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After the critique A Van Wyk Critique
By Jan Claire

Everyone is basically strangers on the first day of an art seminar. It is somewhat uncomfortable before the first lunch break because nobody knows anything about each other, and you would never want to be called up in front of a class full of strangers. But that's what happened to me, as she selected my painting, "Pepper Pot Soup" as her third painting critique of the first morning of the week's session.  Oh God! Mortification sets in. You always expected that Helen was going to let you have it, both barrels, no punches pulled. Never in a condescending way but also never gently. Her attitude was always forthright: "you're here to learn this stuff. I would be shortchanging you if I glossed over your errors." It was the kind of honest critique we hungered for yet feared! It's a little disconcerting in front of a room full of people to whom you haven't even said "Hello" yet; but it is just the kind of criticism one needs. "Teach me more! Whip it into me!" 

"Jan," she began as I snapped the picture above, "this is a very nice painting." (Jan waits for other shoe to drop.) "It has many technically nice features but..." (oh here it comes!) "you should never sign your name on a painting at a slant! Always horizontal, easy to read." (Big Van Wyk smile. Bigger sigh from fidgeting, nervous artist!) 

Helen critiquing one of Jan's paintings She did find improvable things with the painting - and she was absolutely, completely correct in finding the weak points I had overlooked. "The pot should be warmer" - and she added a nice warm Umber & Sienna glaze to it".  "Perhaps the fine detail of the edge of the cloth should be pulled back a bit so as not to detract from the focal point: the red pepper," and she painted out some of the detail. And on she went, through the works of more than 20 artists. The first break in the morning was a great stress reliever and after we had all chatted with one another we were much better acquainted and we unlucky souls who had our pictures critiqued prior to lunch now knew we could relax and learn for the rest of the week. 


Helen Van Wyk painting demonstration, June 1994 Helen had a unique gift of being able to simultaneously paint a subject with her hands and eyes, while continuing to speak continuously of important, complex painting issues as she went along. But this ability of hers made it virtually impossible to take all the needed notes AND make quick sketches AND to watch what she was doing. For this reason, we students were frantically taking notes, sketching examples, asking questions, and watching her painting progress, all the while feeling inadequate because we weren't getting it ALL down on paper. But, I realize now - 5 years later - the notes I did take, the sketches I was able to make, and the answers to questions I was able to ask, set me further ahead as a painter than anything else I had learned in the previous 40 years.

Helen Van Wyk's home studio Helen Van Wyk's home studio
VIEWS OF HELEN'S PERSONAL PAINTING STUDIO JUST STEPS FROM HER
TEACHING STUDIO WHERE A MUSEUM-FULL OF PORTRAITS WERE ON DISPLAY




© 1999 Jan Claire - This article was reprinted with permission from the author.

 

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