Are you SURE you want a critique? by M Theresa Brown

Critiques. If you are an artist, you cannot escape the universal  useage nor  overexposure of the word, "Critique."  It is used randomly about the art world to the point where you either embrace the concept or reject it entirely.  In art,  Critiques are used in grade school, in art lessons,  art lecturers and schools of every calibre. But without a doubt it has gained widespread usage on the Internet message boards! But is a critique really what all these artists are asking for?

A decription of the word: "Critique has been used as a verb meaning "to review or discuss critically" since the 18th century, but lately this usage has gained much wider currency, in part because the verb criticize, once neutral between praise and censure, is now mainly used in a negative sense. But this use of critique is still regarded by many as pretentious jargon....."

Ouch. But let's truly analyze what a Critique is supposed to do and I cannot say it any better than a friend of mine did when asked about a Critique on a message board recently:

"Ah, critiques...
critiques do two things--

1. Establishes that the work has come to the point where the artist's abilities have reached their limit with that particular vision,
(or they've run out of time as in a classroom environment or commission, e.g.)

2. The people who are critiquing have two issues--

     a. They are not all trained in the language of design and communication to reach clarity with the artist about what needs to be done and WHY,and because of that

     b. they then bring into the discussion their own personal tastes and responses to the work, which may alter the directional vision of the artist, or worse, totally obscure the need for any design changes that would improve the work. (All the "attaboys" without content.)

Sometimes critiques can be harsh if the person posting does it to receive positive response.  Many early learners face this reality when their design and drawing knowledge come to the fire and someone points out a design issue that needs correcting (in their opinion).

I don't offer critiques much any more, unless it is one-on-one where I can be certain the person hearing my words understands the reasons for my saying them."Elin P.

My friend's definition was so well put that there was no way to improve upon anything that she said!

So we go back to what the requester of a Critique is REALLY asking!  And this is where you must be critically honest with yourself!  Do you want a critique (possibly at the hands of someone you should NOT be taking advice from) or a pat on the back?

We  never outgrow the need (and fun) of Show and Tell.  That is good!

But whereas a real critique in a controlled environment by persons whose advice you respect can be invaluable to you as an artist, more than likely what you are going to get is someone's personal opinion.  And that will happen 99% of the time you open up your work and abilities to a mass critique or an art group.  Be careful what you wish for!

Want to know more? Join Theresa and Steve June 18 for an all day seminar in Raleigh! Laast one until the Art of the Carolinas!



Comments (2) -

Linda Everett

Oh my, How true.  I find that when someone wants an "honest critique" what they really want is for you to praise them!

Robert Sloan

I've discovered a sure-fire method for giving useful critique to any beginners or anyone who gets insecure about their art at any level. Which is a good half of all the artists I know at all levels. Artists so much better than I am that they're earning middle class incomes get nervous about critiques (and rightly so given how many negative critiques are actually negative personal criticism of the artist's personality, tastes, subjects and style) while some raw beginners are so supremely confident they don't care.

I analyze the work and give very specific compliments to everything in it that worked. If it had good design I will mention "The composition in this is very balanced, I like the way this, that and the other all lead to a clear focal area with all that value contrast and detail heightening it." Or I'll mention the aerial perspective, the painterly strokes, the color harmony - descriptively. The more specific I am about it, the better.

At least half the time if I compliment something good in a painting, that was exactly what the artist was afraid was horrible and hadn't worked, when it was a stretch from what they usually do. A tight artist loosening up needs to know that it looks painterly, not scribbly or junky. A beginner who lucked into a good composition needs to know what a good composition does and is.

All this happened because of an art workshop I ran in the 1980s in a fan club. I had to twist the arms of a lot of raw beginners in order to get people to even show up for it. So we set this rule - No Negative Criticism. These beginners were slaving for weeks over the drawings they brought in. Me and a half a dozen other artists ranging from intermediate to expert decided that since the beginners all had the same problems, we'd have a short topical lesson per meeting with quick exercises no one had much invested in. Most wouldn't even have a full subject, more like Tone or Line or Eyes or something that would result in sketches without much investment.

But we'd describe what the beginners got right in knowledgeable detail because half the time if they got it right, they thought it was awful and were scared it'd be rejected.

The rule and rotating teaching method seemed loony at first. The results were amazing. Within six months to a year every one of those beginners, many of whom swore they couldn't do a straight line even with a ruler, were selling good accurate fan art. Every one of them. Most of them within six months - and that was with once-a-month lessons and meetings, not some sustained weekly practice or course. It was because the meetings were fun and the "sugar coated" critique was just as useful as the negative version of critique.

Beginners will have two dozen things wrong with anything they do and it's very easy to bash them - and present this overwhelming stack of things to learn all at once. But just focusing on what they got right it's easier to fish out that they've got clean strong lines and pick one thing to help them work on, like proportions (always important if they want to do people) and measuring methods.

Once someone can draw accurately, the rest comes into place and learning is lifelong. But I learned that flavor of critique and it became my fallback for any situation other than my knowing the artist prefers a quick rundown of whatever might improve that painting by changing it - and that only if I have a good idea what the artist would prefer over what they did. I try hard to see it in their terms. I could be impressed by something realist only to discover the artist was trying to loosen up and hadn't managed to yet. Or vice versa.

It's an effective critique method. I don't discount the "Wow I love this" comments either, they're good for the soul and keep me painting!

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