Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Having Your Work Critiqued

The past couple of weeks have been very interesting. A friend of a friend asked us to critique her novel, giving me an insider’s look at the creative process in a different form. The thing is, she’s been working on it off and on for the past 15 years. With that much time and effort invested, you really have to admire someone for putting her work of art out there and asking for criticism.

Having your work critiqued is never easy. I think that secretly we all want to hear that our work is fantastic… perfection… inspired and inspiring. So when we hear anything other than pure praise, we can end up feeling deflated, discouraged, embarrassed, or even surprised. For instance: Recently I was visiting my friend Tina’s studio, and our friend Mike walked in and asked why she had included some throw pillows in her newest painting. The “throw pillows” were actually the back of a figure’s head and shoulders! We all laughed—maybe guffawed would be more accurate—and then Tina gritted her teeth and went back to work on that figure.

But if you can get past the emotional strain of a critique from a reliable source (by which I mean someone knowledgeable about art), you’ll probably emerge a much stronger painter for the experience. After all, how else will we ever learn to improve? Do we really want to stay stuck in the same place? Ignorance can be bliss sometimes, but always?

I’ll tell you how I critique my own and other people’s paintings. I start with a simple question based on the assumption that the purpose of art is to communicate: What is the artist trying to tell me? If the answer isn’t immediately clear, there’s a problem. And that’s when I start running through the list of elements (value, color, edges, shape, etc.) and principles (variety, dominance, repetition, etc.) to see if I can identify what’s blocking me from receiving what I believe was the intended message.

So the next time you find your work getting a critique—by request or not—listen attentively. Give yourself time to feel and process any emotions that come up, but then put them aside and apply whatever useful information you’ve received.

On Sunday, I met with the author and the friend, and we spent close to three hours reviewing her novel. At first she listened and took notes, then she began to look away and got a little defensive. When we parted company, there was definitely some tension in the air. But four hours later she was back on the phone, calmly asking us to begin again, to clarify, to respond to her new ideas. ’Atta girl!


  1. Yes, so often I find myself like a person on two ice-flows or (blocks of floating ice) with regard to critiques. I know how important they are to improving and developing my work, but probably far too often unless the critique is when I'm actually working on a piece or directly afterwards (when I don't consider it "done") I find myself with all of those negative emotions you mentioned...
    So the foot on one ice block knows the critical importance of critiques for my artistic growth, but the foot on the other ice block sometimes gets defensive and I plop right down into the cold water between!

  2. I think critiques are invaluable and vital to our growth, but its important that the artist respect the critiquer and that said critiquer respects the artist's feelings. A critique group is maybe the ideal, at least to start, since everyone gets a turn on each side of the fence. I would much much rather hear about the "throw pillows" from a friend than overhear it at a gallery when the picture is on the wall and its too late. And now, the group I'm in mostly praises my work. That's nice, but not very helpful. So you have to watch out for groups that are "too nice". There are two benefits to being in such a group, I think, and the first, having people help you with problems and point out things that are so easy to overlook, is perhaps not as important as the second. I found that after about a year with the critique group, analyzing paintings one after another, I became good at analyzing my own. I'm not sure, Jennifer, that I could say whether I got my message across--that is really hard to pinpoint--but I can say where my compositions, colors, edges, etc are going awry and need some adjusting. Being able to spot and correct those things is fairly quickly is valuable asset of critiques.

  3. Showing your own work is like watching your own child at the school play. You're anxious, you're proud, you know he's not perfect but you appreciate the compliments, the encouragements, the brush offs or the advise when he makes a mistake :they are like kisses.
    Then comes the loud mouth who has scores to settled with the world and picks on your child with comments such as "who's that kid who can't sing ? Tell him to shut up !..."
    Now that is the comment you will remember all your life, it's like a knife stab, unlike the kisses it will leave a trace. No matter how hard you try, unlike the compliments, you will never forget that comment.

    Exhibiting your work, is asking for critics. It is like exhibiting yourself in the nude, so you need to protect yourself. When I get really bad abuse (luckely not often), I look at the person in the eye, listen and watch(it helps to control myself) and think how the scene will later become a good story to tell. There is no interest in telling how people love what you do, but you get a pretty good audience when you tell how this gallery owner looked through you book saying "Ooooh, how bad this is, I can't believe this is so bad, I mean how can you paint something so awfull ?..." I must have turned as red as a poppy but I looked at him through out the ordeal and thought "your story is going to be called the ego elephantiasis stomping the art world".
    So you need to be able to distinguish between constructive criticism, it gets you moving even if it kind of rankles, and abuse which usually is not about your work specifically but what you represent as a whole.