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How to Survive an Art Critique

by Miranda Aschenbrenner on 4/16/2010 7:40:06 AM

This post is by guest author, Miranda Aschenbrenner. This article has been edited and published with the author's permission.You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.

In art school, the most stressful part of any class was always the critique. This was when you put the results of your hard work up in front of everyone, explained your ideas, and waited for the criticisms - ahem, feedback - to come rolling in. This was when you put it all on the line to find out if anyone else thought what you were doing was valid.

Even if you're not in art school, life is full of situations where you have to expose yourself to other people's judgments. Whether it's an informal critique through a gallery, an artist talk or exhibition, a studio visit, or just your friends coming to your house, chances are you've been in a position where other people have seen your work and have had something to say about it.

Even when you're content with your direction and don't care what others think of it, it can be hurtful to hear negative comments. If you're already unsure or a little insecure, it can be downright damaging. Heck, even the positive comments can be confusing, leaving you to wonder, "is that really how people see my work?"

Artists constantly receive comments, criticisms and general feedback about their art. As an artist, you need to learn how to deal with these without letting it effect you too much. Here are some strategies to help you survive a formal or informal critique.

Remember Where They're Coming From

No matter how objective people try to be, their own beliefs, likes and dislikes, and experiences will inform any comments they make about your art. Other artists sometimes give advice that encourages you to work in a way that is similar to their approach. This isn't intentional, it's just that they are coming from a place that's familiar to them. I am more likely to comment on the formal qualities of an artwork, just because that is what I'm interested in myself.

Take it With a Grain (or a Shakerful) of Salt

People only give their opinions; there's no such thing as right or wrong.  Even if the person giving advice is a respected artist, your professor, or a gallery curator, it doesn't mean that theirs is the definitive voice on the matter. Their opinion may be more educated than others', but at the end of the day it's still an opinion. Don't take any critique as the gospel truth. You need to weigh the advice and use what you can.

Ask Yourself, "Is it Relevant?"

It's important to examine any advice you're given and determine whether or not it relates to your art practice. If you're getting feedback that seem to focus on something completely different than what you're interested in, it may mean that your "message" is somehow being diluted by something else in your art.

I experienced this when I was at school. I was painting tools on doors, choosing tools only because of their relationship to construction. In my head, I just thought of them as shapes in a composition. In my critiques though, I got all kinds of feedback about the meaning the tools brought to the work. If you find that the feedback you're getting has nothing to do with your work, figure out how you can become more focused. I got rid of the tools altogether and just painted rectangles!

Remember it for Later

Another thing I like to do is to file away criticism for later. It's often difficult to take it in all at once. It's easier to mull it over when you get the chance, and sift through to find what is usefdul. Sometimes, the feedback you get isn't relevant now, but it might be relevant later in your career. I still think on critiques I had several years ago to see if there's anything new that I can take from them. Ideas that seemed completely off the wall at the time might suddenly be very intriguing!

Don't Take it Personally

If you have a particularly bad critique, or lots of negative feedback, try not to take it personally. For the most part, people are only trying to help you, in their own way (which isn't always helpful, of course, but it's the thought that counts!). Sometimes, it can seem like people go out of their way to be mean and nasty. In those cases, you should still try to
remember that it's not about you! It's likely more about those people and their insecurity and their issues. You will need to develop a thick skin, but just remember, it's something we all have to deal with!

I hate to say it, but this applies to positive feedback as well! Enjoy it because you deserve it, but don't let it go to your head! It's still just one person's opinion, and if you take it for granted, it could make the negative feedback that much harder to take. I wish I had known this ten years ago! All throughout high school I got awesome grades in art; I was one of the top students. Then I went on to university and suddenly I was surrounded by all the other people who were top students in their schools.  My first grades were quite a shock!

Ask Yourself, "Is it True?"

This is the point when you need to be really honest with yourself. Don't brush off every negative comment and think that everyone is too blind to see your true talent. Take a good hard look at yourself and ask yourself, "is it true?" If it is, suck it up! Don't wallow in it! Figure out what you need to do to fix it, and then do it. It won't be easy, but it is necessary. We all need good, honest criticism to be able to grow and reach our full potential!

And as for the strange comments...

I've gotten of weird responses to my work. Not bad ones, but ones that made me think to myself, "what the heck?" People also seem to like making really weird suggestions. I can't tell you how many times people have suggested that my abstract paintings should spin. To me, the idea is absurd; I couldn't think of anything I'd want to do less! But that's what they see, and at the end of the day I'm just grateful that something about my work moved them enough to think beyond what was in front of their eyes.  My advice: laugh it off and don't worry about it!

There you have it, my guide to surviving a critique! What strategies do you use?

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K. Henderson
The same can be said when you enter juried art shows. Just because you do or don't get into a show doesn't mean your work is good or bad. It's just one person's (or a small group's)opinion.

And I agree that just because someone praises your work, don't let it go to your head. Usually, the work I do that I think is good get little praise and the work I think is mediocre , other folks love. It can be confusing. i just try to do the best work I can do.

Helen Horn Musser
MIranda, I like your comment on take it with a grain of salt. Art is in the eye of the beholder and each individual will see it differently. Your article is very sensible and gives encouragment from the artists point of view
Helen Horn Musser

Becky Joy
I agree with K. Henderson. One opinion good or bad may not mean much, but a concensus of several like opinion may be something to pay attention to. Also, when searching for someone to critique your work, find someone whose work you admire and would like to emulate their path. That may help to head you down the right path.

Teddy Jackson
Because I am so emotionally attached to each new work, I hold back on getting critiques until after a few days. I find I can then be more objective myself.
Remembering that we all have a different prespective on the world, we must stay true to the reason we chose to create the artwork and accept the feedback as one way of problem solving. We all know that painting is problem solving one after the other.
Enjoy exchanging your ideas with artists and look at it as a learning opportunity.

Marianne Miller
Good article. I recently took a workshop with a painter who kept saying to the students, "I like this", or "I don't like that". I left the workshop not knowing why I was so tangled up in knots until a little time and perspective showed me that I was feeling tremendous pressure to please the instructor due to those comments. We DO need to find the right line to walk, neither too uncaring, nor too deferential.

Michael Cardosa
HI Miranda,

Great article. I paint with a group on Sunday mornings and it's one of my favorite things to do. I think painting with a group is not only fun it's certainly helpful in learning from other people and getting almost immediate feedback on what you might be doing.

I also think you point about criticism constructive or otherwise is right on point. You have to be able to separate suggestions and ideas that are truly valid comments on what you are trying to accomplish versus what really boils down to another artist's style and ideas on how the painting should look. At the end of the day, the painting is yours and if you do something to a painting because someone suggested you do so and you don't like the result but keep it, you've "ruined" your painting and it's all your fault for doing it especially if you "knew" it was not what you really wanted when you started out.

Criticism is great and we all need it to grow but you have to understand what to do with it when you get it.


Helen Horn Musser
Great comment Michael; Right On!

Sheryl Knight
Interesting story Luann. I can really relate to having to set aside my art while raising young children and just being a Mom! But what a privilege and blessing it was, and is today as I watch them as adults and parents themselves. It was worth it. We all have different seasons of our lives to focus on different things. Thanks for sharing your story.

Michael Cardosa
Thanks Helen,

Several months ago the club I paint at held an "Artist's Round Table" where you could bring a painting, tell everyone what you were trying to accomplish and then stand back and listen to the comments. It was not limited to the group I paint with so there were people that I didn't really know participating. It was a great experience and I wish we did it more often.


Sharon Weaver
Putting yourself out there through your art is filled with risks. I always listen but don't know what to make of it all. I have had the best complements and the worst criticism given at the same show on the same painting. Go figure.

Helen Horn Musser
Sheryl, You are so right; raising a family is a joy and the results are wonderful. Beautiful Grandchildren! My life would surely miss them; what a blessing they are. My art, even though on the back burner, did improve during those years.

Helen Horn Musser
Sounds like very fertle ground you guys are creating together. Just verbalizing aims for a painting helps put it all in action. Others views can be very valuable if presented in a loving way.

Jeff Brimley
Some of the greatest things I've learned have come from some of the harshest critics. As I have come to say over the years, I've got a mother who will complement me and my art to their fullest, I don't need any more mothers. I now look forward to critics, it helps me see things I can't see thus helping to move in new and sometimes better direction. All though one of my favorite criticisms of my fantasy art from many galleries is that it is too creative. I find this funny because I always thought art was supposed to be creative, I never knew there was a line in the sand when it came to creativity. A man in a giant lobster suit smearing excrement on a canvas is normal, but whimsical paintings of children in fantasy settings is too creative.

Michael Cardosa
Hi Sharon,

I think that if someone picks something specific about a painting, a shadow, a value, etc. It's a criticism, constructive or otherwise, but a criticism. If it's on the overall painting, it's a comment based on what they like or don't like and both should be handled as you see fit.


Michael Cardosa

Well put if not a little graphic! :)

But I think it's a good example of criticism versus comments.

Comments, I believe, are comparisons of what people like, so, when all is said and done, who cares, you can like them or not they aren't going to get you anywhere because the next person might just love what you've done. Criticism are helpful because they might point out something you might have missed or done better but even these have to he weighed against what you were trying to achieve. I also think that the only real criticisms that are truly valuable are those with an explanation. If someone says a shadow is too light or not in the right spot it only helps you if they will spend the time to tell you why. Those are the absolute best things to help you learn and I love them.


Esther J. Williams
Miranda, this is a highly relevant article for me this week as I just survived a big critique. I enter lots of juried art exhibitions. We can't get into them all and I was rejected from one I wanted to be in. On top of that I asked for a critique of the pieces that were rejected from a top person in that particular style of art. The pain is like a knife in the ribs at first when you hear the criticisms and suggestions. There is thought to just throw in the towel and quit for good. But then the reasoning mind starts to click and we analyze several factors. Who was the judge, what is the scoring scale and categories they judge, like composition, color, technique, etc... What style and technique of art are they looking for? Look at our own art and decide if we are pursuing a style that falls within the outlines of good quality art. Can we change our focus to be receptive of the criticisms? Are we traditional, modern, impressionistic. Or are we banging our head against the wall trying to pursue a style that is really not us? Is there a point in more in depth study of that style of art or the fundamentals of art? What about our own voice and the will power to follow our vision instead of following the latest, most popular trend? Van Gogh and Monet were laughed at and criticized too, but kept on keeping on with their vision. If you are doing good, people are buying your works and complimenting it, keep straight on your path. I am sensitive to comments on my art, my skin is not thick, so I do think about what's said and will sort it out with my own beliefs in myself as an artist. I try to find a balance, I don`t want to completely shirk criticism, I find it helps me to check myself with the art world and my art soul.
The criticisms are never going to stop, so we just need to take it in, soak it in, then use what is good to keep our soil moist and drain out the overflow.
Now, I am off to paint a masterpiece in my eyes!

Sheryl Knight
Esther, I liked your comments about being critiqued. I can so relate. I am sure we have all had more rejections than we would like to remember, but that is part of the growing, isn't it. If we go back a few years we probably wouldn't have even entered some of the shows we enter today, or at least attempt to. I hope your masterpiece is coming along wonderfully!

Marian Fortunati
Very good advice Miranda...
I think one really does need to seek opportunities for critical advice or comments but (as hard as it is to do sometimes) one also needs to remember that they are someone else's opinions and ideas. They can be used to learn from or discarded as appropriate.

I also liked your idea of keeping the advice for later. We all hear things differently at different points in our journey and what might not be relevant or appropriate today might be "spot on" at another point


Diane Tasselmyer
For everyone...No matter which end you are on; the giving a critique or receiving critique, use common sense, courtesy, and see what you can get from it.

Helen Horn Musser
Excellent advice Diana; giving a critic is sometimes very diffucult and never crush your artist

Carole Rodrigue
We have a critique each month at my art club meetings. They are silent critiques where everyone writes one positive and one critique. I find that I pay attention to those that come up more than once. If a critique is repeated more than once, then I need to pay attention to it, humble myself, and agree that there is something that most people think needs changing. I've done such changes and found that the critics were right! When I know it's wrong, or not part of my vision, I ignore it. But something that keeps coming up needs attention.

Carl Purcell
Miranda, it doesn't matter how far along you get, criticism is still a bit painful. It just gets easier to shrug off. Oddly, the criticisms I remember the most were the ones that were dead on and helpful. In a painting class a fellow student asked the instructor why my painting still worked so well even though the perspective was not correct. Ouch! I checked out some books on perspective and got the problem corrected.

Helen Horn Musser
Carl, I'll have to agree with you perspective is everything in a painting of landscape, buildings and portraits. An abstract does not need correct perspective; just passion or peace. I have found you take your painting as far as you can and then you make it work. You obviously made your's work. Many masters break the rules while painting. Your epipheny told you there was corrections to be made. Another example of you need to know what to do with the painting to correct it. Intentinal breaking the rules is evident when others areas speak of truth. I hope you break the rules since you are excellent at making it work.

Sheryl Knight
I like what you had to say Carole about critiques...if the same comment comes more than once pay attention. If it is contrary to my vision of what I'm trying to do, ignore it. Good advise. I really like critiques because often I will agree right away and wonder why I didn't see it (or change it)sooner. It becomes a reinforcement of what I know I need to do.

Marta Brysha
I am fortunate to know a group of artists who are supportive and offer valuable criticism. Best of all we can be honest with each other and laugh at our boo boos. A friend of mine recently did an experimental piece that really didn't end well. She showed it to a larger group we are part of. When she described it as shit, nearly everyone protested, "no it's fabulous". I looked at her and smirked and said "you're right, it's pretty shit". We laughed about it and I then went on to comment that it was not totally unusable and that she could use parts of it (which worked on their own but not as part of the whole) in a future work she was planning. She has had lots of ideas for that little disaster since then and will create something wonderful with its inclusion.

So, be honest, but be kind as well. Look for the positives, point out the negatives gently and everyone wins.

If you're not in art school or a classroom situation any longer, there may be few opportunities for a full, useful critique. You don't get any kind of feedback about work entered into juried shows, unless the work has been accepted, so one is left to wonder about any work not accepted. I was accepted into a juried show last year and at the opening reception the juror actually went around the gallery and talked to the people there about what he liked about the winning pieces. That was unusual and interesting to hear, even though I was still skeptical about the winning choices and the reasons why. It served to demonstrate to me how quirky and unpredictable these things really are. The more juried shows and other events you enter or get involved in, the less time you have to dwell on any single acceptance or rejection, so keep working and stay focused!

Joanne Benson
Good article and relevant to issues we have all faced. I personally think I'm my own worst critic although I have gotten kinder to myself as the years go by.

Carole, I like your silent critique process. I think that is a great way to offer praise and constructive criticism without publicly bruising someone's ego. And I also agree that if a crit comes up more than once, it probably needs attention!

I paint with a Tuesday night group and we are all very supportive but ask for help if we have a problem area in our painting. That seems to work well because if you are asking for pointers than you are willing to listen to other's opinions and advice. However, in general, we are probably too kind to each other....

I have recently started a resurrection project where I have taken some older watercolors from 2002-2005 which I consider failures and have begun to rework them. I have come to realize that I have learned much over the past 10 years and can now boldly correct some of these paintings to where I really like them now. I also have found that there are some where the compositions were poor and those are the ones that I can't make work. It has been fun to go back in with watercolor or in some cases pastel over the watercolor! And it has reinforced the fact that I have grown and improved over time!

Carole Rodrigue
I can't take credit for the club's critiquing process, but I do like how it's done too. Also, when a critique is made, it can't just be a general statement of dislike. The critique has to be related to rules of painting this way the explanation makes more sense. And one positive attribute is always given.

Gina Buzby
I think these are all very good ways to deal with "constructive criticism". Thanks for writing them up!

Wow, it's so great to read everyone's comments. It sounds like most people have had positive experiences when it comes to critiques, which is awesome! I'm definitely better at receiving them now than I was as a first, second, or third year art student.

Teddy has some great advice: "Because I am so emotionally attached to each new work, I hold back on getting critiques until after a few days."

Thanks, everyone, for sharing your views!

sue Martin
I find critiques valuable. Sometimes I catch myself "filtering" comments made by people whose work I don't particularly like. Then I realize that's not necessarily fair to either of us, nor appropriate, so I open my mind and look for the nuggets that will help me see my work as others do and take steps to improve. If, instead of shutting down, I open my mind and think "that's an interesting way of seeing it," or "what IF this is true...then what," it helps me to see other possibilities even if I ultimately decide not to change something. I agree with Miranda that you mustn't take comments personally; humility is a readiness to learn. And, Miranda, I love your work and the depth you achieve with overlapping shapes and colors. I also like the way you explain your creative process on your web site.

I find that I benefit from critique sessions but I "consider the source" strongly. If I know a painter has preference for neutrals and grays as opposed to saturated colors, (or realism vs. abstraction or tight rendering vs. "painterly" style, pick your duality) then I consider that when I take the critique to heart. I also like critiques to be specific, not vague.

I think there are 3 parts to a good critique
1) what works
2) what doesn't work
3) some concrete suggestions of directions to explore to fix what doesn't work.

Marta Brysha
Karen: Brilliantly summarised and I agree wholeheartedly.

Joanne Benson
Karen, I agree with you also. You really shouldn't study with someone whose style you don't admire and thus you need to watch the source of the criticism.....

I have been telling my daughter who is an art major at a liberal arts college to open her mind, do what the profs say and perhaps she will learn something and glean something from their teachings but deep in my heart I know that if you don't like their style and philosophy it is very hard to do art that isn't from your heart and soul.....but she is young and (as all of us) should be exploring lots of techniques and styles, etc.....

Having been in her shoes many years ago....I can sympathise with her dilema. However, my art profs just turned me off completely for many years. Art is so personal when it comes to subject matter and style issues.

But we do need to focus on technical use of the materials as well as composition and design elements and hopefully she will benefit in that area.....

Bottom line - listen with an open mind, take from the crits what you can and disgard that which doesn't fit with your individual style....

Anne Watson
Good things to keep in mind.

Donald Smith
You”ôve given a lot of great advice about dealing with critiques and critics, thank you for sharing!
When I first started painting, I found, and posted some paintings for critiques. When I first read some of the comments, I experienced everything you”ôve written about. After a while, I learned to consider them with an open mind and to consider the source and where the person might be coming from.
Art appreciation is subjective. After posting on Wetcanvas for five years, I”ôve learned that not everyone will like my paintings, even fewer will love them. I”ôve learned a lot about how to paint from participating on a forum. I”ôve also learned how to deal with criticism.
So if you”ôre not participating in a forum, posting your paintings for critiques, then find a forum and start posting. You may learn a little bit more about painting, and you will develop a tougher hide so when you do talk to an art gallery, hopefully you will not be too sensitive to any of their negative comments.


Jennifer Moore
@ Jeff Brimley: While I have not yet approached galleries (I don't have enough work available yet,) I can relate to your amusement and bemusement at the "too creative" label. See, I do morbid art, and I take cemetery photos as part of my entire body (I do other subjects--less "creative" ones--as well.) I have come to learn that that is code for "I, uh...I don't get it." I know that sounds snotty, but I really think that's the case. Anything outside of the "mainstream" can be very hard for people to relate to. There are markets for both fantasy and morbid art. RICH markets (not that I'm actually capturing any of that yet...) Good luck to you!

@Miranda: This is an excellent post. I hope you do not mind--I shared it on my Facebook fan page. (Not linking, out of respect for anti-sp*m rules at Fine Art Views. Will provide my Facebook link if asked.)

I work in several different media--painting/mixed media, hand crafts, photography, writing--and I've gotten all kinds of feedback. I use positives to keep me from giving up when things look bleak. I use negatives (if they are useful) to help me to improve. I laugh off useless or bizarre feedback, but the thing I ALWAYS, ALWAYS try to do is thank people for their feedback.

Jennifer Moore
JenniferLynn Productions, LLC

Sheryl Knight
Jennifer, I agree with you about always thanking people for their feedback. They may feel they are taking a risk in giving their honest opinion, and we want them to continue doing that. The positive comments do keep us going sometime, and they are often from a buyer rather than another artist, but we really do need the "negative" ones to help us improve and maybe see what we are missing. I liked what you had to say.

Jennifer Moore
Thanks, Sheryl. Nice of you to say. :)

Jennifer, thanks for sharing the article on Facebook. You're right, always thank your critic, no matter what they say!

Donald: I love Wetcanvas! It's the perfect place to get un-biased feedback, as well as to see how feedback is given and practice critiquing art yourself.

Jennifer Moore
No problem! I always share info that I feel is useful.

Very good advice, Critiques are a valuable tool. The feedback given in a critique helps yo to focus on what is relevant to the viewer. As an artist I sometimes get lost in the moment, it's like a lnock at the door that brings your attention to something you may not have noticed.

I try to listen with an open mind at the moment of critique and then throw most of it out the window when it's over. Hanging on to the parts that felt true. A good opinion always feels true, although it may sting a little or lift you up.


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