Every artist wants to see progress. Whether it’s from one drawing to the next, or from the beginning of a drawing to the end, it’s vital to know how to judge your own work if you really want to improve.
No one knows that better than an artist who has been creating for over 40 years!
Today’s post comes in response to a reader question.
How can I judge my work and tell if I am making progress when most artists I know don’t work in this medium? I have been working with pencil crayon for years but don’t know if I am improving. David
What a great question! Thank you to David for asking.
If there’s one thing a lot of artists struggle with, it’s the ability to see improvement in their own work. If you’re anything like me, you tend to see the shortcomings in every drawing or painting, so it never seems like I make any progress.
But if you want to improve—I mean, really improve—you need to know how to measure progress.
So the question becomes: How do you do that?
How to Judge Your Own Work
There are many ways to judge your own work, no matter how long you’ve been drawing or painting. I’m going to describe two methods that have worked for me, but you may need to look for other methods to find the best one for you.
The first, and most obvious (to me anyway) is comparing new work to old work.
Comparing Old and New – Redoing an Old Drawing
If you’ve been drawing long enough to have drawn several pieces, the easiest way to tell if you’re making progress is to compare your latest drawing with your earliest one. If you don’t have your early drawings and didn’t scan or photograph them, then use the earliest drawing you have available. Even if it’s just a few years old, it will help you see where you’ve improved.
Here are three examples from my work.
Below are two drawings of the same subject. I used similar methods, the same type of paper, and the same reference photo for both. The first one was drawn in 2009, the second in 2016.
One sure way to see how much your drawings have improved is to redo an old drawing, as I did with this one.
TIP: If you don’t already, get into the habit of photographing or scanning finished work, especially if you sell (or hope to sell) your originals. Take the best photographs possible. Not only do they provide a record of your work; they provide an excellent means for comparing old work to new.
Comparing Old and New – Similar Subjects
Comparing similar drawings is also helpful in determining how much progress you’re making. These two landscapes were drawn on different types of paper and of different (though similar) subjects.
When I finished The Sentinel in 2013, it was by far the best landscape I’d ever done with colored pencils. It’s still a nice drawing, but it doesn’t hold a candle to August Morning in Kansas from last year.
The fact is, I’m itching to redo The Sentinel, just to see how it turns out a second time!
Comparing Old and New – The Beginning and End of a Series
Sometimes, comparing the first drawing in a series with the final one is sufficient to show progress.
Last year, I did a series of three landscapes on sanded art paper. Below are the first and last drawings in the series. The second one was of about the same quality as the first one.
Then I made a discovery on color selection that took the third drawing to a new level, thanks to Lisa Clough.
Improvement doesn’t always happen like this. Usually, it’s more gradual. That’s why knowing how to judge your own work over a period of time is so important.
But admit it. Those “quantum leaps” in skill level are exciting!
Compare Your Work with Another Artist You Admire
Another way to measure your improvement is to find an artist who works in the same medium, and in a similar style.
I know that a common rule of thumb is that no artist should ever compare themselves to another artist. If all you’re doing is beating yourself up, then that rule of thumb is true.
But if you can objectively compare your work to the work of an artist who draws similar subjects in the same medium, there is no better way to see where you need improvement. If that artist also happens to produce tutorials, so much the better. You can not only see how your work compares to their, but learn what they’re doing that you might try.
That’s an excellent way to get better results no matter how long you’ve been drawing.
To find artists doing videos on colored pencil methods, search for “colored pencil tutorials on YouTube” or something similar, then view enough to find an artist whose work you like. It’s a good idea to select two or three artists, because no two work exactly the same!
Do I do this? Absolutely! In fact, I’ve subscribed to several colored pencil artists (and some who work in other media, too) and I watch their tutorials. I’ve learned a lot. Remember that leap in improvement I mentioned before? That came directly from one of those artists. I wouldn’t have made the discovery on my own for a long, long time.
Continue Learning the Craft
Nothing replaces always learning. Be open to new ideas, new tools, and new methods. Whether you read books, read blog posts and tutorials, watch DVDs or online videos, or take workshops and classes, it’s all important.
Then try some of what you’ve learned. Reading and watching is good, but won’t do you much good unless you implement it.
I add this last suggestion even though it seems out of place because you need to learn what makes good art good before you can accurately judge your own. Learning the importance of value, for example, enables you to decide whether or not you need to improve how you draw values.
And seeing the results another artist is getting gives you a standard against which you can compare your work.
Whatever method you use to measure your progress as an artist, it’s important to be consistent. No method works if you don’t use it consistently.
So find what works best for you, and make it part of your studio routine!
Want to Learn More?
I recently wrote an article for EmptyEasel on this topic. How to Honestly Evaluate Your Own Work shares additional tips for evaluating your progress from the beginning of a drawing to the end.
You might also be interested in learning how to make a crit sheet to self-evaluate your artwork., also written for EmptyEasel.
Got a question? Ask Carrie!
Terrific suggestions. Of which I must say I ‘ve been judging my own work much the same ways, I have plenty of work tgatvi have photographed as I have been drawing them, and some of the originals in which to compare. I love your work and the posts tgat you send out that help color pencil artists, i myself use a different method for my own work, check it out and let me know. I would like to hear your opinion. Best regards Jack Martin
The main difference I see between your older and current landscapes is color choice and foreground detail. In both old and new, there is good contrast and blurring of the distance. I am drawn to the bright colors and tight detail, so I don’t see the older pieces as lesser quality, just different from “Kansas Morning”. Could you explain a bit about why you see it as greatly improved?
Color was my biggest problem with landscapes. It didn’t seem to matter what time of year I was drawing, everything looked bright like spring. For the series on sanded paper, I did Evening in May (which I did not intend to be a spring or early summer drawing,) The Tall Tree, and August Morning in Kansas. (You can see all of them in the Landscape Drawings in Colored Pencil gallery.) Evening in May and The Tall Tree both looked like spring drawings despite the fact that they weren’t.
Also, the trees were different types of trees and should have been different shades of greens, but they weren’t! They all looked the same!
So I tried Lisa Clough’s method of using the color picker function on my photo editor (Irfanview,) and discovered my error. I was using the colors I thought I should use rather than the colors I was actually seeing. The difference was night and day. August Morning in Kansas is much truer in color than any other landscape I’ve ever done.
It also seems more realistic to me than The Sentinel. More detailed and true to life.
And those are the reasons I think it’s a big improvement.
I’m glad you like The Sentinel. It’s still one of my favorite landscape drawings. But I know that the colors are not at all accurate. They’re more like what I remember from Michigan, than what I actually see when I look at the reference photo. And that’s why I’m thinking about doing it again.
Thank you for your question. I hope that explains my artistic reasoning.
Thank you, Carrie! I’ve said for years, “Real life is messy”; recently I’ve added, “Real life is dull” to my understanding. So, I have purposely brightened colors in my oil paintings to reflect how I wish things were. Some of my customers like it; others say it looks fake.
I remember a time when I wasn’t pleased with some oranges in colored pencil and realized I was doing exactly what you did with the trees. When I switched from the crayon-bright classic orange colors to duller oranges, the oranges looked much more realistic.
It will be fun to see if you do The Sentinel again (can you stand do-overs??) and how it turns out! (I love do-overs and view them as a chance to redeem my professional reputation from the evidence of earlier ignorance.)
I have to chuckle at your comment about do-overs. I used to begin paintings over frequently, sometimes as many as three or four times before getting them right! I’ve even painted one portrait twice. The horse was owned by two couples and after the first portrait was finished, the other couple wanted one. They’re not exactly the same, but they’re very close.
I’ve learned a new method of laying down base colors that I want to try (that DRAW Landscapes book is wonderful—I’ve read about several methods I want to try!) The Sentinel would be ideal for a demo piece on one or more of them.
Thanks for you thoughts and comments, Jana. Glad to have you here!