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   Welcome to my blog! I'll be posting thoughts about art, photos, happenings, and other things that strike me--and hopefully my readers--as interesting. And please visit my website by clicking the link to the right--thanks!

   Also please check out my second blog, The Painting Archives to see older (pre-2004) paintings for sale.

Sunday, April 29, 2012
  critique, part one

I seem to have a lot to say on the topic of critique for artists--from the importance of self-critique , to how to elicit helpful feedback from other people, to advice for offering the same to others. I'd hoped to teach a two day class on the topic this weekend, but for some reason--probably that the word critique itself is too scary--I couldn't get sufficient enrollment and had to cancel. So I'm left with all these ideas in my brain, and where else to spill them but here in my blog? Too much for one post, but I'll make a start and come back to it again.

Maybe it was a stretch to think that "critique, " so closely linked to "criticize," could entice many people to an enjoyable and exciting weekend workshop--the term is widely misunderstood. This quote, excerpted from thefreedictionary.com, explains:
...the verb criticize, once neutral between praise and censure, is now mainly used in a negative sense ...Thus, it may be preferable to avoid this word. There is no exact synonym (for critique, but in most contexts one can usually substitute go over, review, or analyze.
Maybe I should have read that before planning my class! But to me, critique is the right word, a great word--it implies, let's dig in, get beyond the superficial stuff, go for depth. It means talking about someone's work at length, in an informed and objective way. Personal opinions will enter in, of course--but in good critique, these are supported by basic art principles. (As in, "I really like the colors-- I think the interaction of warm and cool add richness" or "this composition seems off-balance, I see too much emphasis in the right corner.") You don't have to have an art degree to talk like this or benefit from it, though--any thoughtful analysis, whether one knows the right terms or not, is helpful. Good critique includes praise, problem-solving, questioning, and observations. It offers the artist ideas to mull over, respond to, feel excited by. It can deepen understanding, point out a direction, clarify an idea. Like so much in art, critique is a process, and it can and should be learned if an artist aspires to grow and change in the studio. I find the whole topic intriguing and exciting.

Admittedly, those of us who went through art school, especially graduate school, are likely to remember critiques with a harsh vibe that justify their frightening reputation. There are instructors whose critique style is based on the belief that art students need to be toughened up, made to defend their choices in response to strongly worded criticism, and to justify their work in a atmosphere charged with the pressure of grades and the competitive attitudes of other students. (I know--doesn't that sound like fun??) Accountability by the student for their work is part of getting an art degree, and intense critique sessions are part of that, but the blunt, aggressive approach is only one way. I was blessed with some teachers who were thoughtful, measured and polite during critique sessions, and they are my role models when I conduct my own sessions.

Still, I can't entirely dismiss the effectiveness of the "bad-cop" style of critique. I recall one in grad school that left me in tears once I made it back to my own apartment, where my protestations and justifications ran wild. But some time later (weeks, actually) I realized that the instructor had made a valid and important point, one I've never forgotten. "We don't want to read your diary--get out of your own head and give us something we care about--this is just boring" (and so on) actually meant that the emotional, narrative content I believed to be in the work was not being communicated. It was a rude shove, but in the right direction. Experiences like this left me understanding the value of critique, but motivated to do so in a more gentle manner.

But--the positive, kind approach only works well if it is done with meaning, energy and intensity. In many critique situations those involved are at such pains to avoid negativity and offense that there is little energy present or anything of substance discussed. This is especially true in informal situations--among friends, peers, in workshops or club meetings. I recall years ago being in a women's art group and looking at someone's figure drawings that were very awkwardly done. Instead of addressing that issue, however gently, we spoke only about her materials and the cost of hiring live models, and she never once asked our opinion of the work itself. At the time, I was as timid as anyone else in the room. Now I see this as a wasted opportunity for everyone involved.

I believe that the goal in any critique should be to find productive ground, where honest feedback can be offered and received, and that it isn't all that hard to do. To that end, I plan to offer some tips and ideas in future posts for taking advantage of informal critiques--from the perspective of both the artist and those providing the critique.

(The painting above is Rose Veil, 24"x24", oil and mixed media on panel, recently delivered to Woodwalk Gallery in Egg Harbor, WI.)
Thoughtful, detailed post Rebecca. I vividly remember the good cop/bad cop style of "crits" in grad school which left me going awol for a good many years from meaningful discourse about art. Of course, it's hard to continue without that and I think your notion of giving and receiving honest feedback is valuable. It hurts initially sometimes, but then with time, comes understanding and the opportunity to improve our use of skill means.
I agree with your description of Art School critiques being somewhat tough but I guess in the 70's we got our money's worth. Plus this was the pre-PC world, things were quite different then.
We have something called a "Master Class" at Quilt Surface Design Symposium. It involves one-on-one sessions with a nationally known teacher and sessions where you stand and talk about your work to the class. The idea is that if you want to be known for your work you should be able to write about it, and talk about it.
I have done critique sessions with a museum curator that were very insightful also.
Here! Here! for the meaningful critique. Before I moved to where I am now...so 4 or 5 years ago, I belonged to a critique group that was kind but critical. It took us about a year to get beyond just the kind part. The group included realistic and abstract artists in all media. I found some of my most helpful critiques were made by realistic artists forced to learn about, confront and apply every bit of their design and composition protocols to my abstract work. So even though I'm sorry your class didn't fill, I'm happy we're getting the benefit of your thoughts here in your blog.
I would love a thoughtful critique. I think of it as "How can you help me to get better?" And who does not want to be better? But I think I would be very careful who I would invite to critique my work....Thanks Rebecca for your thoughts.
Leslie, very true, I agree that it's important to choose when, with whom, under what circumstances you invite critique. I'll be writing more about that in a future post.
This is a really great subject and I really look forward to reading more on the subject.
I recognized myself in that entire list you mention at the top ! I live in Paris and was part of a studio for 7 years where the only critic was technical and fairly neutral.
I could never manage to get over the hump and start doing the abstractions I really wanted to create with that approach.
I mostly subjected myself to my own "bad cop" style harsh criticism, until I met a woman named Marianne Mitchell, a brilliant artist. She has really helped me see and understand the value of constructive criticism with all of the ingredients you mention. And I'm finally moving in the right direction. Great Post.
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       Rebecca Crowell