I remember walking into my first college studio art class 8 years ago and feeling a mix of excitement and absolute dread. I am a sensitive person – I always have been. And I was afraid the one part of art school that I knew I needed to embrace the most: the critique. It felt like it would be the perfect place for me to be completely humiliated and defeated.
While it can feel down right terrifying for some artists, now that I am 4 years out of school and 1 year into pursuing painting full time, I actually miss those days of class critiques. Here’s how I came to appreciate critiques along with a few tips to help you get the most out of them.
First, I learned the difference between feedback and critiquing.
“Critique” often has a negative connotation. In the creative world, it’s basically just a strategy to interpret, analyze, and describe art. It’s more than just feedback. Feedback is the information explaining an initial reaction to a piece. Critiquing takes it a step further: not just a reaction, but also an analysis and interpretation of art. It’s about more than aesthetics, but assigning value, interpretation, and evaluation through a dialogue.
Critiquing is a necessary part of participating in a community.
It helps artists communicate their intentions and practice important skills like reasoning, justification, and persuasion. It is empowering to practice these skills with other artists. Once I started to become more comfortable with the process of critiques, it made me feel equipped to collaborate with other artists on projects, and to share my work publicly. Not only did I grow as an artist, I grew as an individual person as well. My personal communication skills improved dramatically and I gained confidence in writing and speaking. I’m definitely not one who loves public speaking, but I can get through it now without feeling like my heart and stomach will suddenly drop to the floor.
Not every critique will be encouraging. Learn to ask for what you need.
It is important to learn the difference in what you ask for. Often times artists will ask in general for “constructive criticism” on a piece or a series when what they really want and need in that moment is encouragement. They may receive a really great analysis of their work along with suggestions or questions. But if the artist is looking for encouragement, most likely they will not be prepared to explain their work or receive the well-intentioned evaluations laid out for them.
Know that it is okay to ignore some types of feedback and constructive criticism.
Critiquing works best when it is reciprocal and within a smaller group. It truly is a dialogue.
My senior year, I was getting ready in my studio shortly before heading to a final group critique for a capstone class. In this class, every two weeks were given a single word to build a small body of work around. When the work was ready we would do a graded group critique. A classmate stopped by my studio unannounced before our final critique and let me know that she didn’t think my work was representative of the assignment. And then she turned around and casually walked out! I’ll be honest, I panicked. I called my then boyfriend (now husband) and asked him what to do, as if all the art critique knowledge had suddenly disappeared from my brain. His response?
First, did you ask for a critique or feedback? Second, can you explain your work and reason why you went the direction you did to the class? Third, did you two have a conversation about it?
I collected myself, reviewed my pieces and the process. Critiquing is a conversation. When my classmate decided to turn around and leave without participating in dialogue, I knew that I could let go of those remarks. I ended up passing that critique with full marks. Fun fact – I even sold some of those pieces shortly after.
It is always a little scary sharing work in a critique setting because it takes a certain amount of vulnerability. But I promise you, in the right setting, critiques are empowering and educational. And I have a sneaking suspicion you’ll learn to love them too.
How to get the most out of a critique:
1. Know what you are asking for.
-Do you need encouragement after a rough day? Ask for encouragement. Do you want an honest evaluation of your work from peers? Ask for a group critique.
2. Critiques work best when they are reciprocal.
-It gives everybody a chance to practice the two sides: evaluating someone else work, and receiving evaluation/explaining your own work. While we always open ourselves up for criticism and questions when sharing work publicly, intentionally planning a time for a critique helps the artist become more prepared for those times of unexpected and one-sided conversations.
3. Allow for dialogue.
-Critiquing is a conversation. So just in the same way that everyone participates by sharing work in the critique, everyone has a chance to respond to the group when their work is being reviewed.
4. Practice. It can feel awkward at first and intimidating, but remembering to approach critiques with these steps can make it easier.
-Describe what you see – You don’t have to do this out loud, but it helps focus on the piece beyond initial reactions.
-Analyze the elements of the piece – Look at the technical quality, composition, principles of design, etc.
-Interpret and Evaluate – Avoid words like “beautiful” and “ugly”; instead focus on strengths and weaknesses. You can also ask what the emotional appeal of the work is.
-Opinions are fine to share, if stated as such. We all have different aesthetics and preferences, and so do our clients.