From time to time many of us are called on to critique the work of others. In the classic formula, the “critter” stands beside a well-lit easel as the paintings of a roomful of “crittees” are brought forward one at a time. With each presentation the critter may remark on a virtue or two, pick out a fault or two, and hopefully point out a fix or two. The silence while the critter’s brain reboots at the beginning of each new presentation can be deafening. For those works not already deemed perfect by the crittee, the most common wish, as far as I can tell, is that only a few minor adjustments will be needed to make it so. At the end of a devastating crit, crittees may dig in, fight back, or try to explain. Others slump in their seats in disgruntlement or disgust. Crittees are not allowed to carry heat.
While occasionally valuable, group crits are a public broadcasting of what might be going on in a painter’s brain during a private act. The four main negative points are almost universal:
Poor early planning
Violation of basic rules
Substandard drawing, composition or colour
A lot of faults suggesting abandonment
The last point is often a useful ploy — beginning again almost always beats repairing a failure. Well-considered abandonment is a trusted teacher.
Better artists develop a strong internal critic. While they may let themselves flow, their process includes being tough on themselves with regular full-brain revaluation of work-in-progress. As well as thinking ahead and foreseeing future problems, the process includes deadly vetting at the end. The golden rule: “Crit on your feet as you go.” In my experience, artists with highly developed self-critical faculties are often referred to as “talented.”
Whether in a group or alone, even a simply composed, half-finished painting will have plenty of points, both positive and negative. I use a system of keywords. Keywords can include gradation, homeostasis, flats, symmetry, asymmetry, depth, pattern, cropping, edgemanship, regularity, repetition, counterpoint, etc. These keywords aren’t gospel, but they do help the crittee dig deeper rather than dig in.
PS: “If an artist has talent, he needs no other critic.” (Robert Brault)
Esoterica: Some critters are better than others. Critters need to offer practical ways to fix things on the same terms and in the style and media of the crittee. Theoretical and intellectual critiques can prematurely drive folks into nursing homes or chartered accountancy. Stick to points, don’t be afraid to recommend abandonment, and never forget Marcus Aurelius: “All is opinion.” Try to show your crittees how to crit for themselves — to their own standards. When developed relatively early in life, the art of self-criticism is key to professionalism. It’s really the fun part; it’s good for the mind at any age and heads off the natural rigidity that can set in during the golden years. Better than waiting for the Jello cart to come down the hall.
Nnadozie Gideon update: Nnadozie has been in touch with me by email from his Nokia smart phone. So far he’s sent his mailing address, a photo of himself and jpegs of several varying and unsigned paintings. I’ve asked him for jpegs of signed paintings, jpegs of his awards, and a note from one of his teachers. There are several Nnadozie Gideon websites and Facebook pages originating in Nigeria. My inbox has loaded up with artists wishing to give him art materials. Hundreds are also suggesting we ask him to prove himself first. I’ll let you know when he does.
Final update on Nnadozie Gideon
On Sunday July 7th 2013 Nnadozie Gideon wrote to the Twice-Weekly Letter: “Hello, I am Nnadozie Gideon one of your subscribers from Nigeria. I am a teenager and I started drawing at age 3. In secondary school (or high school) I won art competitions at state and national levels. I graduated from the secondary school since 2011 and (being unable to get into the university due to lack of funds) I have been practicing the arts of painting and drawing with the poster colour set I won in secondary school. I went into oil painting last year while still trying to perfect my drawing skills.
“Having been able to come up with great concepts I have been able to paint only a few because all I have is just my oil paint set of six and my few brushes. Please I have attached some of my recent works. Please advise me on how to take my art to a higher level and if you can support me with materials it would go a long way in helping my art. Thanks!”
Further prodding has brought the following:
“I was born in Lagos State, Nigeria to Mr Benjamin and Mrs Regina Nnadozie. I did my nursery and a little of my primary school there also. During my early education was when I first came in contact with pencils and papers then I started scribbling. I also messed most of my old book with crayon drawings because I loved making pictures. We moved to Rivers State where I completed my primary education and did my secondary education. My secondary education was done in Air Force Secondary School Port Harcourt, Rivers State.
From my junior secondary school to senior secondary I was actively involved in fine art, even when I became a science student I brought art laurels. After graduating from secondary school, I have been doing what I call experimental fine art (drawing with some technical drawing skills).
“I am the person in the photo attached to the previous mail I sent across to you. The only art competition award document with me is attached to this mail with some of my works. I no longer reside in the state where I did my secondary education.
“I am the person who did the unsigned works sent to you previously.
“My Dad is a business man and my Mum is a petty trader. My Dad’s email address is email@example.com. The address I sent to you is the location of my Dad’s office. Currently I do not have the e-mail address of any of my art teachers but if you can be patient I will mail them to you as soon as I contact them or someone close to them.”
(RG note) Gideon Nnadozie’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
He uses his father’s office address for his regular mail:
Flat 1, Block B, Adamawa Court, Gaduwa Estate, Durumi, Abuja, Nigeria
If you feel comfortable mailing art materials to Gideon, please do so. I sent him a boxed set of Golden Open Acrylics. I don’t recommend sending money. Looking at this tiny planet from a distance, can you imagine a time when everyone will trust everyone else?
“You, you may say
I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.” (John Lennon, Imagine)
The secret of sharing
by J.R. Baldini, Niagara Falls, ON, Canada
I have group crits in my larger workshops — giving participants a few days to get their groove on. I’ve never had anyone become hurt, angry or argumentative. In fact, as mentioned, when paintings are ‘shared’ the artist usually is the first to critique their own work. This tells me the words that sometimes come out of my mouth over and over are sinking in, and they know the reasons why something isn’t working and are receptive to what suggestions myself or others in the group may give. This reinforcement works much better than if I got up and lectured. I love my job.
Learning on both sides
Self-criticism may not be possible for a very beginning artist. But with years of painting, one develops the talent to criticize what is being created that pushes her towards excellence. When our work is criticized by a critic, we learn to look at our work with a new perspective and that again results in excellence. Even a top critic needs to be a learner in some way, and the whole process of crits is that of learning on both sides. Life itself is a learning process, everyone is here to learn and creating art is such a small speck in the bigger picture.
‘My name is Pete, and I’m an artist’
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
I conducted a critique group for seven years. We met every two weeks. Attendance was 10 to 15 artists.I based my fee schedule on the price of admission at the local movie theater. It was a support group in a way. I encouraged everybody to speak. At first, I actually needed the money, but then I did not need the money, but I loved the experience by then, and it continued.
It was almost like improv theater training for me. We all laughed quite a bit. But, we also cried. My favorite story from this experience was the night that the most straight-laced, grand-motherly attendee brought in a square painting of organic abstraction. It was primarily pink, and, to tell the truth, it looked like a partial view of two people making love. I put it on the easel and stepped back, and became cognizant of what I was seeing. My jaw dropped. There were twitters of quiet, nervous laughter from the group. After a long silence, one of the attendees said, “Well, Martha, do you have a new boyfriend?”
After that comment, we were all laughing. I flipped the painting 90 degrees, and the laughter got louder. The image was now suggesting three participants in an act that was verging on the pornographic. When the uproar died down, Martha said that she would take the painting home and paint it over. Later, as everyone was leaving, I wanted Martha to feel better. I bought the painting. It now hangs in a special place where people under 21 years of age are not permitted.
That is a funny story, but we live in a world in which a vast majority of artists work in isolation. When my circumstances changed, and I could not continue with the group, I encouraged them to keep meeting, and to just become a critique group and to help each other to see their own art with the aid of many eyes. That lasted quite a while, without me. All of us artists need outside opinions. We need other eyes, and that includes the best of us. Alcoholics go to AA meetings. Artists should be going to critique groups. We need to connect with each other . . . “My name is Pete, and I am an artist. Here is my latest painting . . .”
There are 5 comments for ‘My name is Pete, and I’m an artist’ by Peter Brown
by Becky English
Would you be so kind as to elaborate on what you mean by each of the critical key dimensions you mention?
(RG note) Thanks, Becky, and others who asked the same question. Actually, I just mentioned a few of the possibilities. There are about a thousand of these active, useful keywords.
Gradation: A blended area from light to dark, warm to cool, etc.
Homeostasis: objects or elements placed equidistant from one another.
Flats: Areas of equal tone value, as opposed to gradated.
Symmetry: Traditional balance, often centralized, sometimes monumental
Asymmetry: Raucously offside and jarring
Depth: Various elements from foreground to background
Pattern: Essential gestalt — a compositional device to engage the eye
Cropping: Masking or cutting to a new, smaller format
Edgemanship: What’s going on around where the frame touches the painting.
Regularity: A march of elements that may stabilize a composition.
Repetition: The same motif or theme performed more than once.
Counterpoint: Elements of colour or form that poke through foreground elements generally forming negative area patterns.
How to find the right workshop instructor
by Claire Remsberg, McCall, ID, USA
I wonder if you have any comments on how to find a good art workshop instructor that is right for me. It is hard to dope out if the teaching style or talent is appropriate for what I want and need without a personal reference. Sure, an inspiring location is nice, but what I think I really seek is regular good teaching from a variety of instructors. I would like to treat myself to at least one such opportunity a year. I have had several duds recently, by artists who know how to paint but not how to teach or how to challenge a varied group of aspiring artists. Hard to tell by the course description. Have you ever heard of any kind of review central for art workshop instructors?
(RG note) Thanks, Claire. I haven’t heard of a Review Central as you mention but it’s a darned good idea. We could have something like it on our site in connection with our Workshop Calendar. I’ll ask our elves to give it some thought. Perhaps an alphabetical list of instructors with critical reviews right after. Could be deadly.
The three C’s of critiquing
At a recent print making workshop I came away with much new technical knowledge and three little treasures that help direct my work. The three C’s are:
The composition of the elements of art and principles of design reign over content subject matter. Content is such personal matter that rarely will I comment on it unless asked yet it is often a primary focus of my own work. Craftsmanship is primarily a matter of media handling to support the entire work and it seems there are as many techniques as there are mediums. If I am personally familiar with the medium I may offer an opinion if asked. When my painting group gathers for crits at the end of the session I work down from these three C’s. Actually, I rarely move beyond Composition. When I am in my studio I problem solve from this same hierarchy.
An act of ultimate generosity
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
I have also heard people use word “talented” where I would say “successful.” I don’t see a connection between self-criticism and talent. One is born with talents and affinities. Self-criticism may help us succeed in some endeavor, or become proficient, or professional, or a better person, but it surely won’t make us talented. I found your latter confusing in that regard.
I have always considered crits by a sincere and knowledgeable person more than precious. When such person takes the time and energy to briefly step into your world and tries to help you with your next step is an act of ultimate generosity. This is not an entitlement, so the critees should be thankful and use the opportunity for a valuable dialog. They can later analyze what happened and how to make the best use of it.
There are 3 comments for An act of ultimate generosity by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki
An enriching experience
by Jackie Knott, Fischer, TX, USA
However, I am reminded of a Nigerian acquaintance years ago who called us from the DFW airport. He was going home and was hit for extra baggage fees he did not have the money for. He asked to borrow $300. My husband met him at the airport and came home saying, “That’s money we won’t ever see again.”
Eighteen silent months later the gentleman knocked on our door and handed us $300, plus a hand carved elephant, large as a soccer ball, as a gift of thanks. It really was quite nice and I put in on my mantle. The next morning there was a foul odor in the house that became increasingly stronger. I took it outside and left it in the sun for several days but even that didn’t help. I finally had to discard it. I subsequently found out its beautiful ebony color was produced by elephant dung.
I regret not finding a means to eliminate the odor but our faith in human nature was pleasantly enriched.
There is 1 comment for An enriching experience by Jackie Knott
Enjoy the past comments below for The points of crits…
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That includes Robert Bissett of Naples, ID, USA, who wrote, “I’ve long maintained an artist cannot paint any better than he can critique.”