Paint Schoodic

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Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The pernicious practice of ‘feedback'

Ditch it, says a business consultant. We artists could learn something from him.
Blizzard, by Carol L. Douglas. We all want to be outside, so my students painted out the windows yesterday. I've done that a few times myself!
One of my students just came back from wintering in Australia. We’ve been practicing formal analysis in her absence. That means we consider a painting on the basis of its formal structure. This isn’t a like-vs-dislike process, but rather an objective one, talking about how the painter uses various techniques to advance his goals.

The protocol for criticism in my studio has always been the sandwich rule. We begin by pointing out something the person did well. We then discuss what might have been handled differently. We finish by pointing out something else that the person did well, so that each session ends on a positive note.
Snow squall, by Carol L. Douglas
This method has been mocked as “fluffy bun—meat—fluffy bun,” but that misses the point. Most people are all too aware of their failures and not aware of their strengths. Catch them doing something right and they’re likely to repeat it.

Since I hadn’t given my wanderer adequate instruction, she was lost. It didn’t help that the painting we were analyzing (by another student) was a stunner. It was all too easy to gush.

There’s nothing wrong with that, and we’ll continue to use the sandwich rule for our critique sessions. My goal in practicing academic criticism with them was different. I wanted to them to start seeing how form, shape, repetition and rhythm work together in painting. But I also wanted to take the judgment out of looking at art.

Tree line, by Carol L. Douglas
The Feedback Fallacy—an article that’s about to be released as a book—takes aim at the pernicious practice of feedback. Marcus Buckingham writes for a business audience, but what he has to say is applicable to the arts, in schools, and in families. He says our culture of criticism as based on three lies: 

  • The best way to help you is to show you something you’re too blind to see for yourself;
  • Learning is like filling an empty vessel—you lack abilities and it’s up to someone else to teach you;
  • Great performance is universal and measurable. Once defined, it can be transferred from one person to another, regardless of the recipient’s strengths and weaknesses. 

Focusing on an imaginary standard of greatness—and how we fall short—doesn’t enable learning. In fact, it shuts it right down. Learning happens when we see how we might do something better, not when our errors are pointed out to us. I can tell a student a hundred times to not dab, but it isn’t until I pick up his brush and show him how to make a proper mark that he will understand what “not dabbing” means. And it won’t be until he has made great marks—uniquely, idiosyncratically his own, with power and confidence—that he will have mastered mark-making.
My backyard, by Carol L. Douglas

Positive reaction, done right, is harder than negative criticism. You need to catch a person doing something right before you can comment. That means constant vigilance and a rock-solid understanding of process. It requires being able to differentiate between idiosyncrasy, style, and the real technical issues that can cause a painting to fail. Above all, it requires confidence. Nobody is supportive from a position of weakness.

We live in a corrosive culture, and it affects all our interactions. But one thing we can do is ditch the unnecessary feedback in the studio. If you’re ever wondering whether a ‘bit of advice’ to another painter is a good idea, just don’t.

Note: my next eight-week session in Rockport starts March 12. I think I'm full up, but if you want to be wait-listed, email me. Details on my classes are here.

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