The Importance of Critique and Not Being a Dick (Part 2)

‘evening sun’ by Vladimir Kochetkov

It is vital to the success and furtherance of an artist to become familiar with both giving and receiving thoughtful critiques.

The Quick Story from my Dayse of College Yore is that the first school I went to was extremely ruthless with critique sessions: the floor was open to comment, some people cried, and even the teacher was known to use the word “garbage.” Everyone did better work after a critique session, though. At school number two, it was the complete opposite: everyone was very nice and liked how they “could really like, understand the colors man” and how they “liked how you put a star in the background because your grandma liked stars.” The teacher nodded along saccharine-ly. And people did bad, bad work all year long.

I believe good critique lies somewhere in the middle: it wont bring you to tears, but it’ll make you change the part of your Thing that sucks out loud.

I will stop here and say that this conversation is sometimes amazingly stressful to actually do. On the one hand, it requires a terrible amount of bravery on the artist’s part to finish a piece they deem worthy of someone else’s opinion, and then to actually show it to them for inspection. On the other hand, if you go into every critique (the giving or receiving end; doesn’t matter) with a “just be super nice” attitude, I’d bet a wad of cash that neither party actually says anything worth saying, and neither of your works will improve either. Here’s my point:

What you’re looking for here is a critique partner you respect with whom you can reap and glean new ideas, techniques, and thought processes about what you’re making! If and when you find these people (and I stress that you DO, because a good one is gold), talking about the pros and cons of your and their work becomes something you not only enjoy, but something you rely on as part of the Making Process.

People With Whom to Share a Critique (Giving/Receiving):

  • A fellow maker (writer, painter, musician, etc.)
  • A trusted advisor
  • A dear friend with reputable taste

Here I’ll break up the Giving and Receiving ends of critique into two sections, because you should handle both situations a little differently:

RECEIVING a Critique:

  1. “I just finished This Thing, and I’ve been thinking x, y, and z. What are your thoughts?” Opening up with a set area of observation helps your partner feel more comfortable giving you their opinions, and feels more friendly and open than “So What Do You Think?” Let them tell you, don’t interrupt them, and hold back tears or mean words if they’re in you to do (relax, man).
  2. LISTEN TO THEIR THING. You asked them what they think. Maybe you disagree. Maybe you disagree a lot. Don’t be a douche: save it, make note of it, and keep listening.
  3. When they’re done, really consider their opinion. Is the flow of your piece really disconnected? Should you consider a softer edge to turn this shape, or a warmer color to push this forward? After careful thought, do you agree or disagree with their opinions?
  4. “I AGREE!” Say thank you, and ask them to expound further on how they think improvement should happen. Start a dialogue. Pull out work from other artists you like. Build friendship. Make coffee. This is what it’s ABOUT. If not,
  5. “I DISAGREE!” State your case kindly, and give thanks for their input anyway. It doesn’t mean to conversation is over; tell them the good reason you made the decision you did to make the thing that way, and see if their opinion changes. But remember, “I was playing with atmosphere and warmth” is one good reason; “Well, it’s just my style” is not.

DO listen thoughtfully without interrupting.
DO say “Thank you!”
DON’T freak out and make excuses for why your Thing has an ugly area you wont attend to.

GIVING a Critique:

  1. Ask yourself: How far along are they as a maker? Is this their first real critique? Are they a seasoned pro who can handle themselves? Each situation takes some tailoring, and it’s worth it to do: someone valued your wise advice enough to ask you what you think about their Thing! Neat!
  2. Really look at the thing. If you hate it, ask yourself why. If you love it, still ask yourself why. Consider their roadmap of decision making that you can recognize, and ask yourself about your own decision making process while you make. Appreciate the successful areas, and make note of the weak areas. Have reasons to back up your opinions, if you can.
  3. The Sandwich. This is a business maneuver that’s especially helpful for a first timer: Compliment a successful area, voice your opinion on an area they could improve, and finish off with another compliment. This only works if you’re being genuine, by the by, which you should be anyway.
  4. THEY AGREE! Great! Tell them how much you appreciate them coming to you for advice! Invite them to stick around for coffee and scones.
  5. THEY DISAGREE! Great! Tell them how much you appreciate them coming to you for advice! Invite them to stick around for coffee and scones.

DO give your opinion only if asked.
DO be thoughtful and kind in your evaluation.
DON’T be a nit-picker over impossibly small and benign changes (unless that’s what they’re asking for).

Anyway, don’t be a dick about talking about art.

The point of receiving a critique on your work is to strengthen it, and you should be fearless in discussing your work (it’s just a Thing, after all). If you have a good critique story, or a certain method to giving/receiving advice on painting, let me know down in the doobly-doo!

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