The recent surge in organized critique groups around the country reflects artists’ increasing desire for informed responses to their work. Few people like negative criticism, but everyone wants feedback.
by Daniel Grant
The recent surge in organized critique groups around the country reflects artists’ increasing desire for informed responses to their work. Few people like negative criticism, but everyone wants feedback. “In one art class I took in college,” California artist Mike Bailey recalls, “the teacher looked over my shoulder at the painting I was working on and said, ‘Clearly you know nothing about color.’ Today I teach workshops and offer critiques with the exact opposite approach. I try to make suggestions and offer alternatives for areas where I see problems. I never want anyone to be discouraged or feel that I have dismissed their efforts.”
|Misty Brilliance II
Stretched Canvas 24" x 30", oil painting,
by Mike Bailey
Most other artists want the same thing, and today there are plenty of opportunities for them to receive constructive criticism of this kind for the good of their art business and the longevity of their careers. In addition to the usual workshop critique sessions and organized critique groups, numerous societies and organizations are now offering professional critiques. Christine Egnoski, the executive director of the Portrait Society of America, notes that critiques have long been a featured event at the organization’s annual conference, and “their popularity motivated us to establish a system wherein all our members could get this kind of response to their work.” The South Carolina Watercolor Society also offers critiques in a variety of forms, including critique groups at its regional conferences and a DVD of the jury process for the society’s annual show. “We have 500 members, and about 250 usually apply to be in the show,” says director Kim Richards. “Maybe 70 get in, and 30 receive awards. A lot of people want to understand the process and want to know what makes one painting more successful than another.”
Most of these critique programs take an ‘accentuate-the-positive’ approach to offering feedback, focusing on the artists’ strengths and finding ways to improve their weaknesses. With several articles and books being written to offer guidelines on critique-group etiquette of this kind—including Kendall Buster and Paula Crawford’s The Critique Handbook: Sourcebook and Survival Guide (Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey) and James Elkins’ Why Art Cannot Be Taught: A Handbook for Art Students (University of Illinois Press, Champaign, Illinois)—there is clearly a desire to do this correctly and effectively.
Despite organizers’ efforts to establish comfortable critique environments, however, fear of an onslaught of condemnation still exists among artists, making many reluctant to put themselves and their work on the line. Says Richards, “Some people still don’t bring in pieces for critique because it is too gut-wrenching, too devastating for them.” Richards feels that artists need to recognize that suggestions for improvement, although not always positive, are a necessary part of the growth process. “Critique groups aren’t for the faint of heart, but how else are you going to handle displaying your work for the world to see?” she asks. “The dilemma is that as artists grow, take chances, experiment, and move into less familiar territory, the more vulnerable they are likely to feel. Their anxieties about putting artwork up for critique reemerge, which requires greater sensitivity on the part of the critique group.”
In most cases, the only way to grow as an artist is to solicit feedback from people who have more advanced skills, which can also increase artists’ trepidation. Likening creative growth to a staircase, Bailey states that artists should not stay in a particular critique group too long but “always look to move up to the next level, where there is more to learn. Human nature steers people toward a comfort zone, but artists need to be on the edge of their comfort zones, ready to try something new and different, and seeking the suggestions of those more skilled than themselves.”
Even highly accomplished artists follow this advice. “I often ask for responses to my work from other artists,” says Howard Terpning, a successful painter of Western-themed art. “We all try to be better artists, to improve. I often look for honest opinions from respected colleagues, and I am willing to do the same for them.” Even at Terpning’s artistic level, however, tact is still required. “There are limits to what you can say to a close friend,” the artist admits. “If someone asks me about certain areas in a painting, it’s my responsibility to tell them what bothers me. On the other hand, I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.”