How to give critique (and take it)

Valentines Paisley by Celandine

‘Valentines Paisley’ by Celandine – work in progress. Feel free to critique 😀

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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17 thoughts on “How to give critique (and take it)

  1. You raised such good points here, Lidija. This issue has been on my mind for some time. In some environments, there seems to be an unspoken rule to be 100% positive, like Spoonflower. I love the fact that there is no trolling – almost too good to be true! But at the same time, it’s almost equally hard to believe when all comments are written in the superlative, or at least very positive. Personally, I love receiving such comments, but as you said, suggestions for improvements are what really offer us a chance to learn. Since I don’t like to reveal work in progress (at least not when it’s for contests), I don’t get that chance very often! 🙂

    • Exactly, everyone loves to hear all the praise, but at one point you think ‘it can’t possibly be all true’. Especially when everyone is praising everyone for everything. It loses any meaning in the end. I’m all for emotional support among artists, and hey, if you look at something and just really love it, of course writing ‘I love it!!’ is totally fine. But we’re all too afraid to offend, and everyone misses out on a lot of learning opportunities that way.

  2. I think you have to be at a certain point before you can accept critique. I think you probably need the gushing praise to allow you to keep going with something that will always be a bit uncertain. To get you drawing/painting/messing about in AI every day and filling your free time with it. Once you’re there, you’ll start to see where you need to improve yourself and then you’ll be open to proper critique and advice. I think the gushing praise is invaluable to newbies (and some of those art college terrors could learn a bit from that), but needs to be toned down a lot in more advanced courses or communities.

    (Or maybe that’s just me?)

    I’m gradually learning to take the uninformed criticism, too – the friend or relation who will go from ‘Wow! That’s amazing!’ to ‘Don’t like that colour’ with nothing more substantial to say. Now I can think about what they do and don’t like (in other areas as well – not just my art) and judge whether I should be looking deeper at what they said and maybe making changes or just taking it with a pinch of salt.

    • Great point Tasha – newbies definitely need more praise than critique since they are probably painfully aware already that a lot of it needs improvement, but that improvement will come with time. I guess time really sorts out who fits where, no matter what we do.

      Uninformed criticism is an interesting concept too. We’re not all artists but we’re all consumers, and we all know instinctively what we do and do not like, so on that level any critique is ‘informed’ – at least by that person’s personal taste. What they might lack is the capacity to express their feelings about it in a way that is helpful to the artist, and there we sort of have to learn to read between the lines. Also they just may be the wrong target audience. My husband doesn’t much care for many of my blog posts, but that doesn’t phase me because he’s not in the group I’m writing for. (I have to give him some praise though, he is very supportive and does offer constructive feedback when he can).

  3. I feel each artist reaches a level after overcoming many stumbles . Each stumble comes with a bundle of pain , knowledge and an experience that had taught . The artist gathers strength and moves ahead with pockets full a new learning ! When we criticise our own work , are we not teaching ourselves to do better . Are we not paving paths for our improvement . On the way if we find someone with different experiences and learning , when they give a critique and when they share , a new art takes birth , just like two colours when mixed give birth to a new colour . A good critique is a teacher , who shares the knowledge from one’s own perspective . When that spoonful of knowledge comes our way ,we grow . we get a new direction , that small spoonfull of knowledge always stay with us as ‘a bond of art ‘, ‘a new colour’ how so ever we name it .

  4. This is so well written and thought out. I’m really happy I had the chance to read it. I tend to keep my mouth shut and just click like if I have nothing worthwhile to comment. I might offer some advice now with your excellent guidelines. I’m also much more accepting of criticism at this point in my life and never so ‘sure’ that my way is the be all. I love fresh eyes. Especially after working so close up you lose real vision about your own piece.

    • Yes!! I feel that so many times, I’ve been staring at this thing for so long I both love it and hate it, please someone tell me which is more fitting!! Hahahahah. We get too close to be truly objective. I love getting feedback on anything I do – good or bad – so feel free to critique me any time 😉

  5. Lidija,
    A great subject to discuss! I have to admit I have found confidence and the readiness to keep moving forward through the encouragement of various artist FB sites. However, I truly welcome critiques of my work, otherwise how do you truly move forward? I have felt that being in the environment of other creatives allows a genuine honesty to be expressed and that’s what I appreciate.

    In any type of situation and even in critiquing someone else’s art, I approach it like an Oreo cookie. (At least this is what I taught my kids.) The chocolate cookie is kindness and the creamy center is truth. Start with kindness by pointing out some good in the piece, then share some helpful pointers or truly problem areas, followed by more good points…and wallah an Oreo cookie. After all, isn’t truth swallowed a little easier with kindness surrounding it? 😉
    Elaine

  6. Lots of points that I never thought of, a topic really well thought. Personally I prefer people to be honest and give a critique (positive or not) because that way there’s always room to improve and grow. It’s not easy to hear a critique when we are close to the piece of work we are working on but the trick is to think of it as a fresh pair of eyes. Sometimes stepping away and letting others “see” it and give suggestions is very rewarding.

    “Start off with a specific positive.” Regarding this part I think I was once advised to do the opposite. I have worked in a design project with a psychologist friend and every time something went for revision the feedback email always started with the changes that he wanted and only by the last paragraph I would read the “positive” stuff. And it continued till the end of the project till I commented it with him, and to my surprise it has to do with a psychologist thingy they apply in their sessions. Start with the less positive stuff, critiques and what’s wrong in the whole picture and this leads the person that is reading/listening to to feel discouraged and frustrated but then end the conversation with the positive stuff. What good aspects can be taken from the situation? It’s like imagining a weighing-machine with two sides and you start putting the good in one side and the critiques on the others. You end up reaching a balance and feel confident to move forward. Ok not sure if I explained it right, psychology is not my forte ahah 🙂

    • Interesting approach. Personally I’m not a great fan of starting with the flaws, since at that point you don’t know if the person will get to the good stuff later or will they just stick to the negatives. A lot of it is down to feel though. Even a ‘negative’ can sound pretty good if it’s formulated right – if someone says ‘What if you tried making it more xxxxxx’, it doesn’t feel critical, more like you’re brainstorming different options together. I’m a big fan of specific suggestions over just saying what’s wrong.

  7. Really good post, I struggle with critiquing but I really appreciate it and it’s helped me a lot when people point things out. It helps me to think in other ways. I often answer with fab, beautiful, lovely and I mean it as I only do it on the things I really find appealing. I think critiquing comes from confidence and I hope in time and when I have had more experience I will feel able to do it now and then. Thanks again , you write very well 😊

    • It definitely takes courage and confidence to critique someone’s art. If you ever have something to say but worry it will be construed as negative, try to phrase it as a neutral suggestion – ‘Wow, that looks great! Maybe it would look sharper if the outline was a darker color?’ That’s more of an ‘interested compliment’ than a critique, and usually can’t cause any undue stress to the artist 🙂

      Of course sometimes you look at something and you just think ‘wow that’s awesome!!!’ And at those times I think it’s totally fine to just say that. Every artist will adore it 🙂

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