The Give And Take Of Critiques

It can hurt to hear that, just maybe, you’re not as “good” as you had hoped you were; and this can be our first interpretation of any criticism. But, like many struggles in life, adversity can be a positive step to greater things.

I must first have control over my emotions to benefit from criticism. My skin should be tough enough to fend off the darts of negative opinion and, at the same time, be porous enough to accept what will help me grow as an artist.

Criticism should be seen for the worth it has, not for the worth it bestows on me personally. The worthiness of an opinion about my work is based on respect for the other person’s sincerity and credibility. Any person’s worth is a given and in their mind, in order to benefit from criticism, this quality must not come between himself and the critique.

One giving a critique must have discipline also. People are thoughtful in general. Unless put under pressure to do otherwise, they will seek to say complimentary things. (Look at on-line reviews for example; according to Bazaarvoice Inc. and Inc., the average grade for online opinions overall is about 4.3 stars out of five (The Wall Street Journal).

It’s good to be positive. Dale Carnegie said to “never criticize, condemn or complain“. And, as I can attest to personally, there is power in encouragement. But empty flattery can be dangerously misleading–at best it doesn’t help the artist to grow, at worst it can lead him down the wrong path. There is a difference between being nice, and being positive. What could be called a “negative” critique can be a positive thing. In other words, you can be nice and give truthful feedback.

It can be tricky giving advise on another’s work. Timing is very important, in conjunction with what is said. Sometimes the artist just isn’t in the mood for, or ready to accept, anything about his work that could be construed as derogatory.

I was told by a student once that I’d made her cry on different occasions during critique sessions. I try to watch how I go about giving my opinions now (even in a workshop or class). I know too what it feels like to hear that my efforts were not what I thought.

As an instructor, I aim for the student to see what I see and to accept it as a positive thing.  That last part is most important–“to accept it as a positive thing”. When I look at my own work, after several days or weeks of it turned to the wall, and something doesn’t look right, I remind myself that it’s good that I can see farther now.

(This post edited from an earlier version)

MT McClanahan

An artist and perpetual thinker, MT McClanahan finds inspiration through connecting ideas across a broad range of topics. He especially enjoys philosophy and how art and life interconnect. He is the founder of TPT and his paintings can be seen at

4 Responses

  1. Dawn Fetty says:

    When I have been critiqued in the past…I feel like people are just trying to be “nice”…and I walk away feeling like I’ve wasted my time…Honesty with kindness…and I can even get that everyone will see things differently…but honestly, I’ve given up on critiques….

    • Dawn, don’t give up on them, I personally think they help. If you respect the person’s opinion giving it then I would welcome it. If they are a serious artist they will give you honest feedback.

      Expectations are important here–I wouldn’t expect most people to give me honest, helpful feedback (unless I specifically urged them to). I see a “critique” as a more formal affair. If you expect a good critique and just get warm fuzzies, then I would feel the same as you I think–disappointed.

      I am always reminded of the words, “With many advisors”, meaning it helps one succeed.

  2. Steve says:

    As an instructor, it has been my goal to make sure that the critique is a dialogue. I found myself 1) looking intently at the work in question (and it was always about the work, not the artist). 2) Asking about the the work and listening intently to the answers. 3) Offering to share what I see, 4) listening to the questions the artist asks, 5) Offering suggestions and seeing together, where they might lead.

    I try always tob ask if this was helpful and to suggest that if it wasn’t, to throw it away. (Almost impossible to do, of course, but necessary to undermine the pretense that accompanies a “critic”.

    It was, is, and should be hard work if both “critic” and “artist” are to benefit.
    Just my opinion.

    • And a great opinion it is Steve. How one approaches something is important–I like the idea of it being a “dialogue”. But should there be any pretense? If I were a student taking a critique I would humble myself to that teacher’s advise, and at least try to see things his way. It always bothered me when I would advise a student on something and they would argue with me to the contrary. A give and take is fine, but some would never let their egos allow them to see.

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