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!