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How do you get the most out of a critique?

Annie Irwin, Painter, Weaver, Textiles Artist

Annie Irwin

Teaching Assistant
Painter, Weaver, Textiles Artist

Clara Lieu, RISD Adjunct Professor

Clara Lieu

Art Prof & Partner

Yves-Olivier Mandereau

Teaching Assistant
Ceramic Artist

Partial Video Transcript
Prof Lieu: “As an artist it’s one thing to make the artwork, but it’s a whole other thing to take that artwork and put it out there for people to experience and interact with. And I can guarantee you no matter where you put your artwork, whether it’s online or in an exhibition, you’re going to get an opinion.

And sometimes you’re going to get a critique. Sometimes those opinions and critiques, they’re not always the easiest ones to receive. I’m wondering when you’ve had your work critiqued, what’s helped you get the most out of those comments? Because some of them I think are more productive than others. But some you can really grow a lot from if you know how to take them in.”

Yves-Olivier: “Well for starters it’s the best thing. I know some people who are hesitant to have their work critiqued. But I think that the critique is one of the most important processes you can go through as an artist. Because here you are: sitting, staring at this piece for however many dozens and dozens of hours. Your view of it is skewed and you need a fresh pair of eyes, for sure.

The biggest thing for me is never take anything personally, because a lot of my work is personal and based on my own experiences. But when I put it out to be critiqued, I have to separate myself from the work. And say, okay well I’ve made this thing and this thing might be incomplete, or might need a little help. So when somebody says, “You know the color is a little weird”, they’re not talking about me.”

Prof Lieu: “Right.”

Yves-Olivier: “I’m not weird. The thing that I made…”

Prof Lieu: “Is weird.”

Yves-Olivier: “Is a little off. Maybe.”

Annie: “Separating yourself from the artwork is such an amazing thing to do and it’s such a weight that gets lifted off your shoulders. When you finally feel like “Okay, I can listen with open ears and no one’s talking about me specifically”. And that freedom I think makes you just looser in your artwork as well and willing to try more things. Because you know that’s just what it is. It’s just one piece of work and you’re gonna continue to make more and more.”

Yves-Olivier: “Sometimes when a work is really personal to myself, I make a rule of it if I am getting it critiqued, that I’m not going to say anything. I have my notebook and I have my pen and I just listen and I write everything down. It’s really easy to catch on to one little thing that somebody says that they might have misspoke and get defensive about the work. For me sometimes if I am dealing with something that’s personal and traumatic, or sensitive, I’m just not going to engage, I’m going to listen.”

Prof Lieu: “I really do think that listening to a critique, that’s something you have to decide to do. I don’t think that that’s a natural thing that just happens in the process. I think you as an artist have to say to yourself, I’m really gonna listen to this, I’m gonna absorb everything. I may not agree with it and I may not think that that’s what I should do, but I’m gonna at least consider it and I’m gonna give it a shot.Because I think once you start to go on the defensive, it’s almost like you’ve got your ears shut. You can’t hear anything anymore. At that point it’s all over.

I think the other thing to remember is with critiques, you don’t have to listen to everything. You don’t have to take everything in. You can say “You know what? That was a comment that I think is really gonna help. This comment I didn’t find so helpful, so I’m not gonna listen to that”. But if you are combative with the person that’s critiquing you, or if you start saying “Well I did that because I really wanted to…” You know, it just closes the conversation so to keep that open is very important.”

Annie: “And I like that idea that you don’t want to be a passive participant in your own critique. You want to be active and you want to actively listening. And also if there’s something that someone says that you’re not clear about, you should ask.”

Prof Lieu: “Right.”

Annie: “So that you can really get the fullest out of what they’re saying.

Another idea is to treat it as a professional experience. You want to come in and you want to hang up your work straight. You want it to look professional and you want to present it in a way that you’re confident and proud of. And even if you’re not, you’re just gonna have to pretend you are.

Because you don’t want to be apologetic either. If you start making excuses and apologies for your work before anyone comments on it, you’re really already putting it down and that makes it not very productive.”

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7 responses on "Getting a Critique"

  1. This is such great advice, I seriously wished I had watched this before transferring to art school!! I started at a liberal arts school as an Applied Math major where things are either wrong or right. Period. So, coming into a studio class and putting personal work in front of a group of my peers was very daunting, and it definitely took me a few weeks to learn how to not take criticism so personally. (I actually remember going home and crying a bit after my first negative critique, which is so embarrassing to admit now!). But ultimately, critiques really have taught me to not treat all of my work so preciously. Now, I LOVE to get critiqued and give critiques! I think it is so valuable to be in a space where you can get other artists opinions and get out of your own head, and to give that gift to someone else as well.

    I also think that the way an artist responds to a critique is an excellent indicator of the kind of collaborator they would be outside of the classroom. Learning how to be a thoughtful, active, and gracious recipient of a critique is great practice for the work you may do outside of art school.

  2. There’s so much here that I wish I had known before coming to art school! There’s seriously no way to know what direction a crit will go in — which is good. I can’t count the number of times that people have pointed out details of my work that I’ve never noticed, or glossed over flaws that I thought were glaring, which is part of why it’s so important to present your work without making excuses. I often feel like if you try to beat yourself up about a piece, either you’re setting people up to see your work in a bad light (like Clara said), or they’ll pity you and try to “go easy,” which means you won’t get the information you need to improve the piece.

    I also love what Annie said about not being a “passive participant” in your own critique. I’ve left many critiques feeling frustrated that I didn’t receive any useful information or advice on a piece, and it didn’t occur to me for a long time to ask questions of the viewers. It can really pick up a dragging conversation, and you can get specific advice on what you, as the artist, are unsure about.

  3. I’ve seen cases where artists accepted no critique whatsoever, and end up with a piece that could be easily misinterpreted. However, in less common cases I’ve also seen artists accept every single critique from very different sources and people, and change their artwork in accordance. At that point, the piece would go haywire in terms of artistic direction, and the artist’s own choices could not shine through.

    Taking critique involves receiving with openness and thinking deeply about it. If others will make the effort to think about your piece and express their observations, you must also put in the effort to think in order to make the most of it. Ask questions, be receptive, and never be mindless, whether it be mindless rejection or mindless acceptance! Ultimately, it is about understanding someone else’s observations, and everyone’s observations are precious and different!

  4. The advice I would give in regards to not getting defensive in critique is to ask yourself, before you respond to someone’s criticism, whether you’re trying to simply rebuke their opinion, or rather give context to generate further discussion.

    I think it’s easy to confuse these impulses, so first and foremost your main goal should be to listen to what your peer has to say – particularly to their first reading or reaction to the piece – and to let them finish their point before butting in. It’s also great to ask questions – even if you think you disagree with someone’s interpretation of your work, try to get as detailed a sense of that interpretation as possible, because the entire purpose of critique is to get an outside opinion! One that isn’t tainted by the over-familiarity you have from hours of work, and which you can easily pass on to a viewer by over-explaining.

  5. This should be required viewing at every art school! Even in the intense environment of the classroom, its rare for professors to give a “how to” before critique. I can’t stress getting distance from your work enough – whether its a really personal piece or just a project you’re proud of and have put a lot of time in. The second you get defensive in a critique is when you stop learning!

    To put it another way, always have in the back of your mind that your work can improve. Nothing is perfect, so be ready to hear ways you can take it further!

  6. I love the part you guys mentioned about the fine line between advocating for yourself and being defensive. I’ve spent a lot of time observing the social dynamics of group critiques, and one thing I’ve noticed is that sometimes the tone and content of the first person’s comment sets the tone and content for the entire critique. Sometimes this is just fine and super valuable, but other times it can feel like the critique has gotten away from you, and this is where I see artists panic and start to go on the defensive.

    What I’ve found really helps is to come in prepared with several questions you have for your audience about the work and how they’re responding. This can gently steer the conversation back to areas that are useful to you, or act as an ice breaker if you’ve got a silent audience.

    • This is so true, I’ve seen in a lot of classes that people are quick to piggy back on someone else’s comment, and the danger there is you don’t end up getting diverse opinions. That’s where I think it’s super important for the teacher to help balance things out; even when a student is getting nothing but immense praise from the other students, I think there is always something to improve on.

      That’s one of the reasons why I think it’s important to also have one-on-one critiques in addition to group critiques. The dynamic of a group critique is much more public, and I’ve found one-on-one critiques really useful because students can talk to me about aspects of their work that they would feel uncomfortable talking about in a group situation.

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