"Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great." Mark Twain

Surviving Workshop Critiques
© 1999 Nita Leland

Making art is a solitary activity, but sooner or later most of us want someone to see our art and give us feedback. You might ask your next door neighbor, but if your neighbor isn't an artist, you probably won't learn anything that will help you improve or grow as an artist. So stick your neck out and get an artist's critique. Frequently this means taking a workshop and participating in daily critiques. What can you expect to happen?

It depends on the group and the artist doing the critique. If you're lucky, you'll be in a supportive group that wants to learn from an artist-critic who is there to help. A good critique helps you see not only where your weaknesses are, but also points out your strengths, for this is what you build on. If you're allowed to question the critic, be sure to ask about this. But don't get defensive about your work or you won't learn much of anything. Sometimes an artist will argue, "Well, what I was trying to do was this or that." Well, obviously, it didn't work, so why try to defend it? A better question would be, "If I wanted to do this or that in my next picture, what would be a good way to do it?"

Some artists give excellent critiques and view your work from the point of view of what you are trying to accomplish. Unfortunately, there are others who tell you how they would do it if it were their picture, and that may not be too helpful. I once took a marsh scene to critique. The main feature in the painting was the sky and the critic said the picture had too much sky in it. I have never figured out how you can have too much sky in a sky picture. He also said it needed a fisherman in a boat. Neither of these criticisms had any bearing on my picture, but if he had done it himself, that's how he would have done it.

Beware of a critique that is nothing more than a feel good session. Pin the critic down if you have specific questions about areas you think are weak. A different situation is when individuals in a group are permitted to add comments to the critic's remarks. Some use the opportunity to trash work they feel is their competition. Be sure you can trust your critics to be honest and not work from a private agenda. When you feel like you're getting a good--and fair--evaluation, listen carefully.

The most difficult part of criticism is figuring out what to do with what you've learned. In most cases, it's my opinion that you should take the lessons and use them on the next picture, unless you're in a workshop situation where you can make changes in the work being critiqued. On the other hand, if you believe in what you're doing, follow your instincts and don't ruin your picture by taking advice that doesn't ring true. Remember, critics usually try to be fair, but they're human and have their own biases. Use the criticism that works for you and discard the rest.

Learn to critique yourself and you'll handle criticism by others much better. See more about critiquing Your work in The New Creative Artist on pp. 163-165.

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