Critiques are important to the learning process...
Which is why they're a feature of every class I teach, both live and online versions. After all, you can't fix what you aren't aware of.
But not everyone is comfortable having their skills evaluated. No one wants to be criticized, mocked, and to have their flaws paraded out for the world to see.
Believe me, I know. I had a panic attack the morning of my first graphic arts class critique. Just the thought of hanging my project on the wall and having 20 other students nit-pick it to death... it had me up most of the night with worry. Then I almost hyperventilated myself to death the next morning.
But that flop-sweat inducing class critique turned out to be a tremendous mental boost for me. I learned an incredible amount of helpful information that day. Not just from my critique but from the critique of all 20 projects. I also learned to buy a better brand of antiperspirant for such occasions.
So let's talk a little about evaluation today. Good critiques, bad critiques, and how you can add constructive feedback to your own learning process.
First off, what is a critique?
Let's not get to bogged down with details and rules. What you need to know is that critiques come in many forms.
Class critiques are where an entire class is presented with a variety of similar projects. A good teacher will focus the student conversation on diagnosing problems and brainstorming helpful solutions for future use.
One-on-one critiques are usually between a mentor and a student. They can be formal portfolio evaluations or single project feedback. The most helpful sessions occur mid project before the portfolio or art piece is completed because it's better to correct a problem mid-stream than to be finished and unable to change the flaw.
Lastly, there are informal critiques when you draft a friend, fellow student, or the teacher into a quick discussion. The kind of conversation that usually starts "Hey, what'cha think?"
Good Critiques offer usable information
"I like that background but what if you softened the edges a bit?"
"That's cool, I really like the boy's face. Can you make the girl's eyes look similar to his?"
"The shadow feels a little heavy under the apple. If you lighten it slightly, it won't feel quite so dreary."
It's not enough to hear only sunshine and purple-dinosaur wishes. On the flipside, "that really stinks" is pretty unusable information as well.
A good critique gives you information that you can use to either fix your problem or that leads you to think differently on future projects.
Bad Critiques offer no challenges
I think we can all agree that "Your painting looks like dog vomit after a day in Death Valley" is a bad thing to hear.
But so is "That's awesome, you rock!"
Why? Because neither statement asks you to change anything about your future performance. But you could magically transform either sentence into a good critique if you added a second half to the thought.
"Your painting looks like dog vomit BECAUSE a pink to green blended background creates an unpleasant brownish middle color that detracts from the overall cheerful tone of the image"
Huh, now that awful sentence is a little more usable.
Sure, a really good critique will use nicer language and sound a little less judgmental than "dog vomit"... but seriously, if the first thing that crossed my mind when I looked at your piece was canine regurgitation, don't you want to know about it?
Honest friends and generous teachers are worth their weight in gold
My husband is the love of my life, my best friend, and he's better than the better half of me.
But I DO NOT ask him for art critiques.
"Huh. Looks good."
The same goes for my parents. "That's nice, honey" is pretty darned useless.
But we all have someone in our lives who will not just point out the spinach in our teeth but offer a hand mirror and a tissue to help you fix it.
Find that friend and never let go of their hand.
I'm part of a small group of local artists. We have an informal, please-check-my-work email circle where we've pledged to try our darndest to stop members from publishing stupid mistakes.
Like the time I made a tee shirt design with wings that pointed to both nipples. Or when my dear friend submitted a painting to a national contest that had a hidden (and completely unplanned) "F U" in the negative space.
But I've also found that I can run projects by my 15 year old daughter. She has a pretty good eye and can often vocalize the problem with trouble spots.
And it goes without saying that a good teacher will look at your project several times each class and offer guidance. If your instructor isn't doing this, that's a serious problem. You're paying for more than a lesson, you should be getting feedback too.
Your attitude determines the effectiveness of any critique
Ultimately, even the most positive feedback is useless if you do nothing with it.
How can you make the best use of evaluation and observations?
- Pledge not to take offense or to dwell on feedback. Sure, no one wants to hear "dog vomit" but you need to know. And I wish I'd heard about the nipple-pointers BEFORE that shirt went to print. But if you're clearly dragging around baggage from your last critique, no one is going to feel comfortable pointing out the current flaws.
- Listen rather than rationalize. The person offering feedback doesn't need the four hour backstory of why you colored the the Christmas Tree magenta. He/she is simply trying to tell you that it doesn't feel very Christmassy that way. Remember, you're not going to walk around explaining your art to every viewer from now until forever. If your work doesn't make sense to your trusted critique partner, it's really not going to make sense to strangers. Listen and learn.
- Ask questions. If your feedback partner is telling you something you disagree with, like "I think the fireman should wear a red jacket rather than yellow", find out WHY they feel strongly about it before you write it off as nonsense. Maybe firemen don't really wear red jackets anymore, but if your partner mistook your fireman for the Morton Salt Girl, that's a very valid reason to make the jacket red.
- Watch the first facial reactions. I often hand items to people cold and watch for that first expression. If I'm trying for humor and they look puzzled, I've failed. Remember, people often try to censor themselves; an initial grimace tells you far more than the "uhmmmm... yeah, that's nice".
- Be sure to thank your feedback partner. Honesty is hard and truth tellers are rare. Show that you appreciate the time, care, and help that someone has offered you. Treat them with respect and kindness to insure that they continue helping you in your growth process.