I’ve been thinking about critiques and critique groups. I think being able to get feedback where you’re really stuck is very helpful – somehow it’s always easier to see the mote in the other person’s eye!
But I’ve tried forming critique groups of local friends with little success: in the first group everyone was so pleased to be asked, but then the date of the meeting would come around and they hadn’t done any work!! so then we just gossiped – which is fun but doesn’t further the cause of art! A year or so later, I tried again…this time, the people actually brought work but everyone was far too nice..and soon we were back gossiping again. One more try, different group of people..at the first meeting (sun afternoon), the hostess poured us all a glass of wine, at first I thought hmm this might help to loosen up the discussion a bit, but instead she proceeded to get drunk and maudlin!! Again, the cause of art was lost!
So when I decided it would be helpful for people in my workshops to learn how to critique their own work using basic design principles as a format I felt some Rules were necessary. (I’m not normally a Rule person, but I didn’t want people doing nothing while being nice and getting drunk!). So, after the initial design stage, when people have 6-12 possible designs sketched out and pinned up on their design walls, I ask the students to form small groups of 4 or 5. I give them very specific instructions (I creep around on quiet cat’s paws behind the groups listening in to make sure the instructions are followed!).
The person who created the design is not allowed to speak at first, however she has been instructed to write on the board the Theme or Main Idea of the potential piece. I’ve found that, if allowed to talk, it’s very difficult for the designer not to try to explain the work – and of course the work should be self explanatory – if it’s not, it’s not working. The other thing that happened was that the designer would give a long introductory paragraph about their own deficiencies! Well, that’s not going to help either! Thinking and talking about how hopeless you are doesn’t actually move you forward – whether you’re hopeless or not!!
The designer also can easily get off the topic and talk about the sketches they didn’t make…that’s irrelevant..and I quickly try to steer the discussion back on the track of looking at exactly what is on the board and why it’s worth following up into cloth, or where it might need some changes. Nor should the observers be allowed to relate the sketch to their own inner world – as in “it looks like my mother in law!”…this might be entertaining but is definitely off track!
The observers are asked to state which of the sketches appears to them to be the strongest and to say why. They are not allowed to say simply “ I like this one, I don’t like that one”. Rather, they should say: sketch #6 is very strong because it is so dynamic with all the movement and the diagonal lines. Or, sketch #2 is too chaotic and doesn’t convey the theme of peacefulness to me. The discussion of strength or weakness, attractiveness or banality or formlessness should always be supported by a discussion of the unity or tension or balance within the sketch.
When I first started doing this I was afraid that a) people would be too nice (!), or b) just waffle about their likes and dislikes or c) say nothing at all (a few still do that, but when prodded by that lurking teacher nearly always have something worthwhile to offer. But I’ve been very pleased and surprised by how enthusiastically people engage in this…the person who did the sketches has only spent a few hours on many sketches and so doesn’t have too much heart invested in any particular one, so they’re not going to get hurt…and the commentors, sensing this, are able to give honest critique instead of just being polite. I tell them you can’t just say “I like this” – you must Always say Why..and similarly for a negative area…just to say “I hate that pink shape!” (or whatever) is not constructive, one has to support the response with a reason. And if people appear to be missing some element, I try to suggest questions that might be asked.
Critiqueing is not about finding a single solution for a problem – there are NO single solutions; what’s good about a group discussing a piece is that the designer will then be presented with a clear sense of what’s strong and weak, whether or not the Idea has been conveyed, and several possible ways of making the design stronger. The point of a critique is not for the critiquers to solve the problem for the designer, but rather to open up avenues of exploration for them that their more objective view may see. Don’t ever look for a critique to solve your problems for you…instead use the teacher/friend/observer more like a plumber…unblocking your own ideas, helping them to flow along new channels where necessary!
It’s important to approach being critiqued in a non-defensive way, for that’s the only way to see things less subjectively. It’s a wonderful gift to be able, however briefly, to see things from another’s point of view…suspending the “buts” that always spring to mind!
In a college setting, the classroom critique centers on three things: 1.technique, 2. composition and 3. concept. In my workshops, I prefer the students to reverse that order: let’s first talk about whether this little sketch conveys anything about your idea, secondly let’s look at the composition addressing unity, tension, balance and so on and only finally (and then only if sufficient time) will we discuss possible techniques to be used in making the piece.
Critiqueing another’s work is a very good way of learning of learning how to look more clearly at one’s own art. People learn more by analyzing another’s work, by figuring out its qualities, and its weaker areas. What’s really working to help people make stronger compositions is not being on the Receiving end of the critique, but being on the Giving end.
Meanwhile…anyone want to join a critique group? I’ve got some nice wine…..
And, if you have been, thanks for reading! Elizabeth