Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Man, Crits can Hurt like Whoa!

I finished formal art school nine years ago (damn I'm getting old), and graduate school this past December. While I had a teensy bit of crit in graduate school, it wasn't on the level of art school and well, we weren't really making any hard-core art.

Yesterday, one of my high school students was working on an acrylic portrait and had added some very fine detail to a pot in the portrait. The added detail changed the focal point from the face to the pot. She and I had the following conversation.

Student: What do you think?

Me: Well, I think your focal point has changed from the face to the pot. Is that what you intended?

Student: Oh, well, no.

Me: Hm.

Student: What do you think I should do to change the focal point back to the face? Should I get rid of the detail on the pot?

Me: Well, not necessarily. The pot detailing is quite beautiful. I would find a way to make the face even more interesting.

Student: Oh! Well, I could add some more detail to her clothing, or make her hair more intricate, or could add some more color to the face. . .

Me: You don't have to add things to make the face more interesting. It can be more subtle. What if you crisped up a few of the lines? Made the eyes more dynamic? Created more contrast? Things like that can change a piece drastically.

Student: Oh! Cool.

This conversation got me thinking about critique, and how we learn so much from it. I, too, remember the moment I realized subtle changes to your work can be profound. In fact, I daresay many of my strongest skills were learned in critique. Sometimes, I think I miss critique.

But, then, well, yesterday afternoon happened.

I won 2nd place in a regional illustration contest about six months ago. The juror of the contest is the Art Editor at Simon and Schuster books. To say I was thrilled, is an understatement. Yesterday, I received the feedback that won my work 2nd place. I didn't even know I would get feedback, so I was very excited to see the information. It was a list of items with ratings from 1-10 (10 being best). It listed such things as creativity, character, interest of composition, color, style, originality, and editorial quality.

My 2nd place winning piece

My lowest score was a 5/10 and my highest score was an 8/10. As someone who is a perfectionist, I was stung to not get mostly 10/10! Oh, and then I remember the harsh sting of critique, and just why exactly it makes us grow so much. It sucks. Oh, it sucks so much.

At first, I was shocked and hurt, and then started the negative process of thinking: "I will never succeed at this!" Then, after a bit of processing I perceived some very helpful information. I received highest marks for my style and color. Wow. That is great. Color theory is really hard, and developing an original style is even more difficult. My lowest marks were in interest of composition and originality of composition. Okay, well, that gives me room to grow. I need to find ways to diversify my compositions and make them more interesting. That was something I already thought, but now I have added support from an expert that tells me I MUST grow in this area.

So, while at first I was initially bummed, I now have a bit of fire under my seat to get going and practicing more interesting compositions and pushing my color theory even more. I mean, why not try to the best I can be at things in which I already excel?

And, then I had a final thought. The Art Editor at Simon and Schuster Books is pretty much the top person in this whole illustration game. Her aesthetic is uniquely designed to find the best of children's illustrating. So, naturally, her critique is going to be strong and what earns a 10/10 is going to be the best (Eric Carle, Maurice Sendack, Shaun Tan etc.). As such, I should be proud that I, who at best pursue illustration part-time, performed as well as I did.

Finally, my thoughts rounded back to my students. Sometimes, I hesitate to say exactly what I think during my crit of their work. I don't want to hurt someone. . . I don't think anyone trying to crit wants to do that. . .But, at the same time, crit is the one of the most meaningful learning experiences I think you can have. As teachers, we have to find the most supportive way to relate quality crit.

And, my own experience as an artist teaches me that.


  1. I teach K-6 Art so I don't really do formal critiques with my students. When they think they are finished with a project, we talk about it together and come up with things they can improve. I just always try the "compliment sandwich" approach... find something they did well, tell them something that could be improved, put a positive spin on it! Congratulations on your 2nd place!

  2. Congratulations on having people take notice of your work. My most successful teacher always said the least. He would only critique work that he felt deserved a critique. We kind of figured it out after a few weeks. People who busted their butts on their work got critiques those who didn't got left out week after week with no response. I worked so hard to get a critique from him and when I finally did I was so willing to listen. I think kids need to be ready to listen too. And we as teachers need to say things in a way that they can hear them. . . like you asking questions. . . that is great!