Art Critiques and Getting the Most from Input.

We all want to improve as artists don’t we? Growing as an artist is the key to more enjoyment and satisfaction as we tread this adventurous but sometimes frustrating path. Practice is a given, but what happens when we get stuck and don’t know how to improve. The brave artist seeks appropriate, constructive input and critique. Its a tougher challenge, though, than we sometimes realize. Asking someone to tell us what is wrong with our art, which is so often a personal expression of ourselves, is also risky, baring our soul to the cold frigid winds of potential rejection. So if its done, it ought to be done right. There is good input and bad input. How do you tell the difference? Here are some pointers from my experience.

The Bad

Critiques from…

  • Friends – This is rarely a very good idea. If you just need affirmation and a pat on the back, maybe. If they know something about art and are the kind of friend you can count on to be honest, perhaps, but this is rare. Most friends will tell you what you want to hear or won’t want to hurt your feelings. Its just a painting after all, why take the risk of offending and damaging a friendship. If you want genuine input to improve or fix what’s wrong, look elsewhere.
  • Online Groups or Forums – Often used for critique but rarely very productive. Mainly because its members are at so many levels of artistic development that getting an answer appropriate for your needs is nearly impossible. Not only that but its members are only given a snapshot of you and your work and no context (see 4th bullet below). Then there are the forum politics. All the people who WISH they were as good as you will compliment your work and tell you its not that bad along with the “I wish I were half that good” comments and the “wow” emoji . The really good artists might be straight with you, but in many forums most don’t want to come across as the bad guy or the know it all of the group. Again, look elsewhere if you want the real thing.
  • The Clueless – This should be obvious, but often it isn’t. Make sure critique is coming from someone who’s art sensibilities you actually respect. The individual who’s never lifted a paint brush nor shown any interest in real art is not going to give you good input. Duh right?! I once made the mistake of commenting to a friend about where, how, and to whom I should market my art. I quickly learned how well he fit the “clueless” category. He launched into an excited, impromptu presentation about how much money I could make airbrushing cartoon drag racers on t-shirts at the beach. He was pretty doggone passionate about it too. In his mind he just solved my problem.
  • Those Unfamiliar with You and Your Art – This is a segway into how to get good artistic input. You may have solved all the problems above by finding someone that has the unbiased experience, eye and sensibilities you respect but has never seen you or your work before. Again, this is rarely productive. There may be some elements they can spot right away but they also may point out things you never thought you had a problem with and not part of the problem you’re currently trying to solve. They also may be likely to comment based on their own style preferences not knowing you, your strengths, weaknesses or your preferred working style.

So… what to do? Well below are some ideas that might help get you on the right track.

The Good

Input from…

  • Study or Painting Groups – Many cities have artists guilds or artistic groups that meet and paint or draw together. No class, no instruction, just getting together and doing art. The great thing about this is you can paint, take a break, look at what others are doing, ask questions and trade ideas. Even the idle chit chat in such environments can be enlightening. Its one of the best developmental environments I know of. I speak from experience. I was in such a group of professional illustrators, all of which I considered very talented. We met once a week and I learned a ton just by observing and asking questions. Over time they got to know me and my work and offered their own suggestions. It was a fabulous experience that provided many turning points and leaps in the level of my work. If you’re serious about improving and have the time, look fervently for such groups. It usually won’t cost you a dime except time and art supplies.
  • Teachers and workshops – I realize this is an artistic luxury, but it has numerous advantages. Generally, when you enroll in a class or workshop, you already know what and how that teacher paints and you chose them because it dovetails with your artistic goals. In addition, you are giving an experienced, professional teacher a chance to get to know you and your art. Their input is much more likely to be exactly what you need. Classes also offer a group environment which can play an additional positive role as suggested in the previous point. You’ll likely be classmates with other artists equally serious about what they’re learning, providing the same developmental catalyst as a study group – a perfect set up for exciting levels of artistic development.
  • Willing Local Professionals – You may be able to find and impose on some local art professionals you know or have heard about for a one time or occasional critique – in your child’s school, from work contacts, from church, wherever. But the challenge here is giving them a good overview of where you are in your artistic journey (see my 4th bullet under “The Bad”). Worthwhile critique from someone who’s had limited exposure to you and your work needs context. Show them pieces that demonstrate your progression. Before and after stuff. Good, better, best stuff. DO NOT show them one piece and simply ask them what they think or what’s wrong with it. Show them a work range that will give them a gauge of where you’ve come from and how you’ve improved. Couple that with very specific questions about what you’re having the most trouble with. Otherwise, you will be at the mercy of random critiques that may point out something not even close to being on your radar or a critique twenty steps down the road from your current stage of development. [Side Note: In addition to being overwhelmed with critique requests, this is one of the reasons I decline doing critiques for viewers on my YouTube channel. Not enough history, context and knowledge of where each artist is. My critique could be way off the mark of what’s specifically needed for their development or way over their head developmentally.]
  • DIY – Sure, why not? Failing all else, critique it yourself. “But Steve, how does that help? I don’t know what I need to do!” Many self taught artists out there, and I’m talking really good ones, have learned how to do this. Firstly, you need specific goals, a problem solving mentality and great inspiration from other outstanding artists you love. Secondly, you need to be unwaveringly persistent at comparing your art to the best examples of the artist you hope to be. This can be very daunting unless you try to break it down and analyze the “how” of those artist’s work. What is so different about their tree or flower or portrait? What is their process? Get specific. If you can’t find the answer right away keep digging. Don’t give into the futile feeling that their talent is a mystery of the universe that will never be solved. I can guarantee you its not. Its like watching Houdini. What one moment seems like an astounding mystery, later becomes quite simple once you learn how its done. It may take practice but its demonstrable and achievable. Devote your thinking to solving specific problems. We’re in a day now when books, DVDs, videos or online workshops of our favorite artists are easy to find and access. Gobble them up and digest the process with relish, then dissect it and compare it with yours. Its easy to jump to the end of the story, so to speak, and compare the whole of your art with the whole of theirs and believe its an impossible mountain to climb. Awe of another artist’s work is fine but channel it into curiosity not a “why bother” attitude. Those artists you love didn’t get there overnight and they probably possess a thousand little jewels of knowledge and experience that took them decades to uncover. Start digging and just try to find the next one, then the next. One day you’ll turn around and realize you have your own treasure trove of knowledge and experience.

Want serious, appropriate critique? Look for it in the right places. You’ll be a much better artist for it.

Author: Steve Mitchell

Fine artist, illustrator, designer for over 30 years. But lately my mind's on watercolor.