This article is by Carolyn Henderson, the managing half of Steve Henderson Fine Art. She is a Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews and her freelance writing appears in regional newspapers, online magazines, and her humor blog, Middle-Aged Plague.
In our dating days, the Norwegian Artist took me by the university art building to view a collection of sculptures done by various students.
“What do you think of this one?” he asked.
A basketball on a cube.
“Interesting interplay of the round form in contrast with the angularity of the square,” I replied. (This might be a good time to mention that I was an English major.)
“How about this one?”
A collection of raisins – or were they rabbit pellets? – stuck to the outside of a jar.
“Such external textural variety in conjunction with the smooth, almost icy glacial exterior of the primary form,” I observed.
“And . . . how about this one?”
An octopus wrapped around a violin.
That one had me nonplussed, but I plunged recklessly ahead:
“How imaginative! It’s playful, whimsical . . . interesting.”
Only after I shut up did it occur to me that the Norwegian was taking a sculpture class this quarter.
“Um . . . is one of these sculptures yours?”
“Well, yes, as a matter of fact one of them is. The octopus with the violin.”
Oh dear God. What had I said about it?
Apparently I hadn’t messed up too badly, because the man seemed pleased, our dating relationship progressed, and eventually, when we married, the octopus joined the household as well.
Raised in a family of either scientists or word smiths, I had no background in art, artists, art-speak, or visual aesthetics, and when I shocked my extensive clan of PhDs by throwing my lot in with a bearded Bohemian, I found myself in a new world, with a different mindset, and a completely different vocabulary from molecular biology, organic chemistry, and the parsing and diagramming of sentences.
When the Norwegian Artist finished a painting, he wanted my opinion on it – seriously, actually, and considerably beyond, “That’s really nice, honey,” but while I could go into great detail as to why “exemplary” was a superlative adjective to “exceptional” in a particular sentence, I really didn’t know how to accurately and meaningfully analyze his work.
But he taught me.
On our limited budget, we visited galleries, student shows, and free museums, and the Norwegian talked about the work; dismantled its construction; pointed out detail here, lack of it there; critiqued an immaturity of perspective; praised a limited, bold use of color in an unexpected corner of the piece; explained the style; discussed art movements and their historical significance, answered my questions; addressed my challenges; respected my opinions – in short, he trained me to look at paintings and sculpture beyond, “Oh how pretty! It looks just like a photograph!”
Or, “That’s really nice, honey.”
Now, when the Norwegian Artist unveils his latest work, not only I, but the progeny as well, is able to give intelligent, articulate commentary on the piece as a whole and the sum of its parts – usually, if there’s a problem and we catch it, he knows it already and we provide unwelcome confirmation, but more than once we have connected to an unexpected twist in his style or approach that he was vaguely aware of but not sure of how to pursue until we said something.
If you’ve got family or close friends with whom you regularly interact, you have a potential treasure, insofar as critiquing your art goes. Like me, they may not have a background in the visual arts, but just because they’re not paid art critics doesn’t mean that they can’t critique your art. Given a chance, they want to help you move forward, but they may not know how.
Take the time to train them – show them art, all sorts of it, and explain why you think it’s good or bad. Describe and discuss perspective, composition, color, form, contrast, light and shadow. Talk to them about your own pieces and point out what you like and don’t like about what you’ve done, and listen to them when they tell you what they are seeing, and not seeing, in your work.
You don’t have to agree with them, as long as you are aware that the most irritatingly bothersome things they point out are probably so because, deep down, those things bother you as well, and you were hoping that no one would notice. Believe me, it’s as hard for them to point it out as it is for you to hear it.
But do not underestimate the inestimable value of a well-meaning, supportive, geographically close person who not only cares about you, but cares about art – your art – and knows enough to speak reasonably intelligently about it.