I went to an art gallery in Burlington, IA over Thanksgiving. They had an exhibition of the members there. As with most art shows, there were works that were good and others that were more amateurish. I don’t want to seem critical, but collectors are looking for certain things. My first advice for artists who have the will, talk to people who don’t buy your work. If you are at a show and you find someone who seems to look at your work, but don’t buy it, ask them why. Don’t take it personally, find out what they did see and didn’t like or what they didn’t see and were hoping to. Use that to improve your work. For collectors, these are the techniques I use to compare quality of landscape paintings. I’d be interested to hear any other ideas.
In terms of paintings in general, if I see the grain or texture of the substrate (canvas, board, paper, etc.), you didn’t use enough paint. I can understand if that was what you were trying to do. But if you are trying to paint a landscape, seeing the wood grain or canvas really detracts from the work, in my opinion.
I do, however, want to see those brush strokes. Unless you are going for photorealism, seeing those strokes shows your technique, skill, and advertises that this is a hand-crafted original, not a print. I have seen many works where the artist has tried really hard to cover those brush strokes up, like hiding your fingerprints at the scene of the crime. I’d rather see the opposite and other collectors I’ve talked to feel the same. Don’t be timid or be afraid of being “painterly”. Even the most subtle art needs your bold and confident hand.
For the composition itself, I look first at (and for) clouds in my landscapes. If the clouds don’t look realistic, or don’t exist, I generally don’t buy. A mass of blue, even textured and layered, just is not as interesting to the eye as cloud features. I want to be able to look at and enjoy the piece forever. Having a cloudscape with the landscape features adds a level of depth and complexity. Also, clouds are generally pretty difficult to do well. It is a mark of a good artist to be able to do clouds convincingly, which is why it is important for me to look for them.
I am also interested in the shadows and shading. Does it look like the object that is supposed to be casting the shadow? What do the subdued colors look like? Do the shadows look warm or cool? Should they look like that (this indicates where the light is coming from)? Are they in and around the objects that cast them, or just on the ground? Again, this gives depth to the painting that allows the viewers (collectors) to keep coming back to explore the work.
The last thing I look at is the stuff that most people talk about – composition, color, values, and the like. Seriously, this is the LAST part. Are the basics done well? It isn’t that it is unimportant. It is more of an assumption on my part that the artist knows and can execute these well. I don’t want a landscape that has poor perspective.
Landscape paintings have been around for hundreds of years. Those that are the most sublime seem to share similar characteristics. The artist displays confidence and uses enough paint. The basic elements of the painting are pleasing to the eye, but they execute those difficult details that take a hill, mountain, trees, or a lake and make them extraordinary.