Paint Schoodic

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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

How to critique work (and still have friends)

Imagine if we visited the Sistine Chapel looking for things to criticize instead of enjoying it for what it is.

Kaaterskill Falls, by Carol L. Douglas
Anyone who has ever taught teenagers knows they are simultaneously hypercritical and thin-skinned. They must be taught to be constructive and humble. A few years ago, there was a flash-in-the-pan video of an art student destroying her own work during a critique. She was mocked for being oversensitive, but listen to the girl criticizing the work. She is larding her critique with personal comments. That’s what happens in an unstructured critique class.

For that reason, we routinely used the “sandwich rule” in our class. We began by pointing out something the person did well. We then discussed the problems of the painting. We finished by pointing out something else that the person did well, so that each session ended on a positive note.

This method has been mocked as “fluffy bun—meat—fluffy bun,” but that misses the point. Often, people have no idea what they’re doing well. Their own self-doubt gets in the way of seeing what is successful in their painting. That needs articulation as much as the negatives do.

Camden in the fog, by Carol L. Douglas
We are taught from a young age that education is about correction, but it is as much about encouraging what is successful.

One problem with formal critique is that we sit there wondering what brilliant insight we can come up with about the work, rather than spending time absorbing it for what it is. Imagine if we approached the Sistine Chapel like that.

I once ruined a painting because of muddled criticism. It especially rankles that I’d paid a high-profile artist to deliver it. “It looks like a crude Chagall,” she said. Dismayed, I painted over the whole thing. Years later, I realized she was flat-out wrong. Criticism is, after all, just an opinion. Today, I’m confident enough to trust my own judgment, but I wasn’t at the time.

Lunch Break, by Carol L. Douglas
It’s easy to misconstrue a student’s intention. For this reason, it’s best to listen first, before offering commentary.

A critique session isn’t just about learning what’s wrong with your painting. It’s also about learning to read artwork, and learning to write artwork that is readable. To this end, I ask some general questions of the class, such as:

“What do you notice first? Second?”
“Why did you see those things in that order?”
“Does this evoke a feeling or response in you?”
“What is the point of this work?”

I am often asked to critique work over the internet. This is difficult. Our cameras and displays are not very accurate. I may not know the person in real life. Since we’re not having a personal conversation, I am guarded in my comments.

Piseco Outlet, by Carol L. Douglas
There is a very small coterie of artists I trust enough to ask for criticism via text or email. They’ve demonstrated that they’re knowledgeable and sympathetic to my painting goals.

Today, for my last class of this session, we’ll be critiquing work. Frankly, there’s enough negativity in this world. If we err, let us err on the side of kindness.


Edward Wedler said...

To learn to critique well join Toastmasters (
Members learn to critique week in and week out. It is part of their communication culture.

I am both a Toastmaster from Nova Scotia and a plein air water colourist. Our plein air group uses Toastmaster mutually-supportive group evaluation principles and finds it the most exciting part to conclude each week's paint-out session.

Carol Douglas said...

I don't know much about Toastmasters but they're a successful group. I imagine they got that way by being supportive and constructive, not negative or demeaning.

Thank you for the suggestion.