the art of critique; a conversation
My friend Janice Mason Steeves
and I have decided to explore the idea of co-blogging: a back and forth conversation about a chosen topic that we conduct via email, and then publish on both blogs. This idea grew out of the habit that Jan and I have of sending each other long, frequent emails, which we do mainly because we are good friends with much in common. But in bouncing ideas back and forth, we've also had some enriching and stimulating discussions about our painting processes, teaching, art business and the ups and downs of our art lives.
Because this is a new idea for both of us, we are interested to see how our readers respond, and this will help us decide whether to continue co-blogging now and then. Please feel free to comment!
We decide to begin with the topic of Critique, a subject we've both delved into in the past in our individual writing and teaching. In addition, Jan is scheduled to teach a 5-day class in June at Cullowhee Mountain Arts
in North Carolina called Visual Language and the Art of Critique
, so the topic is timely.
J: Critique is so important to the development of an artist, and I wish that I'd had a workshop like the one I'm giving in June available to me earlier on in my art career. But do you think a person would perhaps be intimidated to take a course that is about Critique?
R: Maybe--critique does have a fairly scary reputation! But it might help to demystify the word a bit. Basically critique is just a conversation about a work of art, your own or someone else's, right? Focused and perhaps intense, but not something that has to be judgmental or harsh.
J: The word critique carries quite a lot of baggage and can seem to be only focused on the negative. I'm thinking of it as learning a visual language, learning a way of looking rather than in a critical sense.
R. Can you say more about that?
J: Sure, what I mean is that in verbal communication, we choose which words to use and how to put them together to best communicate our thoughts and ideas. We learn this at an early age, how to write a paragraph, how to write an essay. We don't throw words and punctuation on a page and expect them to communicate. Should we do the same with images? Seems to me that we don't learn how to analyze visual communication in the same way. I'm interested in how we make marks, how we structure a work of art.
R: That's a great analogy to written communication. It brings to mind another aspect of writing that carries over into visual communication--editing. I seem to talk about that a lot in my workshops. What is the main idea, and what supports it, and what is just excess, unrelated? I think this analogy to written language is also useful in countering the idea some people have that abstraction is only random mark-making without intent or structure. We need to use visual language in a conscious way--at least at the point when we step back and evaluate our own work-- if we hope to communicate our intentions.
J: It's difficult to get any opinions on our work after we leave art school. And if we didn't go to art school, there are few places to learn this. How have you learned to assess your own work?
R: In my college classes, especially in grad school, critique really WAS pretty negative, sometimes... so I started critiquing myself ahead of time to try and prevent whatever negative response might be coming. I would try to imagine what various instructors or other students might find to pick on, without understanding my own intentions or what I wanted in the work. Not a very good strategy but I bet it's a pretty common way to get through art school!
Once I got away from college, it took a few years for me to lose the negative voices in my head and to focus on my own path. Gradually I started to develop my own criteria for what I want in my work, and at some point I made a list, which I keep posted in my studio, of things I aim for(for example: complexity, authenticity, presence, tension.) I can refer to it when I am stuck or assessing if something is done and ask myself if the painting reflects these criteria or not. How about you?
J. Before I taught myself the elements and principles of design, which I never learned in art school, I always judged my work in the old gut reaction way. After we've been painting for a while, we get better at this: simply sensing what is working or what is not working in a painting. The gut reaction method is this: put the painting up on the wall, in an area you will pass by quite often. After a period of time-a day, a week-f you still like looking at the painting, you know that it's working and that it's finished. If you don't feel that way, you know that there's something else to do and most often you'll know exactly the area that needs the work. Sometimes the entire painting needs the work! Ha! Another way I've judged my work is to put it away for a few weeks or months and look at it with new eyes when I pull it out again. This is usually a pretty good method, but sometimes we just don't have that time. I haven't had a list of requirements for my work. I think that's so interesting that you have that. I have always based my assessment on the feeling of the work, and really, I still do. Even when I can more easily deconstruct my work now, in the end, it's still the gut reaction that is most important to me. Do those criteria ever change for you? Are some more important than others?
R: I don't refer to my list all the time (I do a lot of gut-level reacting too) but when I do, sometimes it opens my eyes in a new way. Although I have added and reworded some things, the list doesn't seem to change much over time--although the way I express the criteria does, as my work evolves. (That's one of the things on the list actually--that I see growth or new insight in the work.)
I'd say the more conceptual criteria on my list are the most important--for example that the work has authenticity, authority, presence. And really, those are gut-level judgments--going back to your comments. Hard to define, I just feel whether they are present. Some of the more specific items on the list, for example that there is contrast or a complex surface, have more to do with the deconstructing and analyzing you refer to. So probably we have close to the same process in this. It is a combination of intuitive, gut level response and more thoughtful analysis when something seems to call for that.
So this leads me to wonder, how does this process play out when it's not self-critique, but instead looking at the work of other artists, or when they look at ours? how does that conversation get going? I presume this is where visual language becomes very important.
J. I think there are certain choices we make in our work that are particular to each of us. I'm interested in teaching how to take apart a painting, just as we learned to take apart a paragraph to understand it when we were in grade school, so that we can see what is going on in the work. What makes a painting work? How do we describe it? By learning a visual language that is easy to understand, we can better understand what we are personally interested in. One big question we all ask, is who am I? What do I like? How does my work differ from yours? That sort of thing. They are difficult questions, but by learning to understand what it is that we are personally interested in, by learning to take apart our paintings (and others'), by talking about our work, putting words on it, we can help each other with those questions. Learning how to understand your own work is crucial to moving forward as an artist. I think my background in Psychology has given me a more personal orientation toward critique, where I see it as learning about ourselves, our choices and preferences, as well as about our painting. They can't really be separated can they?