Recently, Jane Murdoch Adams of Toronto, Ontario, Canada wrote, “I’m part of a 55-member artist-collective gallery. New members have suggested that we create a process to critique and give feedback to those who want it. I’m trying to convene a think tank to mull over this idea. It’s tricky and could end in tears! We have so many questions as to how to do it. How, for example, do we make sure the process is objective, positive and encouraging? We don’t want to upset people. Is a crit forum even worth doing?”
Thanks, Jane. Here are a few thoughts:
Collective crits usually don’t work very well. There’s a tendency to be kind, supportive, gracious, inclusive and pleasant. To grow in art you need to be a rugged individualist who pilots your own spaceship. Kindly crits may not be much better than your mom’s. Further, as well as a vindictive barn-burner, there’s always a long-winded, self-ordained pontificator. As Lao Tzu (4th Century BCE) pointed out, “Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know.”
If you have to have a crit, consider an anonymous one. One way to do this is to put envelopes on each work and invite members to silently stew over them and anonymously put their brief suggestions on file cards. Upon opening the envelopes, artists can find everything from practical info to “This person should not be in this collective — he’s not ready.” It makes for a fun evening.
Perhaps the most valued crit is one that is given by an independent outsider — a respected artist one day and an art dealer another day. The difference of opinion between these two critters can be alarming.
Another useful and democratic system is to simply ask your own members to anonymously pick the five best and the five worst. You need a handout list of titles with a place to tick them off. With peer artists, hired gurus, or even folks off the street, no matter what the style or type of art, there’s often a surprising consistency of opinion.
Just for practice, we’ve put a selection of Jane’s work at the bottom of this letter. We’ve included her email so you can correspond to her directly. If you want your remarks to be anonymous, send them to us and we’ll quietly pass them on. She’s tough — she won’t cry.
PS: “What a genius, that Picasso. It’s a pity he can’t paint.” (Marc Chagall)
Esoterica: Commercial galleries function best as dictatorships. In my experience the benevolent ones tend to fail. Collectives, because of their democratic nature, can also be plagued by lower standards. Dictatorships expel the weak and the imposters. The best-run commercial galleries maintain genre balance and artist bailiwick, understand their market, share the magic they believe in and dictate with their own character and preferences. Depending on their integrity and modus operandi, a few are known to regularly and brutally bump off weak artists or poor sellers — no discussion necessary. In artists and galleries alike, it’s survival of the fittest.
Jane Murdoch Adams
by Natalie Fleming, St. Charles, MO, USA
I belong to a water media society in which critiques are always kind, generous and not very informative. I also belong to a group of 8 artists who work in watercolors, acrylic, oil and fabric art. Their critiques are frank, often not complimentary, but with suggestions on what they think would make the work better. These suggestions are open to others’ opinions and can be accepted or rejected without hard feelings. We have all remained friends, and I find the fellowship and crtiques valuable.
Advice for critique groups
by Russ Williams
Interesting and surprising letter. Critique groups often work quite well for writers (despite the same risk you mention), so I’d expect similar systems would work well for like-minded artists. (If you are right, I wonder what the difference is.)
A key is to have a group which shares the common goal of critiquing their works so they can improve (as opposed to just saying nice stuff to encourage each other, and as opposed to just trashing each other’s works to feel smugly superior to each other — another common risk).
Some useful techniques/rules:
Make sure that the goals and procedures of the group are clear to all and accepted by all.
Critique the work, not the creator.
Say something positive if possible, not just all negative, about the work under critique. Say what does work as well as what doesn’t work.
Don’t try to make the work conform to your own style or preferences: critique it in the context of the style, goal, intended audience etc of the creator.
Don’t go off on time-wasting tangents (“This picture reminds me of a similar one which I saw on a trip in Japan in 2008, by an artist whose name I forget but it will come to me in a minute, I’m sure, anyway, it was a lovely woodcut print, blah blah blah”)
The artist being critiqued can request any and all feedback, or request specific types of feedback (e.g. “I am unhappy with the faces on the people, so I welcome suggestions on how to improve them.”)
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by Penny Markley, Winthrop, ME, USA
I have been part of a group that has been painting together once a week for years. We have a critique at the end of each session. We find it helpful. Even though we all paint in different styles and have different tastes, we can be helpful in suggesting something that is puzzling or unresolved. We also point out aspects of a work that we particularly like. We sometimes joke about painting by committee, but we each are free to reject any suggestion we disagree with. I find that during the critique of my work, I sometimes disagree only to find out upon reflection, the suggestions are worth trying. We do have a pontificator, but we bluntly keep him under control. We limit the works to be critiqued to two each. The pontificator used to bring in four or five.
I have found that you shouldn’t bring a work for a critique, when what you really want is a pat on the back. It is most helpful with works that you feel have some promise, but that you are not satisfied with and are not sure how to improve. These critics have become some of my best friends.
One excoriates, one encourages
by Donna Veeder, Utica, NY, USA
We used to have a painting group that met at a local art school, and painted with no teacher much of the time. Once a quarter, we invited one of the Art School’s teachers to come and do a critique for us, not always the same one. These critiques could be extremely different! One would excoriate us; another would encourage us. Most were polite, but that man who thought of us as reactionaries, figure painters (YUK!), was often not. I found his critiques not to be too helpful. We loved the one man who came who always found something good to say first and then gave his honest opinion. We respected his work as we did the man who was too tough, also. I think one always has to be respectful and then help the person on to the next step. One of our critics had been our former teacher. He was really good at seeing what direction your work was taking and telling you that, pointing it out to you. Sometimes we just do not see that.
In a situation where the works are for sale, you do not want to let just anyone come in. That makes for a lower common denominator. You want a higher one. You need a policy on who you will accept. The group should keep the right to tell someone that she/he is not living up to standards.
I belong to another arts center and, lately, we have had some shows of works by teachers of the “One day and you’ve got a complete painting” classes. (They do make money for the organization, being expensive for a one-day class, as expensive as 10 weeks of our other classes.) I feel it has dropped us down in standards. No one learns to paint in one day. You learn a few techniques. But this show has spawned another request by another artist who now wants to exhibit this kind of painting. Did we do ourselves a favor as a gallery? I think not.
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Options for critiques
by Rodney Cobb, Scottsdale, AZ, USA
I have noticed that artists appear to seek critiques to gain information, inspiration, as well as recognition. Thus, you might want the artist being critiqued to pick one of the following options:
— Only diplomatic positive comments.
— Both positive and negative comments if thought to be diplomatically delivered and considered helpful.
— Any comment relevant to the commentator’s opinion of how the artist being critiqued can improve. (While I prefer the latter, others may not.)
Hopefully, the artist receiving the critique will gain more, either information or inspiration, if the artist selects the parameters. Robert’s suggestion of comments placed in the drop box may accomplish the same positive results…
These format suggestions are based solely on my noticing vexations that seem to arise out of the typical “anything goes” art critique format. Sometimes artists seeking only recognition get hammered. Conversely, some artists seeking anything helpful may get only bog – ordinary diplomacy. If I “ruled the world” and had any power at all, I would select the format of either Robert’s drop box or the above suggestions; but you may want to discuss it with others.
In addition, the person also being critiqued may only want comments from artists that paint similar types of paintings (although some notable artists, like Quang Ho, are representative artists who verbally apply art principles well to abstract art).
by Judy Schroeder, Orange CA, USA
I have taught art classes to all ages since college graduation. However, my real training for critiques was honed much later. Two teachers in the workshop setting were absolute pros when it came to clearly and quickly getting to the heart of the matter. I would test myself when paintings were presented for the crit and do my own assessment before the leader began.
During a brief time many years ago I was in a group and we gathered to show together, learn about the business of art and have group critiques. It became increasingly obvious that “good news” was expected. The varying skill at assessing paintings was all over the map. I’m sad to say that however much I enjoyed the company, it was not an emotional wrench when the group dissolved.
I recently heard about a very talented and recognized painter who held critiques for students, charged a fee and let everyone “have at it.” Good grief! I admonish my students to be very careful who they ask to evaluate their work. Constructive criticism is very valuable and “be happy” platitudes inhibit growth. A painter who has few options would be wise to study design. It is often lacking, particularly in adult classes and workshops.
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Enjoy the past comments below for Creative Darwinism…
Pronghorn Prairie Watch
oil painting, 18 x 24 inches
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 Kellianne Land of Fergus, ON, Canada, who wrote, “You don’t know my mother… sometimes I need a good critique to get me unstuck… or to see how a yellow mark can make the rest of the painting sing.”