What Makes a Painting Good or Bad?

Is it possible to judge a painting as good or bad and what are the criteria?

Good or bad paintings
Have you ever done a painting you really didn't like, but other people did? A painting that makes you cringe every time you see it? Share a photo of it here.... It's the lack of shadows on the face that I hate in this painting. Photo © Marion Boddy-Evans

Asking the deceptively simply question: "What makes painting a good work of art?" and quoting Andrew Wyeth as saying "Some artist think every work they do is a work of art, I say keep working and you may produce a work of art", Brian (BrRice) started a fascinating debate on the Painting Forum. Here are some of the responses. (At the bottom there's a space to add your own thoughts.)

“I think that great art either causes a viewer to think or to feel.

If it doesn't stir something up they may say ‘That's nice’ and move on, and wouldn't walk 10 steps to look at it again. In my opinion great art can be any style or technique or level of skill, but to qualify as great it has to create a substantial amount of activity in the viewer's mind or heart. Good art can be a matter of good concept or excellent skills in execution, but I think great art touches the mind, heart or soul of the viewer.” -- Michael

“A painting should evoke a thought, a memory or idea to the viewer. I will give you an example . My 90-year-old grandmother has one of my earlier paintings on her wall in a nursing home It is a painting of my grandfather (her husband who passed away years ago) walking down to the ocean to his boat in Newfoundland from a small cabin on a hill above the sea. I personally never appreciated the piece. She told me she looks at it every day and gets something out of it.

She loves it. I realized now that this is the whole purpose of art, to communicate a memory a thought or an idea.” -- BrRice

“I was taught that a thought-provoking piece with the formal conditions of beauty, composition, rhythm, color manipulation all contributed to a good work of all, but mostly it is the ‘leap in the imagination’ that stirs my soul.” -- Cynthia Houppert

“Maybe photorealism tells the viewer too much, there’s not enough left to the imagination. All the facts are there. Maybe there’s too much information, the human brain likes to keep things simple. Some of the best artists in the world keep their paintings simple. They convey one idea at a time. Too many ideas in one painting can complicate.” -- Brian

“I just feel we can't ignore the photorealism style as meaningful. It just seems to come down to what we like. If so, we can't dismiss another style as meaningful because we don't have an affinity for that style. … I once read, I don't remember where, that art is reordering nature according to our own views... a re-creation if you will. I don't think that creating a technique or style is the quest, but rather to use a technique or style -- one ‘natural’ to the artist -- to establish the communication.” -- Rghirardi

“What makes painting a good work of art? Plain and simple (to me anyway) something you just cannot take your eyes off of. Something that you see that strikes your soul to the very depths, that opens your eyes and your mind to the beauty of it.” -- Tootsiecat

“It seems to me that it comes down to a piece of work that strikes a chord with enough people so that it seems almost naturally to assume the title of a 'great work of art'.

This normally happens with art that’s been around long enough to have been seen by enough people to make a general consensus, which makes it at least a hundred years old, except in special cases, such as Guernica etc etc.(I'm not saying there are no exceptions). I think what makes a piece of work great is it's ability to reach a common theme, a common thread, a common emotion for want of a better word, with enough people. It isn't so much that it 'needs' to reach a lot of people, but just in the actual reaching out, it hits so many people, it's universal in it's uniqueness.” -- Taffetta

“Each person is so different, what may be amazing or moving to one person may be rubbish to another.” -- Manderlynn

“Good art, no matter what style, has certain elements that give rise to the piece being successful, or not.

It does not have anything to do with looking ‘pretty’. Good art is not about beauty in the normal sense of the word. Someone mentioned Guernica, by Picasso. It's a great example of great art. It's not pretty, it's disturbing. It is meant to provoke thought... and to make a statement about a particular war. … Good art is about balance, composition, use of light, how the artist moves the viewer’s eye throughout the piece, it's about the message, or what the artist is trying to communicate, to convey. It is about how the artist used his medium, his skills. It is not about style. Style has nothing to do with whether or not something is good. … Good art will always be good. Crap will never be good. Someone may like that piece of crap, but it does not raise it to the level of good art.” -- Nancy

“Do you think artists tend to think photorealistic paintings are lifeless because with abstract many of us cannot tell for sure? As for symbolism, who makes the symbols work? The artist or the viewer? If it's the artist, it's possible the viewer will take the symbols differently. If it's the viewer, then the artist's effort is in vain. Is a work only meaningful/conceptual/symbolic when the artist consciously designed it? Haven’t we all had our paintings interpreted by others in a way we never meant for?” -- Israel

“I have been through art school and was taught how to apply the perfect technical skills, but to me it's like following a recipe. It's not from the gut. Art, to me, is about expression, and everyone has their own technique and style.” -- Sheri

“Many of what we know of as masterpieces owe their beauty or interest to something other than the artwork itself. For instance would you call a Van Gogh interesting or is it the man's torrid life that stirs the imagination?” -- Anwar

“You call a painting by its creator's name -- a Van Gogh, a Picasso, a Pollock, a Moses -- because you subscribe to the adage that the artist and the work are one. That's what makes it moving... when you feel the artist through the work, like he just finished painting it yesterday and the artist is behind you looking over your shoulder as you ponder on.” -- Ado

“Art is most definitely subjective. Connecting with the piece most often than not is a deeply personal matter. … But, personal reactions do not make anything good, or anything bad. Throughout history there have been plenty of pieces of art that have shocked, appalled, and created quite a negative reaction, yet they are great works of art. And there are pieces of art, that are quite popular but are not great works of art. I think most of us know instinctively, intuitively what is good. Again, it doesn't have to appeal to our personal tastes for us to know it is good.” -- Nancy

“I've always thought that, in addition to all the structure, the technique, the effort and knowledge that goes into a painting, there's something intangible that makes it special, if only to us. Paintings are like poetry in that they evoke certain feelings, certain emotions that function within our psyches on a more primitive level. They have something to them, something you can't define, something just outside of the light of our campfire (to paraphrase Gary Snyder). To be sure, paintings need structure and all the other elements, but they also need that primal ‘Oomph!’ to reach out to us, be they by Da Vinci, Pollock, Picasso, or Bob Ross.” -- Mreierst

“It's the quality, the immediate reaction you have upon seeing, hearing, touching the work. An emotional, visceral response. This takes place before your intellect recognizes the content of the work and starts to work out meanings and messages. You just know.” -- Farfetche1

"I believe a painting has to include some of the elements and principles of the language of art in order to be art. I think artists need the structure they give to be able to successfully communicate an idea. And, also to communicate the ‘beauty’ and harmony of the work. I've used the example of music. There are a few notes that become embellished and they are arranged within some sort of structure. If there is no structure, the result is noise. The same applies to painting, in my humble opinion. Without some structure, it's just paint slapped on the canvas. Look at a Pollock. There's structure in them although they may look chaotic to some.” -- Rghirardi

“I think a lot of the wonder of realism has been lost because we don't have the same use of symbolism as earlier centuries. We see objects simply for themselves, not as adding another level of meaning. If you think of that Pre-Raphaelite painting by Millais of Ophelia, the flowers around her aren't simply decorative, there are all sorts of additional meanings conveyed through them. I think a ‘good’ piece of art is that makes you want to keep looking and that stirs your emotions. I can think of several portraits in London's Portrait Gallery that I used to go ‘visit’ regularly during lunchtime when I worked in London; I knew them well but simply never got tired of looking at them.” -- Painting Guide

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