Two Recent Memento Mori Paintings

Boat Fare, 7x10", oil.
Reading List, 11x14’, oil.

I’m mainly looking for ways to improve my oil technique. I feel like these look amateurish somehow but it’s hard for me to pinpoint why or decide what to work on. I think it may be something to do with overly simple transitions or hard edges.

Anyway, critique on any area is very welcome and I’m thick-skinned so come at me please!


Thank you for sharing these here Jacob~~~

Let’s start an introspective walk-through to see how you might best move towards the goals that you wish to attain. First things first—while you did state that it is hard to point what is exactly leading you to see these an amateurish—take a stab at trying to identify what factors may be doing this.

What do you think?

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I think they are, or at least parts of them, are in the uncanny valley of being just well rendered enough to emphasize they aren’t really convincing. Like I should have either left them looser or taken them a lot farther.

The decisions regarding resolution/finish for a representational effort can be quite overwhelming. The level information included, degree of abstraction, level of stylization, and/or the ideal balance of subject and material appearance can all significantly impact the aesthetic and communicative properties of an artistic endeavor.

Within the general context of a critique, I find that it is most helpful to focus on just one or two issues that can be carried forward and possibly utilized both in the work under critique as well as attended to within the arena of subsequent works. What I think might be most useful to address here is the idea of disparity. Generally speaking, the visual system is relatively far less interested in homogeneous surfaces, or relatively unchanging regions of the visual field. We tend to gravitate (visually) to regions populated with disparities, (changes or edges), as it is though disparity that we garner information about the world around us. Now, in regards to your second painting, you seem to have a good amount of disparity in regions where you might NOT want someone to be assigning a great deal of attention (e.g., background, shadow side of skull.)

The background contains far more disparities than may be found in many of the books. Granted, the books have far more contrast in terms of magnitude—but disparity can be more then just magnitude—it can also be influential via frequency (like the many brushstrokes in the background versus the magnitude of contrast within the books). This does not mean that the painting design is bad in any way—but it could be one of the issues that generates the sense of dwelling in the uncanny valley between two distinct forms of representation.

Here’s a visual example in which I both enhanced some features towards a more rendered look, and one where I enhanced towards a more cavalier finish.

Now if I diminish the disparities in the background, as well as some of the disparities in the shadow side of the skull to promote more attention to be placed on regions with a more robust collection of disparities of value and color, (areas where I might want a viewer to look), we begin to get a far more dimensional, “realistic” representation. However, we can also attack the issue the other way by increasing disparities elsewhere to diminish the draw of the disparities that we may not want eliciting attention.

Consider this the next time you are jumping into a painting effort and it might help you to decide which direction to go in to communicate the subject in the manner you see as best.

Hope this helps! Happy painting!


Thank you for the detailed help! It’s becoming clearer how compulsive and unstrategic my painting has been. It’s painfully obvious now in retrospect that it’s difficult to make progress without defined goals. I’ll tackle deliberate strategy for directing the viewers interest on my next try.

I’m curious, what kind of preparation do you do for your paintings? Do you work out composition in a drawing, or do a detailed drawing before painting?

I do sketch general ideas out—but aside of my usual lengthy and painstaking arrangement of actual subjects, I would have to say that the vast majority of my compositional “tweaking” takes place on a digital frontier with tools like Photoshop. Even then, I do make changes along the way as I become more intimately familiar with the “mechanics” of the image.


Wow, that was a great critique that Anthony gave! I learned from it!

The thing I would add is that in both images the reflected light on the bone is quite high in value and chroma and has some hard edges in the second image. My guess would be that in reality the reflected light coming off the bone is more diffuse, lower in value, and has less chroma.

It’s okay to make it as you have. An illustrator friend of mine routinely amps up the reflected light as a style element to increase drama in his images.

On the other hand, if you’re going for a “truer” to life look, I would verify the value and chroma and edges of those areas.

What Anthony said will make a much larger difference though.


awesome- thanks for putting your work out there, Jacob; so that we can all learn from Anthony’s expertise!! Your work is great!


My bad I just realized I read your comment way back and forgot to reply!

I definitely agree with your point. I think I haven’t taken enough time to focus on some monochromatic practice and have shown a tendency to over-realize shadows in general. I sort of spotlight around developing areas without staying aware of the whole and it shows a lot in the shadows.

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Thanks Tracy! I’m stoked to have somewhere to get some critique!

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