The Good Thing About Bad Critiques

Criticism is a hard thing to take, especially when you aren’t used to getting it. Art School for some, will be the first place they will experience a true critique of their artwork. This can be a dreaded experience or a giant ego boost depending on how it goes. There are a few things to keep in mind when the “crit” leans toward the bad side:

1. Consider the Source
Is it a classmate or an instructor providing the criticism? Do you respect this person’s opinion? Is there some truth to what they are saying or is the comment just mean-spirited? Is the comment meant to be constructive and maybe they are expressing it in a way that could be more tactful?

2. Not Everyone is Going to Love Your Work.
You can’t please everyone, and most likely never will, but that’s ok. If you believe in a subject matter or style you are working in, it’s worth pursuing even if you aren’t getting rave reviews at this point. Sometimes it’s just a matter or developing it further or figuring out parts of it that aren’t yet working. Maybe it’s also a point of doing more study on your subject matter.

3. You’re in Art School to Learn.
If you signed up for post secondary art studies and are expecting the get easy marks like you may have in high school, you are in the wrong place and doing it for the wrong reason. The advantage of studying art in a college setting is to absorb the knowledge and experience of the instructors and possibly even be inspired by your classmates. The only way to grow is by learning. Any amazing artist you see out there worked hard to be where they are today.

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Let’s assume you had a bad crit on a piece you worked really hard on. Don’t let this crush your spirit. Your first reaction might be to be hurt, offended or even angry. Try to curb those emotions and try to really listen to the criticism being offered.

My Experience
In my first true anatomy drawing class in my second year of college I got a project back from my instructor that might as well have had the whole thing circle with the red pen that he used to point out areas that weren’t drawn accurately. He often referred to the phrase, “You have to learn the rules before you break them” I was so crushed at first, but after I got over my ego being hurt I realized it was the first time anyone had told me I was drawing something wrong. I went to art school to learn to be better at my craft. Having someone help you learn to see the areas where you are able to improve your work can shave years off of trying to figure it out yourself through trial and error.

Criticism From Your Peers
When taking criticism from your classmates try to remember that most are genuinely trying to offer you advice to help. They are in essence offering an opinion, however. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong but it also doesn’t mean it right either. Most artists have a sense of where their weaknesses are in their work. If the comments in your crit are aligning with things you have been questioning on your own, then maybe it’s something worth taking a second look at. Your classmates are also learning how to express their opinions about art using theory and terminology just like you are. In the process of this, things may not always be communicated in the most tactful way or even in the way they meant it. For that reason, try not to hang on their words.

Criticism From Your Instructors
If you’ve done your research ahead of time, chances are you are taking courses from instructors that you admire or that you know have a stellar reputation. In the moment of a critique you may not get as in-depth of an explanation from an instructor as to why they may have commented on your work a certain way. It’s important to follow-up with them and find out more if you feel you need to. Some of my best conversations with instructors came after the crit when I was able to ask questions privately or get more insight on resources that might have helped my concept or piece. You aren’t the only student in the class so sometimes comments will be brief to keep the pace of the class on schedule.

Criticism As a Form of Brainstorming
Being surrounded by creative people has its perks, especially when it comes to improving upon something. You may get advice in a crit that will offer ideas or a solution that you maybe wouldn’t have thought of. It can be a great brainstorming session if you are open to it. Learning to hear what others are offering in terms of ideas is a great asset if you choose to do a collaboration later in your career.

Distinguish the Haters From the Helpers
If you are planning to become a professional artist, taking criticism is part of deal. As I mentioned earlier, not everyone is going to love your work. Part of taking criticism is learning to filter out what is actual helpful or constructive criticism and what is just someone being jerk. You will most likely experience both over the course of your time being an artist. The more you put yourself out there on social media and other avenues that thrust you into the spotlight, it’s to be expected you will encounter this. Someone who is truly trying to help you won’t use abusive or demeaning language. They will also give you justification on why they don’t like something or offer advice on how to improve it. The main thing to remember is to try to not let any of this discourage you from doing what you love. Learning to do this in the relative safety net of art school can help prepare you for once you get outside those walls into the real world.

You Get What You Give
Now that you know some things to consider when getting criticism, here is a point to remember when giving it. If you don’t like someone’s piece, that’s ok, you don’t have to like everything or worse lie to them. Instead, find a way to give a suggestion on something that you think would improve the piece. I had an awesome instructor in college that had an amazing gift of giving negative criticism in a way that was enlightening and motivating. Be prepared to back up your opinions with solid evidence. Think of how you would want someone to give you constructive criticism and how you would like to hear it. Saying “I’m not sure this is working for me, what was your thought process behind the colour palette?” is more effective than “This sucks, the colours are ugly.” Sometimes asking a question to delve deeper into the rationale behind something will give you insight as to why they made that decision. Based on that response you can offer additional, more informed advice. Conversely, I believe you always have a rationale for the choices you make in your work. This way, when the questions come to you, and your decisions you can stand by them.

 There is more to be learned from our failures than our successes. Keeping an open mind and using a bad critique of your work as fuel for improvement can really propel you forward. Distinguish your Haters from your Helpers, and most importantly, continue to improve upon and create art you love.

Previous Art Student Advice Posts:

Art School Survival Tips

Art Student on a Budget

College Entry Portfolio Tips

Choosing the Right Art School For You

Why I Went to Art School

6 thoughts on “The Good Thing About Bad Critiques

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