Friday, January 8, 2010

On the Art of the Critique.

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 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


Linda B. said...

If it's a red I'll be there!

I wonder whether we are the products of our education? In UK primary schools there is a lot of 'peer review' going on at the moment. It often takes the form of stars and wishes - the stars for what you like and why, the wish for the thing you'd change and why. In both instances the emphasis is on the 'why'. When these children grow up I wonder whether the quilters amongst them will be more open to critiquing? (Shame if they missed the wine though!)

Jackie said...

Here I am back again, to my difficulty in being able to articulate what it is that I'm striving for. I do write something, but often find, later, that it isn't quite it and I revise until I get it, then I can articulate. This critiquing would help with that sooner in the process. I think it will take some time to achieve that articulation, but I'm putting in the work and a little help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks for a doable exercise!

Karen said...

Wonderful food for thought, Elizabeth. I know it's so hard to stay on task when in a critique group, and I think sometimes that's because we don't want to cause hurt feelings. Your idea to critique something that doesn't have a lot of time and emotion invested in it is really sound. Thank-you

Libby Fife said...

I was directed to your blog by one of my online friends. I formed an online critique group (not a public blog) a year ago with a mutual friend. What you said is certainly true. The purpose isn't to present one solution but to point out pathways, avenues, food for thought. Get people thinking in different ways and help them to see their artwork in a different light. One of the first things members are encouraged to put forth is what their concept is. I like the idea of doing sketches to convey that and I think I would like to bring that to our groups' attention.

The post was helpful so thank you. Any other resources that you can suggest (online or in book form) are appreciated).

Wayne Kollinger said...


This is a great blog. You got it right. Giving reasons is the most important part of the art of critique. Knowing why something works, or doesn't work,is critical to the design process.

I would also like to put ditto marks under Linda's comment. Suggesting changes is much better that saying you don't like something.

It should come as no surprise that the design process and the critiquing process are very similar. When you design you ask "What if..?" "Do I like it?" And "Why?" When you critique you ask "Do I like it?" "Why?" and "What if..?"

I am glad to hear you are teaching your design students to critique. I think it will make them better designers.

Ruth said...

I would love to be in a critique group. But I'm a bit far away in Montana. Online critique groups would be a thought though. Your method of teaching critique is great and it is so important to discuss the why. Thanks!

pam in sw florida said...

i recently resigned from a crit group i have been in several years for many of these same reason.
i also am continually trying to get you to come to our guild in sarasota.
i love your ideas of crit suggestions based on sketches (similar to nancy crow).
way to go elizabeth.

Quilt or Dye said...

I appreciate your article!

I am participating artist in Interpret This!,, a year long challenge of interpreting pictures into art quilts.

I have sent the link to this article to all the other participants with the goal of enriching our dialogue at the reveal.

Anonymous said...

I'm in a critique group that has been going on for about 8 years or so! The problem is most of them are painters. They get great critiques. Then I have quilts in the works and done, and it's like FB. I get a lot of likes, but no critique... I'm about to quit, but I hate to! Do you think it's harder for people to critique quilts than paintings? Any suggestions for my group?

Anonymous said...

I'm in a critique group that has been going on for about 8 years or so! The problem is most of them are painters. They get great critiques. Then I have quilts in the works and done, and it's like FB. I get a lot of likes, but no critique... I'm about to quit, but I hate to! Do you think it's harder for people to critique quilts than paintings? Any suggestions for my group?