The Art of Critique

I have to get this out there because it’s such an important topic to me. A topic that I’ve contemplated a lot and one that I think is worthy of discussion. The topic of Critique. Critiquing is probably just as much an Art form as is Art itself. I’ve always been a creative minded person and had an interest in art. As a young kid in school, I was often the standout art student. In high school, I started taking art even more seriously, receiving instruction from teachers and getting input on how to improve my work. Once I began my college studies and working on my degree in Illustration, I received a lot more instruction and a lot of critique. Critique from my teachers and from my fellow students. It was here, among us artists in training, that I often found some real issues with how we critique each other. Two general attitudes arose that would manifest were those of the Attackers and the Defenders. The Attackers were those who sought to tear down others to make themselves feel good, and the Defenders were those who refused to see anyone else’s perspective and then retaliate. I fell in the trap of this at times, but I was very aware that if I was going to improve my artistic skills, I needed to avoid these fallacies of thought, and figure out what the purpose of critiquing was and how it could be beneficial to me and others. I didn’t have to have those attitudes, and there had to be some sort of middle ground in all this right?

Art of Critique

I had to learn to step back. I had to learn to let my “precious baby” be on it’s own for others to see, discuss, and of which to form an opinion. I had to try to turn down my subjectivity and turn up my objectivity. Art is so subjective, and often my own subjectivity would blind me from what others would see and I would see past. I began to see real value in the critique that I would recieve my from peers when I allowed myself to put down my guard and see that the input that I was receiving was not a personal attack but insight for improvement or simply helping me to see my art from another’s perspective.

“Everybody’s a Critic,” now more than ever is that phrase true. With interactions increasingly happening through the Internet, our identities are being reduced to 100×100 pixel images. We begin to see each other less as people and more as soul-less entities without emotions, histories, and relationships. This is so harmful to us because we are the exact opposite. When we offer critique, we need to treat each other as humans. That means I’m still a person as much as you are. While critiquing your work or anyone elses, I need to be respectful to you while giving you feedback that is actually constructive. And on the flip side, I do expect the same treatment from those who critique my work.

So what is the Modus Operandi? Your motives? Does your feedback seek to tear down, build yourself up, or to help improve the work at hand? If you are open to input from others, do you only want feedback that strokes your ego or are you open to suggestion? Let’s be brutally honest, we all love achievement and praise, but don’t expect it if you haven’t earned it. We seriously have to question our personal motives when we ask for critique or when we are giving critique. Your genuine intention will guide the conversation and the effectiveness of a critique, so it’s up to each of us to know our motives.

Tact, use it. It’s an area where we can all use improvement. Don’t be insulting, seriously, bite your tongue if it’s a real temptation. Being rude is degrading to the conversation, to the art, to the person you are speaking to, and to you. Please, be careful how you use your status. You may have a Masters in Psycho-Kinetic-Poly-Sci-Med-Art-Drama-Techo-Linguistics with 5 ba-gillion followers on various social media outlets, but please don’t rub people’s noses in it. Do not use that as a means to assert your dominance. And here is another doozy, one that I’ve learned probably more so in my professional career than any other, Think before you speak. It is so much easier to be tactful when you contemplate the things that you need to communicate and how best to formulate your words. Sounds like a lot of work, right? It is, but it’s worth it.

Perhaps one of the things that needs to be discussed is whether or not a critique is invited or uninvited. This can often be the fulcrum that can tip the scales to how a person reacts to a critique. When we are in a class critique setting, it’s obvious the intention is to have a critique. But, if perhaps you post your work online and someone gives critique, it may not have been invited. So in that case you should probably hunt down that person and verbally disembowel them, right? Do you sense the sarcasm? You can do whatever you like, but in either case, invited/uninvited or giving/receiving, step back, check your motives, and be tactful. We always have a choice when receiving a critique as well. We can take it or leave it, and this can be done graciously.

Specific is Terrific, I know it’s a lame rhyming of words, but it’s so true. When you are giving critique on art be specific in your conversation. Explain what is working or what is not working. Avoid simply saying, I like it or I don’t like it. One of my favorite college professors, Ben Sowards, was a master at being specific. He would point out, “Lee, those fingers look like carrots, work on improving the anatomy there” Or “Lee, that character has mashed potato skin texture, work on smoothing out the values.” He was right, and when I took his critique correctly my art benefited from it. What I learned from Ben too was, it’s not enough to just point out what doesn’t work, you need to provide solutions. Give suggestions that will help improve the artwork that is being discussed.

Form a Circle of Trust. I learned about this from Chris Oatley. He gave the advice of having a group of artists in person or online that you can share your artwork with and get critique from. I have my circle of trust, many of them I went to school with, others I met through online interaction. Mark Harmon (the illustrator, not the actor from NCIS) is probably my most trusted friend in the arts. He and I pass work to each other often to get feedback. We often deconstruct or re-compose each other’s art so that we can better communicate our ideas. I cannot tell you how much working with Mark and others in my Circle of Trust has improved my art and made me a better artist.

Let’s face it, when we show our art, it is on display for the whole world to see. Our baby is grown up and out in the world, we have to accept that they are now subject to critique in every shape or form. So using some the ideas discussed can help us to use critique to our advantage. Negativity and un-helpful critique is out there, you can’t avoid it, but you can do your part to change that, to become a critical thinker and bring purpose to critiques. It’s how we give or receive critique that will positively or negatively define us as artists. You may not agree with me and see no value in critique, but I will boldly say that it has benefited me and I am grateful for those who have shared their insight on my personal work and professional work because it is improving my art all the time. I hope that I can continue to learn and be open to the feedback of you and others. I have that same hope you, my fellow artists.

Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it”

– Baz Luhrmann – Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen)


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