Recent emails asking for advice prompted me to give further thought to the business of giving advice. Believe me, I’m deeply honoured when people trust me with a half dozen jpegs and the question, “What do you think?” Further, it’s exciting to know that some subscribers are getting valuable advice from other subscribers.
As noted by “Buttonwood” in The Economist magazine, “If you ask enough people you will eventually find someone who will tell you what you want to hear.” Recent studies show investment gurus make big bucks telling investors what stocks to buy, sell and hold. I’ve always suspected that these advisors make more dough by advising than by investing. We artists often give advice for free.
Because of the unpredictable nature of life, humans may be hard-wired to ask for advice. A few others may be hard-wired to give it. Some psychologists think the main benefit of getting advice is to avoid personal regret — if someone’s advice is bad or disappointing, it’s their fault, not yours.
Funnily, many advice-seekers already know the answer to their questions. They just want to hear it from someone else. But they also know that experienced eyes can often see faults and weaknesses and may be in a position to suggest fixes. I advise advice-givers to follow the advice of the Roman lyric poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus, generally known as Horace: “Whatever advice you give, be brief.”
1. “Your work is interesting.” You’re safe here because all work, even bad work, is interesting.
2. “This part is excellent.” There’s always a good part in any painting, and this observation relaxes the receiver and permits you to home in on what you think they need to know.
3. Now comes the part where you need to be of optimum value to the asker. Try to figure out the one main thing you think might truly be of use to them. It may be about composition, drawing, colour or whatever. Try to make your advice specific, illuminating and memorable. Don’t confuse people with lesser concerns.
For what it’s worth, that’s my system. For the record, it would be great to hear your advice on the delicate art of advising.
PS: “Maybe you can’t give advice to an artist.” (Louise Nevelson)
Esoterica: I often think the best advice is what I call “Osmotic advice.” This is where casual remarks (particularly in workshops) are overheard and inadvertently soaked up. It helps if the remarks were intended for someone else, but in your private wisdom you secretly know it was intended for you. Here’s an example from the great workshopper Tony van Hasselt: “The ‘s’ curve can be found in the human form, in animals, plants, flowers, in anything alive. Keep the straight lines for structures, created from ‘dead’ materials.” You can take that sort of raw gold into your studio and forge with it. Tens of thousands of specific gems like this one can be found in our Resource of Art Quotations.
Tailor advice to artist’s level
by Celeste McCall, Southlake, TX, USA
It’s very important to know the level of the artist you are giving advice to (as a teacher you should be a good artist — student be wary otherwise).
John Q. Public should not give advice nor should any artist seek their advice. Artists ‘see’ differently than most John Q. Public (Neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone’s book Vision and Art offers proof.
Beginners need basics yet encourage them to move forward and only deal with design and techniques.
Intermediate artists both want and need hard advice/opinions/examples to learn to ‘speak’ through their paintings by using elements and principles of art.
Master artists don’t give one horsehair about what anyone else thinks.
Who paints masterpieces? As Nicholas Simmons said, “If you have to ask, then you don’t know.”
Ask the artist
by Cello Bennett, Cape Coral, FL, USA
In my dual role as vocal instructor and promoter of the visual arts, I am often asked for advice. I have recently learned that asking the artist, “How do you feel about your work? What do you think it still needs?” is an effective way to help her/him be part of the process, rather than merely someone receiving critique. This lesson was brought home clearly when I listened to Metropolitan Opera Conductor Paul Nadler, a good friend of mine, speaking with a young singer during an audition she sang for him. After general positive remarks, he asked her, “Where do you think you are right now, vocally and musically?” and “What would you like to achieve with your singing?” Then he used her input as a jumping-off point for offering suggestions on what direction she could take.
Going forward I intend to use this approach whenever asked for advice. Instead of creating roadblocks, it opens up avenues to a fruitful dialogue.
When work is really poor
by Bill Skrips, Blairstown, NJ, USA
This is one tough issue. It is quite easy to give empty, general praise but where the rubber meets the road is to be constructively critical. Unless you are someone who is willing to pronounce devastation on the advice seeker, you have to work really hard and open your mind to find redeeming elements in some folk’s work.
I recently heard about an NYU professor passing this off as advice to an artist: “If you think this work is passable, you are in the wrong business — have you looked into accounting?” Why not just refuse to give any comment and be a better person for it?
In this I think is where we find teachers who excel: even if their students prove to be poor or mediocre artists, their mentors have tried to further their path as opposed to shutting doors in their faces.
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Try discussing content
by Annie Cicale, Fairview, NC, USA
As an art teacher for over 30 years, much of it in workshops where I meet people on Saturday morning and say good bye on Sunday, giving advice is dicey. I don’t know their background, and what they are capable of hearing, so I am cautious with advice. Many have not been to art school, so the language of design is new to them, as they are trying to learn to compose, draw and work with color all in one fell swoop. I’ve heard of more people having been turned off to “doing” art by overly zealous critiques in workshops than have benefited from them. So I limit my advice to just the topic at hand, rather than the big picture. I try to point out what I see, without a value judgement of, “That’s right — that’s wrong.” A few design pointers help, but I try to spend most of the time discussing content; does this image portray what you want to say? However, there are some basic mistakes that many beginner/intermediate students make, and I try to catch those if I can. Radioactive plants, with the ‘background’ painted as a contrasting outline before filling in the rest of the space, are one of the most common, although one student loved the idea that her peonies were radioactive, and developed a whole series of them.
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Step away from the painting
by Arnie Casavant, Chelsea, MA, USA
Long ago I learned that a few kind words about someone’s painting goes along way and there are kind words for all. One should remember that when folks put the first brush stroke to canvas that they have entered into a love affair with that painting. Wiping away, or starting over, is a very difficult thing to do even if it were the best for the painting. They are married to that painting from the first touch of paint to the surface. I’ve enjoyed saying to my students, when they reach that, “I don’t like it” point, to “Step Away from The Painting.”
Stepping away, like starting over, is difficult to do, almost as difficult as reaching for a tube of paint when the blob on your palette is running out. Stepping away provides the viewer and me with a different perspective where, most of the time, all I have to say is, “See, it’s not as bad as you think.” As you know, all paintings have a viewing distance (some of mine from a few miles away), but when we stand too close for the entire process we can dig an “unhappy” hole for ourselves. Not a good place to be for either the student, or instructor.
So, my first comment when asked for advice on a painting is, “Let’s turn around, walk away, clear our heads like we have never seen the painting before and slowly turn and “look” at it for the first time.” It’s a wonderful moment of enlightenment.
Step up to encouragement
by Lin Stepp, Knoxville, TN, USA
Whenever you walk with some success in any professional venue, people often ask for advice. In creative judgment areas — often highly subjective — advice needs to be considered carefully. In a sense, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Even among pieces of art, writing, or music with popular appeal or timeless, proven value, we don’t all like it.
Another point about people asking of their art, with eager eyes, “What do you think?” should be the realization that they are unsure of their work and its value. Self-esteem is at stake with the question. In some instances, they are questioning their own talent and ability, wondering if they should move on or not. When this is the case, words of advice are powerful and the content of that advice has to be carefully considered.
Your tips on offering some positive affirmation before offering a specific tip for constructive improvement would be a good guideline for anyone who is asked for advice in a creative endeavor. Another effective method for offering advice is the “sandwich approach” which (1) Gives a positive comment or observation, (2) Offers a well-thought-out constructive comment in the middle, and (3) Closes with a positive comment of encouragement. This method sweetens the needed advice or criticism one needs to give in any situation — professional or personal. I utilize it in creative venues when asked for art or writing tips–in teaching, and in everyday situations.
I like this quote by William Ward related to this topic: “Flatter me and I may not believe you. Criticize me and I may not like you. Ignore me and I may not forgive you. Encourage me and I will not forget you.”
(RG note) Lin Stepp is a writer and a painter and her books are available on Amazon.
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‘The Hamburger Method’
by Peter Wright, Vernon, BC, Canada
I was a member of Toastmasters International for many years. They have Evaluation Contests for speeches. Toastmasters recommends the “Hamburger Method” for giving advice. It’s a piece of meat between to two layers of bun. The first layer of bread is the “find something good to say” part like your example: “Your work is interesting.” (and why it is). The meat is the advice. I personally like to “add” to what the person has done constructively, if possible. The last layer of bread could be “This part is excellent.” With expansion on that.
So, the advice starts friendly and encouraging, has something to add, and ends with more encouragement. All I did was rearrange what you already said. I’ve seen this method win many Evaluation Contests. For the receiver of the evaluation, it is really appreciated as it’s so constructive and encouraging. The end allows us to walk away with a smile, saving face.
Questions are the best advice
by Bobbo Goldberg, Orlando, FL, USA
Oh, advice. I’m an avid and willing listener, but advice is a different matter. When I trained as a life coach, some of my beliefs were reinforced. I’ve gotten encouragement elsewhere, too.
1) Most people know their situation far better than I do. Therefore,
2) The answers they need, in the proper timing and dosage, are within them.
3) Questions, not answers, are the road to good advice.
4) Sometimes all it takes is another eye on the problem, a different perspective, something they might have missed in all the angst.
5) Good idea to listen with eyes as well as ears. Note body tension, defensive postures.
6) Stephen Covey, in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, makes two excellent suggestions:
a) Diagnose before you prescribe, and
b) Don’t impose your autobiography on others. Their lives are not your life.
7) What may work for you may be inappropriate for another.
8) There is no arguing with “yes, but.” Sometimes, despite claims to the contrary, a solution is not really desired.
9) People are more likely to act upon solutions at which they arrive, than those that come from another.
10) When my desire to help means more to me than it does to them, I’m doing it for me, not for them.
Note that none of this is intended as advice. I mostly believe in good, active, empathic listening. Of course, evaluation of artwork, when solicited, is a specific kind of request, more a sharing of information than actual advice, or so it seems to me.
Advice for the receptive
by Cindy McDonnell
Rule #1: The person has to be open to the advice or don’t bother giving it. There is no upside to giving advice to someone who’s not receptive but there is plenty of downside. If they’ve paid for a workshop/lessons, they are generally open to it or they wouldn’t be there. Further, if you don’t have credibility, be careful about giving advice.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Richard Woods of Sparks, Nevada, USA, who wrote, “People who think they know it all are really annoying to those of us who do.”
And also Susan Greer who wrote, “One bit of value I would like to add to your suggestions is the following quote: ‘Before you speak, think — Is it necessary? Is it true? Is it kind? Will it hurt anyone? Will it improve on the silence?’ (Sai Baba)”
And also >Karen Weihs of Asheville, NC, USA, who wrote, “Teaching is hard work, and you have to know a few psychological tricks to help with the art-speak. It is a different form of art; it teaches you. However, it is not for lightweights.”
And also Kathy who wrote, “Please help me receive your weakly [sic]letters.”
(Editor note): Read what artists have written and what Robert calls “Zingers” here.
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