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Critique and you

Journal Entry: Thu Jul 31, 2014, 4:41 AM

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There was a small discussion in my last journal about unhelpful tutorials, that touched the topic of critique.

So, I decided to talk about critique for a bit.

In the online art community there is no unified stance on critique. Some people are totally incapable of recieving any form of critisism of their creation and think it's the devil. Some think that critique is should always be a "sandwich". Some people think that anything goes and the artist should listen to all feedback if he chooses to publish art online. Some say critique is only valid "constructive" and some say that it doesn't take a chef to know the steak was burnt.

I'll talk about how I percieve it - and mind you, my perception had changed over the years. This is more about what I figured during this time.

Point 1: Feedback is essential for development. That's not a solely artistic thing. Every human activity implies there's a trial and error process involved in the honing of any skill and being taught that skill. Thing is, that without a person being pointed to where he erred, he will most likely repeat his mistakes. Without knowledge, a person has no awareness of the rules of his activity, and will not by himself be able to see where he did wrong. So, without critique, there is no artistic growth. Any person that does not accept critisism of his activity, will most likely be stunted, because there's no second pair of eyes to evaluate his work with detachment and clarity of vision. However, clarity of vision is something that an artist develops too, from experience and critique itself. An experienced artist's evaluation of his work differs from that of a beginner. Experienced artists make less mistakes exactly because that detached reflection of work is possible on their own.

Point 2: I personally don't think critique should be "sandwiched", ie has to contain both praise and the critisism. Sometimes, a work has no real positives to talk about and is a bundle of problems. The idea of a "critique sandwich" was propelled by people with egos so frail they can't concede to their mistakes before being buttered up first. The main requirement of a critique is that it's TRUTHFUL. That is what helps artists - truth about their art, and if the truth is pleasing or a call to action, well, that depends on the work itself.

Point 3: Critique quality differs. That's a very important point. One thing is to say "well this is too negative" or "this is too positive", which is an emotional assesment of a critique, but another thing is the quality of the product. Tone !=quality.
Basically, an artist that gets feedback, is posed before the following question: "Is the opinion valid, qualified and helpful?".

Now, here comes the tricky part. If I speak from my experience, when I just started doing digital art, I accepted ALL opinions about my work and tried to implement them. I was a very unexperienced artist and I hungrily devoured any feedback that came my way. Also, because of my lower skill level and the aforementioned inexperience, I wasn't been able to discern between helpful advice and unhelpful advice. Mind you, when I say unhelpful I don't mean rude or something like that. Unhelpful advice more often than not the one that is given with the best intentions of the critic. The critic is a person and artist like any other. A critique is a product like any other. The value of one critique compared to another, DIFFERS. And to maximize the improving effect of feedback that it has on your art, you have to realize, there is no equality amongst anything that we do.

For example, as my skill and ability to evaluate my own art grew, I started noticing, that the feedback was often, well, lacking. That creates a dynamic of "am I seeing things wrong or this person does?"

And that brings us to the next point.

Point 4: The gap between the skill of the recepient artist and the provider critic determines the critique's category.
Now, there are two scenarios and two forms/categories of critique that stems from them. Both of these categories have their uses - none is essentially better or worse than the other, but you should always discern between the two for the sake of your improvement.

Scenario 1: the critic is less proficient that the recieving artist, and that makes for a Pointer Critique. The pointer critique is summed by the faved by pointer critics saying about the chef and spoiled food. Indeed, it doesn't take a great artist to noticed botched anatomy, ghastly color choices and other evident problems with an artwork. The pointer critic is that detached eye that sees your work as it is, without your flair of emotional involvement. The Pointer Critique is the highlight marker for your work. And that's mostly it. Because the critic is less proficient than you or maybe not even an artist himself, it's unlikely he knows what to do with the aforementioned problem.

Scenario 2: the critic is equal or more proficient than the receiving artist, and that makes for the Tutor's Critique. The tutor's critique is what many imply by "constructive critisism", and that is that in addition to telling the artist what is wrong with their work, the critic also offers a solution to rectify the problem, or offers an overall advise how to improve the artwork. Because the tutoring critic is at least equal, or more proficient than you are, he had previously encountered and worked around the problem he had noted in your work, his skill is sufficient to know, how such problems are fixed. The critic, therefore, is not a pointer, but a tutor.

This is the most sought after type of advice, since it doesn't leave you hanging and trying to figure out what to do. BUT! Many do not realize that, but a pointer critique that leaves you hanging is just as helpful if the pointer is correct. Many times, improvement comes from FIGURING STUFF ON YOUR OWN, and that type of digging to get things right is often more of a solid step, than being led by the hand and told how exactly to fix something.


So, we touched a bit on critique quality. So, what if you feel the critique is not of good quality, and were the critic may go wrong?

To start off, I'll return to my previous words about self-assesment. The more you are inexperienced and the less you are self-aware about your art, the harder it is to discern between low quality advice and good advice. This inability to discern may result in two different things for a beginner artist: the artist sees all critique as low-quality and attacks against him, and stagnates, or begins to fix any nitpick for the sake of doing it and not thinking about why. I have to say that for the longest time, I fell in the latter category. While it did help me improve considerably, it had its drawbacks.

So, I'll list what I think is low-quality critique, and how to understand it is one.

1) Person with low quality art trying to red-line yours. This I guess, in my eyes, is the worst offender. I see it all over the place - one bad artist taking another bad (or sometimes good) artist's work, and with the best intentions of "look, this clavicle is off!" redlines the artwork to worse hell. If someone proposes you to redline, look at their own gallery - if there is nothing to show that the person is decent at what he attempts to fix for you, politely decline. You won't get anything of worth out of there, and you could get a bad habit.

2) Pointer Critique is incomplete at pointing. Things like "that leg is wrong", "i dunno, the colors look weird", "I don't like the background". Pointer Critique doesn't need to offer a solution, but it should be complete. Examples: "that leg is wrong, because the calf is too short", "i dunno, the colors look weird - pink really clashes with orange, it becomes a mess", "I don't like the background - it lacks depth".

3) Tutor's Critique shows incompetence. Some people may have really good art and a keen eye for mistakes, but they're shit at explaining things. You have to keep in mind that it's totally possible, and not every person is good at advise. Here's a thought-up example of such incompetent attempt at teaching: "Ok, so the leg is wrong. The calf is too short... I dunno, you could try overlaying a photo, to see how to get it right?". The person might attempt to give you a solution, but imply a method of fixing that is out of your technique, or the solution is vague enough to be useful.


And in the end, let's talk about critique etiquette, if there is one.

There is an idea, that any type of advice is valid and should be respectfully accepted. I thought so too for the longest time, and for the most part it's true - at least in the respect part. However, I'd like to disavow certain types of ideas at the current point and strengthen some others. I've been for the past few months more active on professional art communities, watching how industry professionals operate, and well, shit is different from dA. The attitudes are different.

So, here are some the not so nice truths you gotta face, from both the side of an artist, and a critic.

1) Critique from a professional/proficient artist is more valuable than one from an amateur. It's a sort of tabooish thing to say, but that's the reality of life. The opinion of dude that draws stick figures will always be less valuable than the opinion of Craig Mullins, and if you're so lucky to hear both, stick to Craig Mullins. It's not nice to tell a person "fuck off, you can't draw, I don't wanna hear shit from you", but if the person is of a lower level than you, and YOU'RE ABLE TO DETECT THAT OBJECTIVELY, take their advice with a grain of salt. Respect, but don't slave to people that are less able than you. Of course, some will tell you "they're both valuable", and in certain cases, it might be so, but the people that say such things too have standards)

2) You don't owe critics gratitude. That might sound rude, but it shouldn't be so. When you post a work of art to the public domain, it's the right of the people to offer their opinions and critisisms to it. However, they do it on their own volition as well. Sometimes, people get enraged that you don't tell them thanks for a critique or ignore it, because they wasted time and effort on you. Of course, if the advice was valuable and helpful, by all means gratitude should be expressed and I follow that. That, however, doesn't mean that every remark in regards to your work needs your praise just because they took a second to type it out.

3) Low-quality advice isn't a direct order for implementation. Some critics might act like they're the last instance. Funny thing, they might be, but that depends on the concrete critic and their advice. However, a low-quality critique is NOT the last instance. You should always evaluate who advises you, the advise itself and it's prospects, ask for a second opinion if possible. If you're not ready for it, well, learn to discern. Sometimes, the feedback is outright garbage. You wouldn't eat garbage, right?

4) There is no point where you stop needing feedback, no matter how proficient you get. But, as you get more and more proficient, you need more and more proficient feedback as well, and that's what generates a lot of tension in artists and critics alike. When you're 1,8 m high, you can't splash around in an inflatable kiddie pool. As you develop, you and your critics should recognize that change, and act accordingly.

5) Also, you can't take off from account the fact that for some people critiquing is a way to stroke a flattened, low-esteem ego. You have to be able to recognize it and step up to it. Usually it goes like this: "I can't paint for shit, but I can TOTALLY give "critique" to this person who is miles ahead of me, and he has to swallow it, because CRITIQUE = ART PRO, and if he turns it down or argues with me, I'm gonna call him out as being a sensitive asshole who doesn't want to improve! Go me!". A lot of artists are aware of this and afraid of this, and therefore, accept critiques only to avert this sort of passive agressive bullshit. Little such people know, that industry professionals NEVER receive public critique - it's mostly dispersed through a tight-knit circle of familars, that need no outward reassurance about their skill.

6) As a critic, to conserve time, study the artist that you offer advice to. I learned that it's a waste of my time to give feedback to people who are a) not very good with critisism, b) who are not at a level where they could implement my advise yet OR at a level where my advice, due to my lower proficiency, is not-needed. So, I prefer to give critique to people who possess the roughly the same skill level as I - they understand and they need it. Both conditions are met.

7) Critique of work in progress and finished work should differ. Works in progress require immediate technical feedback that could help the artist evade or fix approaching mistakes, or offer a fresher perspective on the direction where the work is going. A fully polished, complex artwork, however cannot be fixed as easily, and critique should be made in regards to the PROSPECTIVE works of the artist based on the mistakes or successes in the current piece. Examples: "the foot is all wrong, you should make the calf longer and work with the hip joint so it corresponds with the characters movement" (for WIP); "you have inconsistent leg length for the character in this piece, you should watch for correct propotions in characters, and better from the very beginining of the piece" (for finished work).


Finally, some last comments

Firstly, great, helpful feedback is a rarity - if someone offers it to you, by all means aknowledge the critic that did, because he helps you to become a better artist for free. Share that with others and the community, tell them that there's a person who offers good advice and who should be listened to.

Secondly, don't be a spineless shit nor an ignorant douchebag. Not every piece of feedback is a good one, and not every piece of feedback is an attack on you. Nurture a healthy ego, an understanding where you need to go, a keen eye and ear to gather all valuable opinions and develop a self-assesment that is as objective as it's humanly possible.

Thirdly - give back. Becoming a good critic is a positive influence on one's art itself, because when analyzing other people's work you train to do so with your own - that exact self-assesment that I keep talking about.

Hope this helps anyone interested)


Artist | Hobbyist | Digital Art
I'm 28, own 2 сats and a hardtail bike. I'm Russian, proud Muscovite and a nationalist. Love to devour science fiction, and consider myself an adept of post-cyberpunk. Workwise, I'm a professional (both in terms of education and current job) journalist. Digital painting for me is a hobby which I deeply care for and strive to improve - while it may not be something I'd make a living from, I still strive to achieve industrial standards. I'm a neophyte gourmand and a seasoned audiophile. Anti-misanthropist and ex-military firearms enthusiast. Overall, I'm just a rather average, politically-incorrect dude with an insulting sense of humor and a knack for disillusionment.



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