First, thanks to everyone who participated in my first Combox Crit. To my mind, it was a smashing success. It can be difficult to get people to say what they really think of a piece, and sometimes an artist can be too close to his/her own work to be able to critique with the cool detachment needed.
I am very accustomed to critique of my work. It doesn't bother me at all unless I feel it is just totally unfounded or mean-spirited, and I saw none of that in the combox. In my experience as an illustrator and designer, critique is a daily reality. As a fine artist, honest critique can be harder to come by, but it is an important aspect of growth and progress. My philosophy of art maintains that communication to the viewer is vital, so it helps immensely to know how viewers actually respond to your work.
As I gained some distance from this painting, Immaculate Heart, I concluded that it falls short of my aspirations for it. The problem is mainly a lack of inspiration, a defined creative center to the whole, and this results in a lack of cohesion. There are some lovely passages in the piece, some aspects of it with which I'm very satisfied, but there is just not much "there" there.
I should point out right away that the model is a lovely woman with a beautiful face, full of tenderness. But she is beautiful, and not merely pretty. The problem with that kind of beauty is that if the rendering falls short of it in any way, you can end up with something that appears too stark and manly. If that is the case, it is entirely due to my own lack of skill. I'm pretty certain that I just over-worked the face.
I thought and prayed a good deal about this piece, both before and during the painting process, which brings up an important point; Sincere devotion, good intentions and hard work do not equal great art. They are all wonderful things, but without true inspiration - the creative spark behind the idea - coupled with skill and discipline, nothing much of any significance is going to happen. Inspiration can't be conjured or bottled. The best that artists can do is to work, study and develop their skills so that they will be well prepared when those moments of inspiration come. To bastardize a phrase I heard in reference to writing; "If you want to learn to paint well, first you must learn to see well. Then you must paint badly for a long time".
Looking back, I can see that I leaned too heavily on well-known images of Mary, too heavily on my old tried-and-true(and safe) still life painting method, and too heavily on my own photography, which is not at a professional level. The result is lighting that is too harsh and directional, a too-dark background, and an image of Mary that seems too much a patchwork of disparate elements and styles.
I knew I wanted to paint the Immaculate Heart, but beyond that, I had no great vision. I was not pregnant with a visual idea that demanded to be born. In the end, I brought together the model, the lighting, the costume and me, and was hoping for some magic. Some of my favorite pieces have been the result of this kind of very direct, intuitive response to my subject. It just didn't happen in this instance.
Many of the combox comments were things I had already noticed - I agree with someone who said that the right hand is the best part of the painting. There were some comments that brought up things I hadn't noticed or didn't think were that significant, and I will mull these over for a bit. Again, I couldn't have asked for a better response, it was all I hoped for.
Thanks to all for making the idea work! I will definitely do it again in the future.