Benefiting from critique

One of the hardest – and most important – skills for an artist to master is taking critique.

It can sting to hear that there are flaws in your hard work, and the natural impulse is to shut down, become defensive, and try to explain away issues in the work as not your fault. A favorite refrain of people who are having trouble taking critique is “this was just a quick sketch.”

But no matter how quick the sketch, each piece that you do can reveal important clues as to how you conceptualize the world around you, and point at changes you can practice to become a better artist.

If you are able to change your frame of mind from feeling defensive about your work to seeing each piece you do as a goldmine of information about how you can get better, it’s like strapping on an artistic jet pack. You will rocket ahead in your progress.

What is critique?

The internet being what it is, many people believe that they cannot take critique, or that there is no benefit to be gained from critique, because they have had past experiences wherein someone “critiqued” their work via insults. If someone says “You are terrible,” they are not trying to help you improve with a real artistic critique, they are trying to discourage you for their own amusement. Don’t be fooled into thinking that that is what critique is like.

Proper critique is feedback that is:

  1. constructive (useful)
  2. specific
  3. positive

When I say that critique is positive, I don’t mean that it is all praise. Sometimes it includes praise, as it can be helpful for an artist to know what they are doing right or where they are showing improvement, so they can keep doing what works. But a critique that contains no praise at all can still be positive — it just needs to assume that the artist is capable of learning and improving and be given with the intention of helping, rather than attacking the person behind the art.

Here’s an example of what a proper critique might look like:

I notice that all of the drawings you’ve shared here mostly use one or two shades, and you don’t make use of highlights or deep shadow (specific). If you practice mastering the full range of values (constructive), your drawings will take on more depth, realism and emotion (positive).

This critique identified a specific example of a problem, it offered a constructive solution that could be acted on immediately, and it did it all from the positive, encouraging point of view that the artist was capable of assimilating this tip and making use of it.

Benefiting from critique

Before you ask for critique, mentally prepare yourself. Strangers are going to tell you what is wrong with your work, and for that to be a non-traumatic, useful experience, you need to be grateful and not argue or try to explain away problems when they do.

Repeat the following to yourself until it feels true:

  1. I am learning. It is okay for me to make mistakes.
  2. I am learning. I want to know how to fix my mistakes.
  3. I am learning, and I am grateful when someone takes the time to try and teach me.
  4. When someone has helped me identify a problem it is within my grasp to fix, I will practice that change until it is a part of my artistic repertoire.

Feeling good? Deep breaths! Here we go. It’s time for you to seek out critique. Try to find people who are further along in their practice than you are (IE, more skilled, at least in some aspect of art) and willing to offer you some critique and show them your most recent work. (Hint: We have a critique forum here!)

Consider carefully and honestly what they have to say. You might not agree with all of the critique you receive, and that’s okay. But if a common theme emerges, wherein multiple people are telling you that you have a specific problem, make it your priority to practice fixes to that issue in your next sessions.

Even if you disagree with the critique that you have received, if someone took the time to try and help you, always thank them. Be sincere here! Someone shared their hard-won knowledge with you in an attempt to help you advance. That’s a true gift.

Critique can only help you if you approach it from the standpoint of genuinely wanting to learn and improve, and then take action on it. But if you are able to do that, and do it frequently, you suddenly have the benefit of not just your own experience but the experiences of all the artists around you, too. You will get personalized advice, tailored only to you and your artwork, about how to take the next step in improvement. You will be pushed outside of your artistic comfort zones and given the tools to make yourself the master of these new areas.

I hope to see you all on the critique forums, learning wonderful lessons from your own mistakes very soon!

Next week, we’ll examine this topic from the other side — how to give useful critique.

7 thoughts on “Benefiting from critique

  1. “It’s like strapping on an artistic jetpack.” I cannot stop laughing at this, it’s amazing!

    On a more serious note: lots of good advice here. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I just finished an intermediate drawing class at my school. I think my instructor was fair but he came off being a little harsh in my opinion. Maybe our personalities didn’t mesh I don’t know. He is very knowledgeable. Maybe if I had taken beginning drawing with him we could have a better rapport.

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