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.
“Pictures deface walls more often than they decorate them.” (William Wordsworth)
This letter was originally published as “The points of crits” on July 16, 2013.
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“I can live for two months on one good compliment.” (Mark Twain)
My current exploration is the marriage of wood with epoxy. This results in stabilizing wood that otherwise has no value and creating pieces that in the past could never have been elevated to art. I am also using epoxy to elevate the wood in its new environment. Sometimes I use the tension between the wood and the epoxy to give the sense of something peaceful. The results are platters and bowls that allow the wood and me to express ourselves.