Guest Post- Heidi Black- Giving and Recieving Critique

Critiques: the artist's worst nightmare.

Or so it is often thought.  But it should never be.

In art school, you tend two get two different types of young artists: people who are infatuated with their work, and people who have no confidence in it at all.  But really, it all boils down to the same thing: as artists, we are incredibly reliant on other people's judgement of our work for our self-esteem.  It sounds a bit stupid, but I don't know that I've talked to any serious business artists who say otherwise (though if you do, please tell me).  Artists often view their work as an extension of themselves, or their soul, poured out on paper.  We seek other people's approval, because in a sense, it means the approval of our own self.  And I think we have a hard time separating that our art is NOT us - it is what we do, and it is often emotional work, but you can like or dislike a piece of art without feeling the same way about the person.  So lets take some time and look at what critiques are and are not, and how to give and receive them.

Critiques are not a personal attack.

When someone critiques your artwork, it should not be a personal attack against you (if they ARE making a personal attack, they are not critiquing.)  A good critique should point out both the things you do well and the things you may need improvement on.  But if someone says "the structure of that arm seems somewhat off, I think when you foreshortened it you should have made the hand bigger," they are not saying "you obviously can't draw arms."  What they are saying is that you may need to revisit the visual language you use to convey foreshortening.  Or if someone says "the skin color you used seems very yellow and draws a lot of attention away from the focus of your piece," they are not saying "you are a failure as a colorist," they are trying to give you help that will improve your work.

Critiques ARE designed to help you as an artist.

The scariest thing about art to me is not necessarily being bad, its never improving.  Stagnation seems liek a silly thing to be afraid of, but a bad artist always has the capacity to improve, where a stagnant artist, an artist who refuses to learn, will never get better.  Nothing will be new or exciting or fresh; its the playing it safe of the art world.  Sure, you may be able to do one thing well, but if your entire career is based upon doing that one thing REALLY well, what happens when that one thing is gone?

Tangent aside, critiques are what keeps us from stagnating as an artist, even if it is only self-critique.  The drive to do better in your own art is important, but so is hearing what your fellow artists have to say.  A good critique should help you pinpoint areas of study that you need work on - and lets be honest, EVERY artist, no matter how good, needs work.  There's always something we can't do, or some way we can be better.  Even if you think you are better than the artists giving you advice, listen to them.  Sometimes they point out things you don't always see in your own work.  You don't have to necessarily CHANGE it, and sometimes other artists ARE wrong.  But the advice of someone who is looking at your work who is not so personally invested is an asset, not a hindrance.

If there was nothing left to critique on someone's work, if there was nothing that person could not draw, and every piece was the perfect expression of what they wanted to convey . . . if there was no room for someone to grow, the journey would be over.  The end point woudl be reached.  There would be no reason to continue as an artist, because nothing new and exciting would ever come from their hands.

Critiques are not absolute truth, and not every professional will agree.

Sure, there will be some things that are fact in critiques - like if you give someone wrong musculature, thats an objective.  Or if your perspective does not follow the laws of perspective, thats also an objective.  But there are also parts of critiques that are subjective.  For example, I received a critique on a work because I used inkwash.  One editor of a publishing company said he disliked the inkwash, that it was hard to reproduce, and that it muddied up my work.  A different editor said she loved the inkwash, that it would look amazing in reproduction, and that helped define things.  So who is right?  Well, like and dislike are subjective terms, so we can throw that part out.  As for reproduction?  That depends on the equipment you use - the way it scans, who scans it, the printers you print it on, and so forth.  So both are right.  And as for whether it muddies or strengthens my work?  Once again, both can be right - there are areas (and I agree) where the inkwash was a bad choice, and it can make everything a grey tone with little distinguishing charateristics.  Other places, the ink was helped define atmospheric perspective, giving a strong sense of depth to a landscape, or really creating a three-dimensional form.

Thats not the only time I've had professionals disagree.  But every artist and editor who looks at your work is bringing a different experience to the table, as well as a different set of skills.  Sometimes your job as an artist is not necessarily to change everything they point out, but just to look critically at your own work, and decide for yourself (and you are allowed to change your mind).

Critiques are not an ass-pat.

I talk with other artists all of the time; I'm surrounded by them on a daily basis.  And what we often notice is that there are some artists who use critiques as a time for circle-jerking - they will all get together, say nice things about each other's work, get some nice compliments, and go away feeling good about themselves and their work.  While it is important in critiques to also receive positive feedback, these circle-jerks and ass-pats are not what critiques are all about.  As pointed out earlier, that kind of attitude will cause you to stagnate - no longer are you looking to improve your art because all your close art friends say its good enough.  But even beyond that, with too much of this ass-pat attitude, you begin to think that anyone outside of your circle is wrong.  You lose your ability to receive constructive feedback, and with it your ability to grow.  Even worse, people involved in these circles tend to have very bad attitudes, and this causes publishers, editors, and other artists not to want to work with them.

I'm not saying that there isn 't a time and place for a feel-good on your art.  We all need those.  There is nothing like someone coming to you and telling you that you did an amazing job, that they love your work, or how it inspires them.  And we all need those moments from time to time.  But it can't happen all the time.  Critiques should be about the good AND the bad.

Critiques should be a welcome thing.

Lets face it, when we complete a work, we're all proud of it.  We all want to post it online or show it off and have everyone tell us how good it is, and we don't want to hear someone say that we messed up something we spent two weeks on.  And yeah, when you hear that "wow, his head is really small," or "these panels really need a background," or "you have the characters speaking out of order," we're ready to punch someone in the face.  After all, we just spent so much time on something, how dare they only notice the bad things and not the good?  But in reality, the mistakes are always going to show up before the good things - like a soundtrack in a movie, you don't notice when things work, when the music is purposefully subtle or exciting  to help strengthen the mood.  But you notice immediately when they play loud obnoxious music during a tender love scene, or forget to add exciting music during an intense battle, or even just if someone hits a wrong note.  The wrong tends to stand out to us far more than the right.

But as I said earlier, critiques are designed to help you.  If your goal as an artist ISN'T to work professionally, then specify that - say that you dont' want critique, or that this is just a hobby for you.  But there are a lot of us who DO intend to use our art in order to pay rent and buy groceries, and so for us not just being good, but improvement is necessary.  AFter all, it IS a competition.  So helpful critiques shoudl be welcome, as they give a basis for improvement, a level you can obtain to help keep your work new and exciting and fresh.  They help keep you in the running for jobs.

Giving critique: be specific.

Saying "I like it." or "I don't like it." to a piece of work is not a critique, its an opinion.  This is not helpful to other artists - your likes and dislikes are irrelevant, unless you're paying them.   Instead, be sure to point out WHY.   You can like something or dislike something because of the style its rendered in, but this is again an opinion.  Or you can dislike a piece becasue the linework on the character is too heavy, the anatomy is wrong, the pose is static, etc.  These are specifics - and the more specific you can be the better.  This gives the artist something they can definitely look to improve.

Giving critique: objective versus subjective

Subjective is a matter of taste, whereas objective is a matter of fact.  Good critiques shoudl focus around the objectives - things liek perspective, anatomy, and other defined things.  When you do have to look to the subjective, such as style, try to describe it in objective terms.  For example, "I don't like anime eyes," is a subjective and an opinion.  Good for you.  But "your work would benefit more if you looked into tryign to combine actual eye structure with your current anime inspirations" is a far more objective critique.  Note how it gives the artist something definite - the actual eye structure.  Likewise, saying "this lineweight is too thick" is still subjective, but saying "this lineweight is thick and pulls the background objects too far into the foreground, flattening out your image" has more objective points to it.  This also helps an artist understand WHY, and therefore can be utilized in future work.

Giving critique: offer positive alternatives

When you give critique, if someone is doing something poorly, giving them reference to pull from and specific ways to help is a good idea.  For example, for anatomy problems, looking at athletic body types and at Andrew Loomis's work is a great suggestion.

Giving critique: look for positives too.

There's some kind of unspoken guideline somewhere that you can find three good thigns about anyone's work, even if its just their perserverance, their heart, and their willingness to try.  Even if that's all you can find, point it out.

Positive critiques are a necessity, for one because they are the 'spoonful of sugar' that helps the medicine of necessary critique go down, but also because it helps you as an artist and a person.  Seeing the bad in someone's art can be easy, but seeing the good can be harder.  But people need to know the good too - they need to know what IS working as much as what isn't.

Receiving critique: listen with an open mind and a closed mouth.

Just because you dont' agree with someone's critique doesn't mean it's time to argue.  Even if you did something on purpose, if its not obvious enough it may not be effective.  Listen to what people have to say, but that doesn't mean you have to follow it.  But critiques are not arguments.

The most important thing though is not to say 'well, thats my style."  Drawing someone's head in their armpit may be your style, but that doesn't mean its not anatomically wrong.

Receiving critique: ask if you don't understand

I know I seem to be contradicting the last one, but arguing and asking are not the same.  If you don't understand why something you did doesn't work, ask.  Hopefully the critiquer will be able to elaborate, so you can avoid doing thigns that don't work well on future works.  If they don't know, maybe its time to ask a different opinion.

In addition, artists sometimes are more able to draw somethign out than to explain with words.  While critiques do help us with our verbal communication skills, lets be honest - we're artist.  We draw as a method of communication.  So if someone can draw what they mean, let them.

Receiving critique:   cry, and move on

I'll admit it, sometimes critiques are painful.  There will be times when other artists rip your work to shreds, and it hurts even more because you know they're right.  So all you want to do is cry.

Well, go for it.  I've cried over critiques.  Other artists cry over critiques.  It is a personal thing sometimes, even if we tell ourselves its not, just becasue of how personal art itself is.  But if you're serious about wanting to make a living from art, then you should be serious about improving.  Even if you have to break it down into one step at a time, you should always look to improve.  And improvement can be a slow and painful process.  But someone who sees your work on a consistent basis will notice the improvements, and should help you keep going.

I'm sure there's much more to say about critiques.  I'm also sure not everyone will agree with me.  This is just what I can say about the subject, and I'm no expert.  But these points have helped me with critique. 


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