Sunday, June 29, 2014

How to Emotionally Handle a Critique

This is a tricky topic.  Anyone who has gone through some form of schooling or put themselves through gallery showings or has been subjected to a panel for approval for whatever art you're creating has been through a critique.  But it goes farther than that.  Anyone who has allowed another human being to see their work has been through a critique.  That being said… I'm going to add another element here… Anyone who has looked at their own art has been through a critique.

So what is a critique, and why is it so important that I know how to handle it emotionally?  A critique is the overall evaluation of…. anything really.  It applies specifically to art because artists as human beings tend to be creators and what we create tends to be for either ourselves or other humans to consume, so therefore where there is art there is critique.  And that's so simple.  It starts with the understanding that your creation is going to be seen by a human and a human is going to have a mental response because we're human and that's what we do.  It's natural, so don't get bent out of shape if that response is not what you wanted!  It's not the end of the world.

The way a person reacts is solely dependent on who that person is, the experiences they've had in their life, their level of knowledge worldly and locally, as well as their overall culture.  The only way someone is going to be 100% on par with another human being when viewing that art is if they share all these things in common.  That being said, the more open minded and understanding a person is the more likely they are going to be free to "understand" a certain stylistic choice of the artist and possibly react in a positive direction toward the goal of the artist.  It is also up to the artist to understand that there are other ways certain colors, images, and words can affect certain cultures other than their own so they're either prepared to explain otherwise or even change what they need to in order to be more effective in the message of the art…. if there is a message.  

There is a universal element as well to creating and viewing art.  It's the design of it.  We all have this engrained sense of visual or audio or other sensory type of balance.  Even taste.  A good meal isn't good unless all the right tastes are even.  Not too salty, not too spicy, not too anything…. These qualities typically lean toward the aesthetic side of our works and they have perimeters to follow or specifically be broken (yes, I said broken, because art shouldn't always be about following the rules but you can't break the rules until you've learned to follow them).

All of this can be summed up to this statement:  You can't please everyone.

So if I haven't lost you yet in my ramblings of what a critique essentially is, now I'm going to explain how to simply handle one.

Be humble.  You're not all knowing.  Especially as a student or early on, you better learn that quick.  If you're a student you chose to learn from your professors.  Don't complain about them trying to make you draw a cardboard box because that's not what you want to draw… what do you know what you want to do?  You're how old?  Probably 19… how many experiences have you had?  You graduated high school, broke your heart or someone else's…. maybe it was rough for you… you had to work, lost a parent, lost a close friend… someone you knew did drugs…. or you're bullied or maybe you are a bully.  Who cares?  You've done nothing, you are nothing, you don't know what you want to say and you don't know how to say it.  Get over yourself and draw the damn box.  You came to someone to learn something.  These people have been teaching probably longer than you've been alive so they know their stupid boxes and they could probably tell you what kind of artist you'll be by how you draw that box.  

Next is, be smart and understanding of the first thing I told you about other people's cultures disallowing them to understand what you're trying to say.  I had a teacher that was from South Korea.  She was a wonderful teacher but there were a few things (like conceptual words or even concepts themselves) that had no translation in her language, much less a level of understanding.  There were massive hurdles for her to jump in order to effectively handle teaching in the United States, and I appreciated that of her, I loved it!  And effectively became one of her best students for it.  But when she didn't understand something she would say "I'm not seeing what you're saying" but what she wanted was "please explain better what you're trying to do."  Instead of getting mad and quitting the conversation I'd stop and think harder, how would I explain the stylistic choice I made to someone not of my culture?  Once I had effectively explained my choices and she understood she would always be more positive toward what I had made.  Sometimes it's a lack of understanding that makes your work not as effective as you think it is.

And last.  Don't get emotional. When you're coexisting with other human beings it's a general rule of thumb to remember that the moment emotions enter a conversation, whoever had the emotion has already lost.  If someone tells you that your choice to draw/paint/write/photograph your kids or dead parents sucks…. IT'S NOT A PERSONAL ATTACK!  That thing you made is not your special whatever it is you are depicting, it's a work of art in representation of your personal life/memory and effectively only applies to you when you show it in a way that makes it personal.  So get over yourself and stop and look at what you've done from the perspective of another human being that may be looking at an over glorified walmart portrait of your kid or something to that nature.  So yes.  It sucks.  And probably wasn't an effective way to depict the assignment or goal of what you're trying to do…  I would fail you.  And if you're going through art school, I would stay away from the habit of depicting personal items unless you're very good at separating reality from your artwork.

Things you should do while in a crit.  

Never be a victim up front.  It's annoying.  Don't say "I know this sucks" or "I hate this piece," because you've shut out your viewer.  If you hated it, why did you make it?  If you were pressed for time or you woke up a different person than the person you were at 2am with a few beers, then you probably noticed some things that could have been improved and that's ok to say.  You CAN say "Now, looking at the way this is displayed I have spotted a few places I could improve such as…" But again, don't do it in the beginning.

First thing you do is explain your work.  Write it down if you have to, be prepared, it is a speech.  Answer these questions for yourself:
  • What's the assignment? Or personal goal?
  • What did you get out of this?
  • What do you want your viewer to get out of viewing it?
  • Is there a specific relevant concept?
  • What design choices did you make, and why?  For instance, line quality, shading techniques, lighting, textures… anything technical.  You made decisions every mark you made and you need to be aware of these choices because it will make you a better artist, but explaining why you did or didn't do something is highly effective for getting true crit ideas out of your viewers.

Once you've done your research speech now let everyone else speak.  If you're in a gallery setting your research speech is typically your artist statement or a statement you've provided for your piece of work so you're hoping that the viewer has taken the time to read these things, but if they haven't it's ok.  Be prepared to repeat yourself.

Let them ask questions, and answer them confidently.  You made these decisions with confidence, just because they're asking doesn't mean it was the wrong choice!

If someone says something negative.  Don't fret.  If you feel they're wrong, by all means reexplain what you're trying to accomplish and how what you did really was the only and/or best choice.  Like I mentioned before, my S. Korean teacher sometimes would say she didn't think a certain aspect was working but when I took the time to professionally explain why I thought it was working and how I put effort into deciding on that particular color/line or whatever, she would understand and suddenly love it.

If they're still not convinced please feel free to ask them questions "well, what do you suggest?" or "Can you explain why it's not effective?" and legitimately give them the opportunity to convince you otherwise.  This is a learning experience.  Other people may being thinking this but this person is the ONLY one to have the balls to actually say it.  If you still logically disagree it's ok, but be polite to them.  they put effort into thinking about your work and it just simply didn't happen in their mind.  That's not necessarily their fault.

But the most dangerous aspect of a crit…. no crit.  When you've superseded your audience and they have no advice for you…. it's time to get a new audience.  There should always be room for improvement.  I hated when people said that what I did was spot on or that they couldn't find somewhere to improve because I was my worst critique and I always saw where I needed to change.  But I wanted the best out of my crits because I wanted to learn more.  I thrived on negative crits.  I needed someone to say "this doesn't work," even if it was one wrong mark in a thousand.  Because I know I'm not perfect.  So I started asking the questions and making my viewers think.

For instance, ask these:

  • Does this image/design choice work best?  I was struggling with this choice over this and I couldn't decide 100%…
  • I wanted to do [insert something, color? line? word?] but I felt it did too much/not enough, what do you think?
  • Would you have done [insert a choice]?
  • Does this say [insert concept]

Of course trying to drive your audience to over think something can be difficult as well but it can be a fun and engaging scenario.  I always get nervous in a crit and I always hate talking to people about my artwork but you know what?  I have to, so I get over it.  I am not being killed or dying so it's irrational and if I want to improve as an artist then I have to keep asking and pushing my viewers as much as they push me.

Happy critiquing =)

-no I didn't discuss unruly crit creatures here.  If someone is rude, be super polite and professional and they will be seen as the idiot.  Don't get flustered and learn when to spot a troll.  But this article isn't about how to critique, it's about how to handle one!

original post can be found at my website:

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