kill the magic in our work. Editing doesn’t ruin a painting’s spontaneity when utilized at the right time. In fact, editing can add connection, attraction and seduction. Wow! By avoiding the editing process, your painting could be missing the chance to go from good to great, and may not get the attention it deserves.


The 80:20 Principle for Painters

Nancy Reyner, Silver Mountain, acrylic and silver leaf on panel, 36″ x 48″


One of my favorite editing techniques is based on the 80/20 principle. You’ve probably heard this ratio before. It’s everywhere. It originated as the Pareto Principle, used many years ago to describe economist Pareto’s analysis of Italian landholders. It is now used in everything from diets, mathematics, finance, and business models. Oddly I’ve never heard it used in art or painting! Now you have and can use it too. It’s featured in my book Create Perfect Paintings as well as my online class Painting Excellence, and adapted for painters.

The basic idea looks at specific pairs of opposites in a painting, and analyzes its relationship. Some examples of pairs are; warm and cool colors, textural and smooth areas, spatial depth and flat, red and green, shiny and matte, realistic shapes and abstracted ones, and so on.

First identify the most visible pair of opposites as the painting’s dominant pair. When this pair of opposites has equal presence in a painting, we can say it has a 50:50 ratio. This type of equality, instead of creating a feeling of balance, may appear so boring it causes a “quick viewing exit”, repelling a viewer instead of attracting them. However, when the pair is used in an unequal ratio, like 80:20, it can increase viewing potential.

There are exceptions to this, so no need to worry if your favorite painting appears to fall into the first category. Quality editing is not about rules. Helpful editing uses concepts as a way to create greater awareness with your work.


An Example of the 80:20 Principle

Above (before editing):
Analysis reveals an overuse of warm colors, while scant cools are all located in the bottom section.

Above (after editing):
The image is improved by adding more cool colors overall. The warm:cool ratio is now 80:20 for a more fluid viewing movement.

Nancy Reyner’s “Painting Excellence Class”

For a more personal experience, you can join her next “Painting Excellence Class”. This unique school for painters runs for six weeks and includes live online instruction. Nancy explains, “The class is made fun – no stress – for us creative types!” All mediums and styles will benefit.

In her series of master videos artists learn how to create great art on their own and at their own pace.

For Acrylic Painters: Nancy Reyner’s Master Videos

All painting disciplines need time and experience to achieve a level of skill, yet acrylic stands apart due to its complex chemical makeup. Acrylic therefore requires special information to truly master. Find clear, simple demonstrations and explanations with “The Complete Guide to Acrylic Painting”, a series of master videos, to learn on your own at your own pace.

Master the art of editing and much more in the book “Create Perfect Paintings”, by Nancy Reyner, available online or at local art stores.

Nancy Reyner, nancyreyner.com, is a world renowned artist, instructor and author. She received her BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, and an MFA from Columbia University. Her art is in numerous private and corporate collections including the City of Santa Fe Civic Center, Ritz-Carlton, Tysons Corner, VA, University of New Mexico Hospital, Albuquerque, NM, Southwestern College, Santa Fe, NM, among others. Her books and master classes, which I highly recommend, are filled with innovative and inspiring techniques to help artists bring new dimensions to their works of art. In this article she shares her knowledge and use of a technique for how to create a great painting. Nancy Reyner was also a Special Recognition Art Award panelist in the Manhattan Arts International “HerStory” 2019 online art exhibition. – Renée Phillips, The Artrepreneur Coach

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