Workshoppers seem to want critiques, and some instructors insist on them. I’ve always wondered about the value of crits.
There are several kinds. One is where the instructor crits every work one at a time, either one-on-one or with the group. Another is where the instructor selects particular works that need help and explains how to fix things. Another is to get the students to crit each other’s works. Yet another is where only better work is critted in front of the group, the idea being that students learn more from seeing and talking about better work.
Recently I tried something new. I asked a group to crit one of my own half-baked demos. When giving demos, many instructors notice students marvelling at the prowess of the so called “master.” Most of us agree this is misguided and not to the point. My group was surprised to get the invitation, especially when I told them the words, “love,” “like,” “nice,” and “good” were forbidden.
Some were too shy to get down and dirty; others were all over it like kids on a broken gumball machine. Go ahead, drop me a line.
A lesson for the event was the variety of opinion. One student wanted the foreground completely reorganized; another took issue with the sky. Agreement was widespread. Even though I’d given two full minutes in advance so they could gather their individual thoughts, I still wondered if they were picking up some of the unanimity from one another.
Some students, either beginners or those who did relatively poor work, were quite verbal and often gave interesting and valuable input. I’ve noticed this before — something to do with the innocence and purity that comes naturally to some novices. Other, more advanced painters had little or nothing to say. Picking up on the vibe in the room, I realized these better painters wanted to get the crit stopped and simply get back to their work.
So I cut everyone off. I’m sure they thought I just couldn’t stand it any longer. Fact is, I was marvelling at the input and wanted it to go on. At the same time I haven’t yet done anything about what anyone said, and the unsigned painting you see now is the painting they saw. Go ahead, make my day.
PS: “If criticism had any power to harm, the skunk would be extinct by now.” (Fred Allen)
Esoterica: If the object of crits is to hone our critical abilities, then we’re winning. If it’s to give arbitrary, personalized opinions, then it’s not so hot. The wisdom of crits may be simply to build the faculty of “authority.” It’s the “this is wrong and this is how to fix it” faculty. This sort of authority, when carried around by the artist himself, is a deadly app. Not everyone seems to be able to download this app, and “dependent on others” apps may be the norm for some lifetimes. When working with students, my passionate quest is to help those “dependent on others” to press “delete.”
Cropped and stretched
by Mark A. Rue, FL, USA
Your twice-weekly emails always get me thinking. Speaking of thinking, I think that “demo” you posted was pretty darn good. The colors are great — you have a wonderful sense of color. Nice clear places for the eye to rest, complemented by areas of activity and interest. But I question the composition. I cropped it and pushed the almost centered tree to the left — I think that makes it more interesting. Then I “stretched it” for a more pleasing proportion.
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More animals needed?
by Maureen Savage, UK
We all experience a picture in a way unique to our selves so I had to look at the painting. Having visual problems makes it a bit difficult but between the two rocks in the foreground to the right I see the outline of a wolf or husky as though a negative in a photograph. Next to her on the left is space for the cubs. It would be an experience to see on your canvas such beautiful wild creatures looking back at the artist.
Sunlight or overcast?
by Geoffrey Dorfman, Trenton, NJ, USA
The only thing I might say, because you obviously know what you’re doing, (possibly too much so) is that if you’re going to offer the impression of sunlight on snow, but treat the rest of the picture as if natural light is not part of the ‘equation,’ you weaken both approaches. It seems pulled in two directions. Whatever principles guide a picture, however bizarre, ought to have the virtue of consistency. The viewer, (in this case, myself) has to feel you’re invested in it all the way. In this particular case either sunlight and shade or no sunlight and shade. At least that’s part of my teaching, and I try to hold to it in my own work.
There is 1 comment for Sunlight or overcast? by Geoffrey Dorfman
by Leslie Pruneau, Raleigh, NC, USA
The painting lacks a solid focal point… or 2 or 3. The color needs refining (check those intensities to make it balance). The composition is leaning to the left. Use your “x” intersections with lines/shapes to work the eye back to center more often. That said, the ease in which you painted this demo shows your experience and talent. I love the blaring use of larger flat shapes (which tend to come forward) in the background relative to the smaller, more detailed shapes in the foreground.
There is 1 comment for Troublesome composition by Leslie Pruneau
No love here, thank you
by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA
I had to chuckle when I read this letter. Whenever I do group crits, I always tell people that they can’t just say they “love” something (and the similar adjectives as well), unless they follow that articulately with why they love it. What exactly are they finding pleasing or disturbing? Otherwise it is as meaningless as saying I love chocolate ice cream. I remember one crit that was particularly entertaining, a painting was put up and one woman exclaimed “I absolutely love the colors she put together” I looked at her and said “surprise, surprise, look at what you are wearing!” She was dressed in the same color palette as the painting!
I think it is a valuable lesson for artists to see and hear how their work is communicating to others. Because I believe we are trying to communicate something about our experience through our work. Many reasons that people “love” a painting is totally a personal response, something they find familiar and have an affinity with. Often they may have seen something in the work that I wasn’t trying to say. I can’t control that, but I can choose to alter the message if too many people misread it. I prefer to ask people how the painting makes them feel. If they don’t “like” the color of someone’s sky, I ask them why. It is more meaningful to the person receiving the feedback to understand the why, if the why matters to them they can respond, if it doesn’t they can leave as is. Sometimes we want to make the viewer uncomfortable with something, sometimes we want things to be less obvious and make them ponder a little. Critiques can help an artist clarify their intent.
It is good to remember that the most popular ice cream flavor people “love” is vanilla. What artist wants to be vanilla?
There are 2 comments for No love here, thank you by Mary Moquin
There are no hopeless pieces
by Marjorie Moeser, Toronto, ON, Canada
My first reaction was, “This is not a finished work, just the start of composition, underpainting and plotting in of values.” I liked the feeling emerging. The merging of front, middle and backgrounds still need to be resolved. Front tree perhaps could be shifted either left or right of the central axis of the painting for greater interest in all areas of the painting. That row of trees seem to be a bold screen, blocking out the rest of areas behind them, rather than a cunning way of urging the viewer to see through a screen to discover what’s behind. I loved the chosen palette. It is a happy painting.
That said, I turn to the question of the value of crits. I have often attended workshops when the instructor’s comments were always constructive. She always found something good in even the most hopeless of pieces. (Of course, I don’t believe any piece could be totally hopeless. In time, with effort, something good will come of every painting… if only the act of painting itself.) Group crits do serve a purpose, I believe. Most people in a workshop can come away with at least one more valuable piece of information that enlarges their cache of “painting tricks.” This can only be a good thing.
Tree trunks too equal
by Judy Rogers, IL, USA
Recently, I was asked to write an artist’s statement. Your comment (above) regarding the instruction not to use “love,” “like,” “nice,” and “good” reminded me of my instruction to myself not to use “inspired,” “love,” and “blessed” (although I never use that word) in my artist statement. I guess, as a retired English prof, I can get mighty uptight with certain word usage. As a by the way, I would always, at the beginning of every semester, instruct my students not to use those same 4 words (that you had chosen) in their essays. I compared them to swear words, which are also used because they are “handy,” i.e., no thinking required to find a more perfect word.
Anyhow, back to the crit of your work. What got my attention immediately (and maybe that’s the most reliable response — that initial one) was your tree trunks: 4 and maybe a half of one, all of the exact same width, and then close to height and color. My eyes would not leave that, seeing those trunks as vertical pencils, also without much variation in their direction either.
Trusting in the artist
by Bobbo Goldberg, Orlando, FL, USA
Critiquing another artist? I hate it. I rarely do it unless the suggestion is strictly mechanical, matter of composition, form, design, technique. Only when asked, usually repeatedly. Even then, I’m perhaps overly careful to qualify it as my own opinion. In a sense, I’d rather be thought of as a proofreader than a critic.
Why? I believe strongly in the notion that we’re right where we’re supposed to be, evolving as we choose to or care to. I think we’re always near the limits of our perception, trying to evolve. I don’t feel right intruding my own subjectivity into the growth of someone else’s. I have friends who, for some reason, solicit my feedback. I have a few rules I mostly keep to myself in offering those services when my arm is twisted.
1) I don’t know what’s led up to this creative moment in a person’s growth, or what it means going forward. No idea.
2) A word of sincere encouragement can propel a person for months. Propulsion is more useful than correction.
3) What the blazes do I even begin to know about the artistic vision of another? Would I dare correct Dali? Kandinsky? Not a chance.
4) Important: outer expression relates to inner experience. “Self-expression” is more than just a handy term. There’s an inside there with which I am not acquainted. I am loath to interrupt that process.
5) Some people are actually harmed by critique, inhibited, made self-conscious. Some aren’t. I’d be more inclined to discuss these things if I felt I could always tell the difference.
While this may seem to paint my view of the artist as a fragile flower, it’s seldom true; people can be quite resilient. I just choose to err on that side. When I suggest changes to an artist, I always have a sense of having violated something precious and trying to grow. You don’t, to paraphrase Samuel Beckett in Endgame, scratch around the roots to see if a plant has sprouted. Better to trust in its growth.
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Enjoy the past comments below for A new angle…
Between Rain Storms
oil painting, 9 x 12 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 Christine Braziel of Fresno, CA, USA, who wrote, “The horizon lines need more change; they are too straight. Needs more trees on the left. The trees seem lonely and isolated. Needs texture in the foreground; I would add a little orange, green and blues there.”
And also Bryan Dunleavy of Titchfield, Hampshire, Southampton, UK who wrote, “I fixed your water for you.”
And also Erica Hawkes of Kelowna, BC, Canada who wrote, ” ‘Some were too shy to get down and dirty; others were all over it like kids on a broken gumball machine,’ made me laugh out loud!”