I am a sensitive person—I always have been.
I remember walking into my first studio art class in college 8 years ago and feeling a mix of excitement and dread.
I was afraid of the one part of art school that I knew I needed to embrace the most: the critique. I was worried the critique would leave me completely humiliated and defeated.
But now that I am four years out of school and one year into pursuing painting full time, I actually miss those days of class critiques.
While it can feel downright terrifying for some artists, learning how to listen and learn from critique is a necessary skill for you to blossom into your full potential.
Here’s how I came to appreciate critiques, along with a few tips to help you get the most out of them.
The Difference Between Feedback and Critique
“Critique” often has a negative connotation. In the creative world, it’s basically just a strategy to interpret, analyze, and describe art.
“Feedback” is a subset of critique. It’s the information explaining an initial reaction to a piece.
Critiquing takes it a step further: it’s more than just feedback. It’s 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.
Why Critiquing is a Necessary Part of Participating in a Community
Critique helps artists communicate their intentions and practice important skills like reasoning, justification, and persuasion.
It’s 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.
Know When to Ask for Encouragement vs. Critique
It’s important to learn the difference in what you ask for.
Oftentimes, 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, they most likely will not be prepared to explain their work or receive the well-intentioned evaluations laid out for them.
Receiving negative feedback can lead to unwanted anxiety and stress, stifling the creative process.
So before asking another artist for critique, be sure you’re in the right frame of mind about yourself and your work. And if it’s encouragement you’re after, just be honest and ask for it!
Know When to Ignore Criticism
Know that it is perfectly okay to ignore certain types of feedback and constructive criticism. Critiquing works best when it is reciprocal and within a smaller group. It truly is a dialogue.
In 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, we were given a single word to build a small body of work around every two weeks.
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.
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.
How to Get the Most Out of a Critique
Learning to embrace critique will make you a better artist. Here’s how to use a critique to your favor:
1. Critiques Should Be Reciprocal
Reciprocal critiquing gives everybody a chance to practice the two sides: evaluating someone else’s work, and then receiving evaluation and 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 artists become more prepared for those times of unexpected and one-sided conversations.
2. Come Prepared
If you have a critique scheduled, be ready to share your work. If you don’t have anything to share, it’s best to acknowledge it upfront without making excuses. At the very least, be prepared to provide constructive feedback to others.
If you do have a piece to share, make sure you have something to say about it. If you’re met with silence or an onslaught of questions, it helps if you’ve prepared your own perspective on the piece.
But keep your thoughts brief: your goal is to trigger meaningful feedback from your instructor or your peers.
3. Allow for Dialogue
Critiquing is a conversation. Just in the same way that everyone participates by sharing work in the critique, everyone must have a chance to respond to the group when their work is being reviewed.
4. Ask for Constructive Criticism
Do you need encouragement after a rough day? Ask for encouragement.
Do you want an honest evaluation of your work from peers? Ask for critique.
If you’re only receiving glowingly positive feedback from your peers, you can ask directly for constructive feedback. For example, you can ask questions like “What’s the weakest part of my design? How would you suggest I improve it?”
5. Avoid Being Defensive or Taking it Personally
Nobody likes to hear negative things about their work. Keep in mind: the goal is to grow. Treat the feedback as a gift.
By listening to both the positive and negative, your design will come out better in the end.
So if your work is getting slammed, don’t get defensive. Be positive and polite. Arguing will sour the mood and will reduce the likelihood of you receiving honest feedback in the future.
And don’t take it personally. The majority of instructors, fellow students, or clients are there to help you.
6. Record the Feedback You Receive
Write down or record the feedback you receive. It shows your instructors or clients that you care and it will help you remember the critiques.
If you tend to react emotionally, taking notes may help temper your initial reactions.
7. Figure Out the “Why”
Your goal is to figure out why people had certain reactions and how to make improvements.
If you received conflicting feedback, you’ll obviously have to decide which critique to listen to.
Don’t take the easy way out—analyze why people made the suggestions they did, and determine what you need to do to make fixes.
How to Give a Great Critique
As I mentioned above, the best critiques are reciprocal. Therefore, it’s important to be able to give great critiques too.
Here are some helpful tips:
1. Describe What You See
You don’t have to do this out loud, but it helps focus on the piece beyond initial reactions.
Objectively describing what you see can help your fellow artist understand your perspective.
2. Be Analytical
Look at the technical quality, composition, and principles of design of a piece.
Avoid words like “beautiful” and “ugly”. Instead focus on strengths and weaknesses. You can also ask what the intended 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.
3. Create a Positive Atmosphere
People learn best in positive environments. Even if you believe a design is flawed, try to begin with positive, constructive comments. This will make your peer more receptive to the constructive criticism that’s about to come.
4. Get to the “Why”
While you should state your observations and reactions, you should also try to help your fellow artist to get why you had that reaction.
For example, does the issue lie in a particular part of the design? Or is the issue how certain elements are combined?
It can feel awkward and intimidating at first, but remembering to approach critiques with these steps can make it easier.
Learn to Love Critiques
It’s 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.