Accepting Critique and Rejecting Criticism

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In pure form, it's easy to tell the difference between useful critique and painful, useless personal criticism. Critique is about the painting and most often solves a problem visible as soon as you understand the details. It becomes an "Oh wow..." moment of learning. Criticism causes more of a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach that you'll never be any good at it and leaves you afraid of being laughed at.

Criticism is usually personal about you. It's often got an agenda, like discouraging you from learning art so that you'll take up a different profession or don't have anything to take pride in. It may be sentimentalized with claims that it's for your own good and only to protect you, but the real goal of toxic criticism is to discourage you from doing art at all -- from learning how.

So a gut indicator of whether critique is real or not is how you feel about it. Did it give you the answer to something that has been bugging you for ages, because the critiquer sees something you could change in the painting that would improve it? That's useful critique. Usually, critique is more gentle and less commanding. It often comes as a suggestion.

"You know, if you shade the sky lighter at the horizon and darkest at the top of the page, it really makes the landscape look real. I've seen that in a lot of medieval manuscripts and it looks so cool when I see it done. You might try it sometime. If you wanted to give a flat abstract look to the sky by not shading it, then this is a very smooth application and it comes across the way you intended."

That's critique at its clearest -- a little embedded lesson from someone who knows one or more little tidbits of art-knowhow than you do and freely admits that it might not give you the effect you want. Good critique accepts that the painting is yours. The garish little illustration on this page was a five minute gesture about the emotion "Anxiety" and was never intended to be a realistic figure drawing.

Yet a child giving critique could look at me and seriously say "The butt looks real but you made that lady blue, and I don't think there are any blue people. It's also sorta sloppy looking. Is she on fire or what?"

My symbolism, blue for the figure's fear and depression, might be lost on the kid. I picked a gross example because very often in discussing art, critique can be mistaken for criticism and criticism mistaken for critique. A reviewer may go into a subjective rant and flame an artist's style into the ground on personal taste, say some things in general about art that are true -- and make as much sense in relation to that artist as complaining because there aren't any blue people to someone who liked and understood the work being reviewed.

Reviewers get paid a lot of money for having opinions and delivering them with good lines. If it's witty good reading, oh yeah, it will sell newspapers and the reviewer's done a good job. It's irrelevant what the reviewer likes. At least half of any good reviewer's readers are following in reverse -- liking everything the reviewer hates, loathing everything the reviewer loves, but enjoying the prose.

These are big high-paid verbal bullies whose purpose is to entertain. The good ones do convey enough information about their loves and loathes that any reader can make up their own mind whether it's the artist or the reviewer that's a crock. Reading a column like that can send chills up the spine of almost any artist though.

It's too easy to remember the playground when one kid would start in like that and the worst times when the whole class joined in with that kid. Then throw in all the well-meaning adults who would feel a lot less afraid for you if you had the kind of job they think of as secure, and you get it from all directions. Many people do not believe that anyone they know could become a real artist.

To me, as soon as you pick up your oil pastels and something to draw on with them, you're a real artist -- a human being who is making marks to express an idea, observation or emotion. I'm not going to mistake you for the painting. I just painted a blue little lady scared of being screamed at. While I was also the fat kid who got bullied, she looked better with thick long hair as a painting and went from androgynous to feminine. Age is indeterminate from five on upward, stocky but not real fat, the idea was to make her an "everyman" or how it feels to be that scared of people.

Myself, I'm an egotistic middle aged white man who knows he can draw well, knows the world is also full of incredible masters who could draw better on their worst day than my best and likes it that way. I know this will be true right up till I'm dead and someones says "his body of work is complete." Total honesty would include whatever kindergarten scribbles happened to survive in that body of work.

I'm confident because I paint and draw better than I used to and not as well as I will. I treasure real Critique. The more I hang out with actual practicing artists, both professionals and equally skilled amateurs who'd rather do something else to live on but spend as much time and passion on their art, the more good real critique I get.

The best defense I ever found against that social anxiety was to stop and criticize the criticism. Ask whether this person's comments actually hold any useful information about my future paintings. Sometimes mocking vicious personal criticism can have little nuggets of useful critique or at least information. It'll tell me that person dislikes some subjects or styles more than others, gets actively offended at some, and may have a personal reason why they'd be happier if I quit drawing.

That's more common than you think.

The blends do need to be sorted out for two reasons. One, I don't want to miss any technical information or market trends the criticism happened to include to support the emotional argument that I am Not Worthy To Be Or Become An Artist. The other is that understanding their reasons why they think I should quit doing something I enjoy this much helps me to dismiss it as an unreasonable demand.

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Jealousy is one of the most common reasons for discouragement. It may actually be the most common in Western culture.

The underlying message of "You talentless idiot, everything you do is pathetic, derivative, cliche, cheesy and garish" often boils down to "I wanted to be an artist more than anything and I chickened out because people picked on me like that. I didn't have the nerve to do it. When I see you happy playing with those freaking crayons, I'd like to strangle you because your worst efforts are better than what I did when I had some."

Sometimes they'll even come out and say that. "Every time I see you working on your art, I just shrivel up inside and feel small. It depresses me so much to see you do it. I wish you'd stop."

The only answer I've ever had for that is more for me to remember it's the right thing to say to stay sane, because it rarely sinks in. Once in a while it does and then I get a new student. "Well, if you miss it that much, here. I've got another set. Have some paper. Sit down and fool around with it. Believe me, I was a lot lousier at this than you ever were years ago, I've just been doing it for a long time because I enjoy it."

"But I can't even draw a straight line."

"Good, that's what rulers are for and most things have crooked lines. Seriously, it's all tricks and knowhow. The more you do it, the better you get at it."

I push back, and sometimes these friends will wind up taking it up. Or they'll admit that they don't enjoy it and would rather play music or dance or do something else, in which case they have no basis to go running down my wanting to spend time with all those colors.

Negative personal criticism is irrational even when it is literally true.

Here are some translations.

"If you got any success with it you'd have a swelled head and I couldn't stand to live with you."

Translation: I'm a control freak and my having top priority in your life at all times and my hand on your wallet controlling you is going to be threatened if you start feeling confident about being able to do anything on your own.

I have yet to know anyone who learned to draw, then got a "swelled head" and became an egotistic jerk -- unless that person was an egotistic jerk to begin with and just added one more thing to one-up people about to his or her list of things to get snobby with. It's like being called Selfish -- you can be pretty sure the person who said it wants something from you that you don't want to give. Usually these demands are unreasonable.

When they're reasonable, thinking it through can help you see that yes, spending some time with your main squeeze ought to be a priority in life along with your art. Or that quitting your job before selling even one drawing might be an unreasonable risk unless you've got the savings to go through art school before you need to.

Art school makes a difference, especially the good ones. They teach people a wealth of skills that do take years of study whether you get them in classes the way you were used to getting information as a kid, or get them on your own by trial and error supplemented with books and articles. If art could not be taught, an entire industry of art instruction would dry up and vanish.

Art skills can be taught. Anyone who has mastered them can communicate effectively using images. Whether they sell has to do with whether the people who like them and want them have any spending money to buy art. Any good critique will give you new art skills, that's what it's for.

See through the mind games. Shut down the voices of the past. Most people get shut down about art very early in school, it's one of the nastiest things school does to people. The kids whose parents wanted their kid to have Art Talent who actually did enjoy drawing were the ones who wound up labeled Talented.

They got singled out early and pounded for it regularly, that was me. At the same time I got that same flavor of discouragement over my writing even though I could tell that I was equally precocious about it. You can see a difference in skill level if the other kids are having trouble composing a real sentence and your essay was three paragraphs that made sense and had multiple complex sentences well constructed.

Everyone else got told they couldn't draw, pressured into the belief that if they tried they would be laughed at and picked on for arrogantly believing in themselves. What that did was make kids compliant and obedient, dulled them down so that they wouldn't spend all of Geography period doing studies of palm trees instead of studying the map of Egypt.

So this same process of filtering out real critique from personal criticism, especially that intended to discourage you from even trying art, has to be applied to childhood memory as well. I had to think it through about both my art and my writing.

I discovered through some journal and introspection that every adult who discouraged my writing and encouraged my art had some reason to prefer the idea of my being an artist and hate the idea of my being a writer. It's a long personal story. It took many years of journaling to really sort out all of it -- just for one example, I was a non-Catholic kid in a Catholic school.

A public school English teacher probably would've encouraged my writing on sight of the first essay and been happy I was interested in the subject. But that school had very set dogma and ideas that it was teaching and my beliefs contradicted them. I couldn't help being a heretic as soon as I put any sentence down on paper. It took being an adult to even understand half the Protestant heresies that shocked them so much.

Something like that, I stand back and don't blame them. I understand why they felt that way and agree to disagree. They're not in charge of how I spend my life. I am. I have to be responsible for what I do with it and I proved all of them wrong when I did start selling stories and articles. I was good enough to learn and I'm good enough to do it.

This is true of any of the arts. If you would rather be a musician than an artist, follow that dream. Just don't let people who have their own reasons to make you feel small and discourage you from expressing yourself have their way -- it's brainless to actually agree with them and hurt yourself. It won't please the control freaks and it won't enrich your life.

Someone giving real critique will cheer when you improve.

So be critical of the criticism -- sort it carefully because useful critique will accelerate your growth. It'll solve so many of the conundrums that drive you nuts, like how to mix purple or how to get a clean line or how to make clouds that don't look like cotton balls.

When you're feeling down, paint something to express it and then move on. Chances are when you're done painting your feelings, the process of painting was so much fun that you're happily distracted into thinking about color and blending and texture instead anyway.