I dread criticism. My fourth grade teacher told my parents that I needed to learn to accept failure or else I would go crazy at some point in my life. If I answered a question wrong or if something I made wasn’t immediately praised as perfect, I would burst into tears. Not a very productive or sustainable personality trait, but I have a feeling I’m not alone here. How many of you live in fear of your year-end reviews at work? Who actually enjoys being told they’re not good enough? (Even though that’s not what is actually being said, but that’s what we hear, right?)
As an adult I’ve certainly learned to accept failure and even grow from it. I’ve accepted the fact that I am by no means perfect in anything and that I am often wrong. This has brought much inner peace. Yet I still find it very difficult to reach out and ask for other people’s opinions about my creative work — even my closest and most respected and talented friends. I suppose this has something to do with how our creative work is an expression of our inner selves, our souls, and any sort of criticism can be taken so personally. This reluctance for criticism persists even though I’ve always ended up with an improved outcome whenever I’ve received feedback on a work in progress.
Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of being an outside observer of critiques at various prestigious art and design programs. When done well, those critiques have been immensely helpful to the recipients. But “when done well” is the key phrase in that sentence, and this is what today’s post is all about. This is my opinion on how to conduct a helpful critique that will hopefully not only help the overall result of a final piece of work but also leave everyone feeling happy about the overall process. Keep in mind, these guidelines are specifically for conducting critiques of works in progress and not at all meant for writing professional art criticism about finished works.
You’ll often hear people say that you should start a critique with something positive before giving a criticism. While I believe that is well-intentioned, I personally feel that “positive” and “negative” shouldn’t really even be part of a critique. A critique isn’t about telling an artist your personal preferences about what you think is good and bad art. The purpose of a critique is to simply tell the artist what you see specifically and how it makes you feel generally. Then the artist can decide whether or not that’s what they intended. If it is, great! If not, they can think about the changes they want to make accordingly.
With that in mind, as the person giving a critique, relate what you feel generally in terms of emotions and what you see specifically in terms of formal techniques like composition, line, color, etc. When expressing these observations, try not to add your personal opinions to what you see. For instance, when looking at a quilt design, you might say something like, “It looks like a series of traditional quilt blocks,
which isn’t really my thing, but the colors are all very bright and modern looking, which I like. I’m sorry but because there is such a large variety of bright colors, my eye has trouble focusing on an overall pattern; I have a hard time seeing a background/figure relationship in the overall pattern, so you should think about switching out some of the colors for some neutrals. All together it gives me the feeling of a celebratory atmosphere with loud music and people are dancing and partying hard, which I think is pretty cool.”
One of the most important things to avoid in a critique is being prescriptive. Never use phrases like, “You should do this” or “I would have done that.” The critique is not your big opportunity to show everyone in the room how smart you are or how exquisite your taste is. No one cares that you would have used a gray thread for the quilting instead of red. However, something like this would be much more helpful. “The thread color you used for the quilting really stands out against the fabrics you chose, so the quilting design becomes more of the focus than the piecing. Was that your intention?”
The person receiving the critique can always ask for advice or more personal feedback such as, “I actually don’t want the quilting to stand out, so what thread color would you suggest?” But that is their prerogative. You should only give prescriptive advice when asked for it or if you’re teaching a very specific technique and the goal of the class is for every student to actually master the technique.
Let me know what you think about both giving and receiving feedback. What do you find most helpful? Have you ever received criticism that actually hindered your creative process? Go ahead and give me some constructive criticism in the comments section below! Happy creating!!!