I’m often asked to critique other people’s work and it’s quite a responsibility. It’s one I both enjoy and at the same time worry about feeling like an imposter. What if I say the one wrong thing? And miss the most important thing? I think it’s important to keep this in mind and make it clear to the person that what I (as the one doing the critique) say is not the Absolute Truth so much as what I personally see on this particular day with the experience I have had to date. I have found that people can take one too seriously and too literally: “you said you didn’t like pink and so I’ve gotten rid of all my pink fabric!” Well what I probably said was: "I wonder if the pink is working there as it’s not a very deep value". So I think it’s helpful to put all remarks into that kind of context. It’s always relative!
When the person first shows you the quilt (or the photograph of the quilt) you can practically hear them stop breathing and I think it’s very important to be very encouraging at this point. There’s always something good that can be said. And when I mention difficulties, I always try to help the person think up ways of overcoming those difficulties so that they go away with a sense of what Can Be Done, not defeat.
One thing I’ve found from workshops is that it’s very helpful for me to have a sense of what else that person has made. So I usually ask people to bring a few pictures of previous work with them. From these pictures I can see how serious they are, what areas they have been trying to improve in and what might be a persistent difficulty for them. If a person is serious about improving their art they will try the same idea a few times, each time trying to improve upon it. It’s rare we get things perfect the first time – I know I never have! If I see someone repeatedly trying to work with the same idea, I can ask “what was it that you were working on in these few pieces?”. The answer will help me to see how knowledgeable they are and how much insight into their own process they have. If they tend to be always very tight, then I can suggest the possibility of loosening a little - but not too much because that tightness is clearly part of their style - and vice versa of course.
Seeing repeated difficulties- for example a tendency to use all mid range values, or to have a big black hole in the middle of a piece (something I find very disturbing – reminds me too much of the movie Train Spotting!)- is very telling. You don’t always spot a problem in one piece, but if you have 4 pieces with the same problem it’s very clear. Also it’s easier for the quiltmaker to see the difficulty if there are several example. I find if there’s just one piece we’re looking at and I say, “oh the balance seems to be a bit off, was that something you intended?” they may be able to rationalize it. But if we’re looking at several pieces and in each one there seems to be much more visual weight on one side than another, it’s quite clear. And it is SO much easier to improve when you have a definite diagnosis!! It’s so hard when you feel there’s something wrong with a piece but you don’t know what it is and therefore you don’t know what to do about it. At that point I’ve seen many people just give up.
It’s helpful if I can ask the person what they wanted to communicate with the quilt. If they say one thing, but I see something completely different then their communication (or possibly my reception!) isn’t very clear. For example one lady told me her piece was about a calm and happy day…when I looked at it I saw dull colours, downward lines and awkward nervous angles. Then we were able to have a conversation about what I saw and what that might mean to another person.
If they tell me that the piece is about the freshness of spring, and I do see a little pale yellow shoot here and there, but only in a very timid way, then I can suggest she push that aspect of the piece.
I think it’s always helpful too to spot a person’s “signature”. I look for the strengths that I see repeated across the work they’re showing me. It is easy to lose the baby with the bathwater, especially if the baby is small and there’s a lot of water!! And you do want to nurture that baby!
Also when you’re working on a piece yourself you don’t always see something completely obvious – it’s likely to be a small section you’ve had in place for ages and you’ve got really used to it and see it as part of the piece. But when a person looks at the quilt for the first time it’s a glaring odd spot! A wart on the witch’s nose!
I always try to be as precise as I can because when I’ve asked others for critiques and they’ve given me vague cloudy responses like “it’s not well resolved” or “something’s not working” , then I’m no further forward. When I'm the one in the critiqueing position, I try to say something like “You know I really love all the blues and greens you have in here, but without a little contrast of a dab of warm colour they can dull each other down”. Being precise like this immediately leads one into problem solving. Active problem solving is a positive activity – at that point you and the person whose work is being critiqued are on the same side working together to solve the mystery.
And now, I must go and look for someone to spot my warts!
If you have been, thanks for reading! And do write and tell me how you respond when asked to critique another’s work….I’m always ready to have more helpful things I can do in this situation. Elizabeth