Text Critique — Ian’s “Cat Bowl with Charge Cube & Doily”

Ian is typically a figurative oil painter, but decided to give gouache a try with this descriptively-titled still life. Right on time for Halloween, this cute little cat bowl and its accompanying objects present a slice of life scene that examines light, surface, and reflection.

Artist: Ian / @30ians
Critique Format: 60 Minutes / Text
Requested Feedback: Color / Composition / Technique

First Impressions

Immediately the viewer’s eyes are drawn to the eyes of the cat. The three titular elements of the painting draw my eyes in a triangle, framing the the inner triangle of the cat’s jack o’lantern-like nose. The triangle of the eyes and nose echoes the three subjects of the painting around it. There is a subtle harmony of geometry in which each element seems to acknowledge those next to it: the charging cube points to the doily, the doily points back at it and the cat bowl. The cat bowl directs the viewer’s gaze around the composition, with the whiskers visually connecting to the cube and doily, the ears leading both out and in, and the eyes insisting the viewer return to the off-center.

Formal Elements — Color

The color of the piece is at first glance a bit drab. The subtleties of the reflective light and shadow do not leap at the viewer; they fade into awareness after a moment’s digestion. The yellows and umbers of the surface plane invite consideration of how the still life is lit, but the grey shadows demand this question. To the left of the bowl, the shadow and its connection to the curved swatch of mustard hues becomes a puzzle. It breaks the assumption of a flat ground plane, and I begin to wonder if I’m looking at an artistic liberty or a curling plane of paper of some sort.

The logic of a curled surface wins, and I consider how there appear to be two harsh lighting angles. I presume the light sources are just beyond the doily in either direction, as the lighting and color of the doily is the most peculiar of the piece. The cat bowl and charge cube are both rendered with clear highlights and shadows, but the doily is starkly flat in comparison. The sharp lines along the left edge of the doily enhance this flatness, though they invite a notable relationship to the curl to the left of the bowl. The lack of detail, the vibrancy, and the beyond-the-edge placement of the doily invite perhaps a bit too much of misdirected attention away from the efforts put into the other elements. Compositionally, the doily creates a connective anchor to the corner of the piece. In terms of color and detail, the doily feels like a “photobomb”, as if it quickly appeared in the picture without enough time for the “lens” to focus.

The thin edges of color around the major elements, especially the doily, make it appear that the background was painted last.When inspected closely, these tiny snippets of white and some rough brush strokes give the piece a slight appearance of being unfinished.

The subtleties of the tones in bowl, in the cat’s ear (viewer’s right), in the charge cube’s back shadow and reflection are displaced by some of the other aforementioned elements. Perhaps fewer elements would give these aspects more justice.

Composition — Design

The subjects seem chosen for the differences in their visual qualities rather than to represent any sort of narrative. The bowl is curved and shiny, the charger is geometric and semi-matte, the doily is flat and matte. The arrangement seems very intentional as described in my first impressions. The negative space around the elements is well-proportioned and recedes unnoticeably.

The charger appears to be chosen as a neutral practice element; the emphasis seems to be on value ratios rather than reflective colors. The color relationship between the cat bowl and doily however seems more explorative of nuances of color. The reflective front face of the bowl has the boldest experiments in reflective colors. The viewer’s left of the front of the bowl deconstructs the planes of color into and almost abstract representation of the reflections.

The overall appearance of the piece balances an intentional rendering of the dimensionality and lighting, and a rough blocking-in of colors that appears flat and reminds the viewer that they are looking at a painting. This is exemplified by the tension between the cat bowl and doily and the flat negative space between them.

Craft / Execution — Technique

It’s clear that parts of the composition were rendered with more time and effort than others. There appears to be a counterclockwise gradient of focus from the center: the cat bowl is the core focus, the most nuanced, and the most developed. The charge cube is mostly complete, especially in its shadows and reflection, however lacks details in its prongs. The doily is the least rendered and appears unfinished.

To focus on the cat bowl, there is something about the white reflection at the viewer’s top left that doesn’t register correctly. Presumably, the chunky edges are from the texture of the inside of the glazed bowl, but when translated into paint at the scale of the canvas, too much detail is lost. I don’t think it’s the chunkiness itself that breaks the illusion, but perhaps instead it’s the two-toned appearance adjacent to the softly blended colored edges around the cat’s outline. In contrast, the blocky, broad brushstrokes of the viewer’s left of the bowl’s front feels more in place as it is surrounded by similar brush strokes. This unified appearance works together, despite being rendered differently than the rest of the cat bowl.

The inside of the cat bowl, especially the viewer’s right, has a soft and smooth rendering of shadow that is pleasing to explore. This subtle rendering gives the sudden oval shape just around the cat’s nose reads as a concave shaped bottom to the bowl, rather than an aesthetic detail of the cat’s design. The pleasant softness of this area enhances the discord of the textured, unfinished edge on the outside right edge of the bowl. This sudden contrast and lack of reinforcing context for it makes this read as unresolved or unrefined rather than a conscious choice of style.

Concept — Emotion

The piece overall reads as a bit detached or aloof. The emphasis appears to be on surface quality, color, light, and shadows rather than on narrative or personal statement. The wide staring eyes of the cat are the emotional apex of the piece. They peer up from the bottom of the bowl much like how a real cat might stare from inside of a box. There is a playfulness to this that is brought into question by the uneven shape of the eyes. This lopsidedness evokes a sort of child-like curiosity, a naivety or innocence that allows the viewer to peer at the elements of the painting with a similar openness.

The cat bowl has such character and uniqueness that I think the choice of the other elements may have been a lost opportunity for injecting narrative into the piece. If the purpose of the white cube was to test shadows and values, perhaps a similar object with more meaningful associative properties could have been chosen? Perhaps a toy of some sort with similar physical characteristics.

Last Thoughts

As I thought about the charge cube at the end of the last section, I wondered if I missed some symbolism. A charger with no cable? Perhaps there is a deeper meaning. Perhaps the absence of a cable does create a narrative – a lack of energy, a searching gaze, a sense of need and something missing.

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Founder of CritHub and multidisciplinary sculptor.