Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Critical Evaluations – no more passive gazing!

Ericcson and his cohorts talk about the successful person as being one who had engaged in many hours of focused, concentrated practice: "gradual refinements of particular aspects of performance through repetition with immediate feedback." So, how to obtain this?

I think the first person to turn to is the first person!! But I would do some ground work. I think it’s important (already said!) to have specific goals, not only generally but for each piece. When you know what you want to achieve with the piece, then you can begin to look at it in a specific analytic way: so “I want this quilt to convey tranquility” or “I want this piece to convey a warning about pollution” or “I want to make a piece about red squares dancing on a blue ground”. Or: “ I want to use only one colour, but show how it can be cool, and warm, somber and gay, hard and soft – and I want to make a dynamic arrangement of these qualities”.
You can see how each of these statements enables you to look back at the piece and ask yourself – well? Does it do that? Go out of the room and come back in and look! Or look through a mirror. Or take a photograph and look on the computer…Keep really looking at the whole piece. Call the family in and say “what d’you think this piece is about”?

Don’t: spend hours focused on one tiny little aspect of stitchwork until you have the main idea solidly in place. Also as you step back, don’t just look at the patch you just adjusted, but at the whole thing.

It’s important to look at great art (art that has stood the test of time) and ask yourself " now, how did they convey the idea I’m trying to convey?" How is it that a particular painting makes you feel sad, happy, engrossed with texture etc? It’s not magic – though it might be alchemy!!! It’s something that very experienced and brilliant artist has done deliberately..and by looking and looking you can find the clues to see how they do it. Don’t be a passive gazer! Learn the alchemical devices! But don’t overuse them.

If the piece is communicating the way you planned, the next step is to see if your arrangement of shapes and values supports your idea. Work through every variable (line, shape, value, colour, texture) – asking yourself does this convey what I want? If the lines are jagged and the piece is about a calm landscape….hmmm…and vice versa – gentle curves in a piece about intolerance…doesn’t go. It’s about a cool day? Well why are there more warm than cool colours? On the other hand if you have all warm (or cool) colours the piece will lack a little pizzaz, a little spice of the opposite temperature helps make it more interesting plus thanks to the alchemical reaction of simultaneous contrast will make the cool cooler, and vv.

Check for the balance of harmony and tension (unity with variety) that makes a piece interesting. If everything is the same and perfect, it probably won’t hold your (or anyone else’s) interest for long. But you don’t want a chaotic jumble either. Nor does perfect symmetry work well – that tends to be quickly boring. The African American quilts in the book Who’d a Thought by Eli Leon were fascinating because they eschewed perfect symmetry, blocks didn’t always line up, the blocks weren’t always identical, points didn’t always meet. When I was a child I was in bed sick a lot – I would examine each panel of the patterned wallpaper looking for t he bits that didn’t quite match!! The places where the pattern slipped or changed. Actually it’s a pity I didn’t have something better to look at than the wallpaper – but there it is!!

Check for traps! Traps are usually excessive kitsch to the point of banal predictable vulgarity i.e. Kincade, Hallmark cards etc…, as Wolf Kahn says “nostalgia is a very cheap emotion”!
Big eyed babies, blue women and kittens are definitely a clue!! And I’m sure you can think of many more.

Compare your work to the work of those you admire. Take some time to learn your taste in quilts or whatever medium you work in – select out 10 brilliant pieces to which you really respond…then try to analyze what it is about this work that you admire so much. Then look at your work – in what way is it the same? In what way different? Say you were an athlete, looking at a video of a great athlete’s high jump…how is she doing it that is different? Can you deliberately do that? Make a few sketches, a sample study or too – not a direct copy of the whole piece for that would probably be mindless….but an exercise in using a variable in a particular way. Perhaps your favorite artist’s work looks very rich and you like that. So how is it looking rich? Why d’you think that? Maybe it’s the color choices? Saturated colors with a lot of black, - okay then your piece looks wimpy? Try the same idea with more saturated colours, and more black.

So all of this critiqueing is something that you and I can do – it takes time and effort and brain strength of course, but that was what Ericsson discovered was the key difference!

Critiques from others: this is more difficult to obtain. As one commenter wrote, people tend to be too kind, they don’t really want to get into it, and to be frank most of them don’t want to do the work – and it is work! If you’re in an MFA program then your instructors are supposed to do this, but I have heard many many stories about that not happening! If you can grab a person who is used to evaluating art and who has both the analytical ability and the vocabulary to explain it to you , then do so!! But it’s rare. However, I think if you sit down with a couple of friends and go through the kind of analysis I’ve talked about it can be very helpful. In the workshops I lead, I try, when time allows, to have such a peer evaluation exercise. I think it really helps to practice practice practice not only one’s art, but also one’s ability to evaluate art.

And, as usual, if only I would follow my own advice!!! If you have any comments, or suggestions!! Please add them! If you have been, thanks for reading! Elizabeth
PS the quilt above is about (al)chemical processing! it's called "Oh, what pretty smoke!"


Kay Koeper Sorensen said...

I really enjoyed your post about achieving the goals we set and being our own best critics.
As I read that I realized that was exactly what I did as I created the 20 pieces in the "colors of My Life" series that are being shown for the first time in my solo show that opened Sunday. (some photos on my blog but I'm taking my time putting all the quilts on the blog)

Rebecca said...

Thank you for this article. Objectively evaluating how a piece of artwork is progressing is so important to keeping it on track.
Thanks, again!

Marina said...

This is really very interesting! For some unknowing me reasons I used to do all this work by evaluation of a peace, relying mostly on feelings and intuition. Like: hmm… this is not working, but if I change color here -it is much better, closer to what I want. But the whole idea remains more or less unconscious almost till the end. I don’t think that it is passive gazing. I would say just opposite: it is very exhausting. The bad side of this approach is that at the end of work, when I am tired and I don’t know what I feel, everything looks unsatisfying. Only fresh look next day can help.
And I did not question my approach before... I believed that difference in physiological types (Myers-Briggs) could explain individual approach to this subject. For example, I am ENFP, my “tools” are intuition plus introverted feelings, while for NT type -thinking is the fist and strongest “tool”.
On the other hand, I would not have problems to apply logical analysis to article, novel or movie. So, I could be wrong, it happened before… May be this is the road to personal improvement- to use it all? I would definitely try to use your suggestions and apply more conscious THINKING to my work as well to work of others. So, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. And your “Oh, what pretty smoke!" makes me just happy!

Jackie said...

I appreciate your writing everything out for us to file away. For some reason, I need to hear it again and again, stated in slightly different ways. One of my goals is to be more intentional in my work. This is another step in that mode. Will you please go through this procedure with one of your pieces, maybe What Pretty Smoke? That'd be a great help. Thanks for writing!