There’s a weird thing happening in most artist communities. It’s like an unwritten codex of sorts. And it states ‘Thou shalt not critique another’s work except in the most veiled and subtle of ways.’
This is of course a natural by-product of the fact that most artists are nice people who want to support and empower their friends. Creating artwork is a personal process with no clear rights and wrongs, so criticizing art often feels dangerously close to criticizing the artist. And this is something that we are loath to do. Add to the mix the fact that in most art communities core members over time become fast friends, and a strange compliment inflation starts to seep in. Any work that gets posted is instantly heaped with superlatives. ‘Lovely!’ ‘Fantastic!’ ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!!!’
This is the great side of artist groups, because it provides us with a safe haven that boosts our confidence and makes us excited to create more art. I’ve heard lots of artists say that without that warmth and support they’d long since have given up. But for someone looking to improve, this well-intentioned steadfast denial that any improvement is needed is not helpful.
I’ve often called for more honesty in critiques, and people frequently respond with ‘But I don’t want people being negative or mean towards my work!’ Those who have gone to art school tell depressing stories of the traumas they gathered in class during art ‘critiques’ that came down to nothing more than bashing. Some face daily criticism just for wanting to make art, instead of choosing a practical career that would make their friends and family feel less concerned about their future prospects. Many already criticize themselves far more than they should. Maybe the indiscriminate praise actually offers a treasured sanctuary.
So when someone shows us their work and asks ‘What do you think?’, we’re never quite sure whether to be completely open or to stick to the more supportive side of our opinion. But I still insist that there is always a way to be honest and kind at the same time. And it’s important that we try. Artists are forever locked within their own point of view, and having other views to compare and contrast is an invaluable resource in moving forward and growing our skill set.
So here are some pointers for giving art critiques with all the benefit and none of the grief:
– If someone is asking for your honest opinion, speak up! If you’re thinking it, others are too.
– Start off with a specific positive. No piece is so dire that you can’t find one aspect to genuinely praise.
– Don’t judge. Saying ‘This is ugly’ isn’t a critique, it’s an opinion at best – and not a very valuable one at that.
– Try to be extremely specific with your suggestions. ‘The colors aren’t working’ is somewhat better than ‘This is ugly’, but not nearly as good as ‘What if you tried a warmer palette that will make your motifs stand out more strongly against the cool background?’
– Don’t critique pieces that have just been finished/ submitted into a competition/ sent off to a client. At that stage encouragement is the only thing the artist wants to hear. Critiques are best given early in the creative process, while it’s still easy to make changes. If someone is not showing you their process, they probably aren’t asking for feedback, they’re just sharing.
Taking feedback well is sometimes just as difficult as giving it. My first drawing days were spent in the Threadless community forums, and for a newbie, that place could be rough. There were always plenty of people around who didn’t care about the fact that you’re a special snowflake, and who would matter-of-factly cut your work to shreds. Some were trolling, but many were making valid points, with more or less tact. There were also dozens of designers who would bristle and argue against any criticism, no matter how well-meant and accurate it was. And I understand this instinctive need to defend your artwork – you’ve worked so hard, you were so sure you nailed it. It hurts to reconsider that. But once I got used to looking past the tone, I found even the roughest critiques invaluable. As an old friend of mine used to say, ‘I love being wrong! It means I get to learn something.’
So when a friend asks you how to improve her latest piece, fight back the urge to exclaim how it’s perfect just the way it is. Even if that’s what you honestly believe. Take a moment to consider what could make it even perfecter.
And when you’re on the receiving end of an art critique, remember – a critique doesn’t determine the value of your work, or your value as an artist. Everyone looks through different eyes, and in the end, you can always disregard any suggestion you don’t agree with. But stop and consider if they have a point – even the harsh ones. It doesn’t mean you did it wrong – it just means you’ll learn something.
How do you feel about critiques? Do you let people know what you really think? Does it bother you when people give you suggestions to improve your work? Would you admit it if it did? 😀 Let me know in the comments!
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