How Not to Act During a Critique

The first time I participated in an art critique was a complete disaster. It seemed that everyone fit into two categories: those who took it well, and those who became incredibly defensive about what was being said.

The latter are sometimes people who aren’t actually participating in the critique for anything but praise and are often overly-critical of others’ work. It’s part of the territory that some artists can be self-aggrandizing. On the other hand, some artists who don’t take a critique well are simply more sensitive and take it as a personal slight. Here are a few tips on how to and how not to give and take criticism when it comes to creative endeavors. I specifically mention artwork, but much of this can also be applied to writing.

Critiques (especially written critiques) should usually follow this formula:

  1. An overview of how you reacted to the piece. Was it shocking? Colorful? Surreal? Initial impressions are important. Most viewers in galleries only view an artwork for a total of 30 seconds. Given that small window of time, first impressions are incredibly important.
  2. Next, a critique should include a few positives about the artwork. This serves two purposes: letting the artist know what they’re doing right so they can continue doing that, and softening the blow for the next step.
  3. Finally, a good critique will contain a few criticisms. Was the technique not up to par? Was the message not coming across? Anything that seems relevant is fair game. Just make sure that whatever critique you give is something that’s helpful, not harmful.

This is not set in stone, but it’s important, at the very least, to give positives with negatives. It’s a more balanced way to make sure that everyone better understands their artwork.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s get into some Do’s’ and “˜Don’ts.

Do’s:

  • Take everything with a grain of salt. Just because you get a criticism of your artwork, it doesn’t mean that you have to follow through with the suggestions.
  • Try to understand their motivations. If their motivation is to be an honest help and give helpful recommendations, it might be a good idea to consider their criticisms. If it’s obviously done to make the other person look better in some way or to chip away at your self-esteem, take that into account.
  • Take a look at what’s too far gone and what you can learn from. Sometimes it’s too late to make any changes to the artwork you’re currently working on. In those cases, consider what you’ve learned and apply it to your next piece.
  • For the most part, be polite. Even if you won’t be taking their advice, they put thought into what they were going to say, and are invested in making your work better. A simple “thank you” or “I’ll consider that” is a graceful way to accept a critique without actually committing to follow through.
  • Give as well as take. Don’t simply wait until it’s your turn to speak up; be conscious of each critique and give thoughtful feedback.
  • Be clear on the purpose of a critique beforehand. If the whole purpose of a critique is to help you feel better about something you’ve created, be up front about it. There will be some times when you’re unable to handle a critique. That’s completely normal. Just make sure that in these cases you either pass or simply remove yourself from the situation altogether, if possible.
  • Remember that different people have different styles, meaning that they work differently. Techniques that work for someone else may not work for you. This is a fine line though and is also a big don’t (see below.)

Don’ts:

  • Don’t be offended by criticism. Don’t get defensive. Whatever you do, do not start arguing. A critique of your artwork is not a critique of yourself. Most people who participate in a critique are there because they want to give and take criticism to make everyone’s work better. Those that aren’t are not worth getting upset over, and you can usually tell where they stand on this scale.
  • In my opinion, subject matter is not fair game. A critique is not the time to get into political debates. If you’re finding yourself unable to separate the two, simply say nothing. You have every right to engage in a discussion about the subject at a later time. But even incredibly offensive artwork can be well executed.
  • Don’t get upset at either a lack of critique or an overabundance of critique. Sometimes people will disagree about what works/doesn’t work in an artwork, which can cause a lot of discussion. This is not a reflection of your piece, just a reflection of the personalities and opinions in the room. On the other hand, do not get offended if you get little or no critique. This often happens when people are tired, it’s towards the end of a critique and everyone is “critiqued out,” or when people simply don’t have a strong reaction to an artwork for unknown reasons. Don’t take it to mean your artwork is bad.
  • Don’t critique the artist, critique the artwork. It can sometimes be incredibly tempting to over-critique an artwork because you don’t particularly like that person. Don’t do it. It’s investing too much effort into someone who may very well not take any of your criticisms into account anyway.
  • Don’t get into the “that’s my style” rhetoric. Give people credit; most can tell from looking at a piece what your style is like. If they see something that doesn’t jive with your style, or is incorrect within your style, listen.

Critiques are sometimes hard to swallow, but the above tips are just a few ways to keep calm and collected when involved in one. Creativity is naturally very introspective and personal, so it can be hard to separate yourself from your artwork. The very best advice that I can give is this: be kind to yourself. If you can believe that what you’re doing is amazing, but at the same time it’s flawed, then you’re halfway there.

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Bipolar Gurl

Bipolar Gurl is an artist and... well, that's about it really. Multi-talented she is not.

3 thoughts on “How Not to Act During a Critique”

  1. I really loved the critiques I was a part of during my creative writing undergrad modules. I had a good fortune of being among peers who delivered their comments eloquently, and who took them in good spirit.

    You don’t have to agree with everything that’s said about your work, and it’s perfectly okay to say so, but getting overly protective or defensive over what is esentially a work in progress just isn’t helpful.

  2. You are not your work is probably the biggest thing to bring to a critique. I know some works feel like you have poured the very essence of your being into them, but they are still not you. Critique is about what you have done, and possibly what you could be doing better. No one is there to hurt your feelings (at least they shouldn’t be) and the end goal is better art. You don’t get better if you don’t know what you are doing wrong.

    And critique is something that gets easier with practice. After four years of art school, there isn’t a whole lot of negative you can throw at my work that I can’t deal with. I got told some crazy shit in critique. “Her face doesn’t look shaded it just looks dirty,” is one of my favorites, “It must have hurt when he got in that car accident and dislocated his shoulder,” and “This reminds me of Tank Girl.” I have no idea if the last one was meant as a compliment or not, but Tank Girl is pretty awesome, so I chose to take it as one.

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