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How to receive (honest) constructive criticism for your art

by Brian Sherwin on 2/6/2012 11:59:43 PM

This article is by Brian Sherwin, regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. Brian Sherwin is an art critic, blogger, curator, artist and writer based near Chicago, Illinois. He has been published in Hi Fructose Magazine, Illinois Times, and other publications, and linked to by publications such as The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, Juxtapoz Magazine, Deutsche Bank ArtMag, ARTLURKER, Myartspace, Blabbermouth, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Conservative Punk, Modern Art Obsession, Citizen LA, Shark Forum, Two Coats of Paint, Vandalog, COMPANY and Art Fag City. If you want your blog posts listed in the FineArtViews newsletter with the possibility of being republished to our 17,000+ subscribers, consider blogging with FASO Artist Websites.  Disclaimer: This author's views are entirely his/her own and may not reflect the views of BoldBrush, Inc.. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.


In a recent FineArtViews article, I shared a story from Hollywood that pointed to the fact that an artist can't always trust opinions from friends concerning his or her artwork. As stated in that article, receiving useful constructive criticism about your art can be difficult -- especially if you put close friends on the spot by asking for feedback. Again, close friends are probably not the go-to people for that kind of critical exchange. Even a fellow artist may be kind to your artwork out of concern for your feelings if he or she happens to be a close friend. So what is an artist to do? How can you receive 'honest' constructive criticism for your art? Below are a few suggestions:


* Establish an online group of artists who are serious about feedback:


Any artist who has spent time online posting art images on social networking sites knows that the average comment received is something like "great work" -- even when constructive criticism is requested. Comments like "great work" may fuel the ego for some -- but they are of little value to the serious artist. Point blank -- "great work" is not very constructive... especially when you take into account that people who tend to post comments like that do so for just about any image they view. Need proof? Visit a random Facebook art-focused group or page and you will see exactly what I'm talking about.


So what can you do? Simple. Find other artists (preferably artists who don't know you personally) who are just as serious about constructive criticism as you are -- and from there create a private group with that focus. It is crucial to keep the group private so that you and your fellow constructive criticism buffs don't end up flooded with "great work" comments -- which WILL happen if the group is open to the public. Furthermore, it is vital not to get overly friendly with those in the group. Remember that the whole point of creating a group like that is to avoid feedback that is 'polluted' with emotional bonds, if you will.


* Request anonymous constructive criticism:


If you do plan to request constructive criticism from friends you may be able to ward off useless 'great work' comments by offering a way to provide anonymous feedback. You will probably still receive 'great work' comments -- but hopefully some of your friends (specifically your artist friends) will get down to the grit of the request by offering what they really think about your art. The barrier of anonymity may help those who are concerned about insulting you be more open to dishing out some tough love.


You can accomplish the above online by dedicating a blog post to the open request for constructive criticism. Most blogs will allow anonymous comments -- either directly (no email involved) or by hiding the email address of the individual commenting. You might even think about creating an email address for the sole purpose of receiving anonymous constructive criticism -- and provide the address on the blog post so that friends and others who are still wary that you may discover 'who said what' -- and be offended -- can use that if your blog demands a valid email address. (True, it would not be hard to figure out 'who is who' IP addresses-wise... but part of this involves YOU respecting the fact that your friends desire to offer constructive criticism anonymously. ).


* Request "once removed" constructive criticism:


Artist / writer Julia Watson offered advice that tapped into one of the suggestions I had thought about for this article. She stated, "One tip writers often hear is to get a "once removed" critique: you ask a writer friend of yours to ask a writer friend of theirs to critique your work. The second writer must be unknown to you and your writer friend can act as the go between, maybe even shielding their identity. The same thing could work for artists.". The same thing CAN work for artists. It may work for YOU.


In closing, these are just a few suggestions on how to receive (honest) constructive criticism for your art. Consider this an open thread on the topic. By all means, if you have suggestions -- offer them. If you know of a good online community for receiving constructive art criticism -- share it. I know that some will disagree with the idea that friends make bad go-to people for constructive criticism. That said, I'm certain that others can testify to the fact that sometimes art feedback from friends is not very productive.


Take care, Stay true,


Brian Sherwin


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Topics: advice for artists | art criticism | Brian Sherwin | Facebook | FineArtViews | social networking | Think Tank 

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jack white
It's been my experience artist ego is so fragile they can't take much judging. My advice is to be kind when telling others what's wrong with their art.

I have found artist say they want to know whats wrong until they are told and then their shield of defense is raised. Feelings hurt. Many ask and then get offended by the truth. I've learned to be careful in giving suggestions.

The problem with just anyone giving advice, they may not know sic em about art. Not all artists know enough to help others. (smile)

The best ways to judge your work is place a mirror behind your easel. This will allow you to see your work as others. Da Vinci came up with the idea. The mirror switches the image from the creative to the analytical side of the brain. Like a bookkeeper can't see his penny mistake, artist can't see a leaning building.

Susan Holland
Two good people who tell the truth, Jack White and Brian Sherwin! We are so lucky to have this post and this comment.

I think the idea of having a private group of online critics who do not have anything to gain or lose from honest critique is a great idea. Two things limit it: one is that everything would have to be critiqued by jpeg, which is not necessarily a perfect way to present art (depends on the integrity of the photographer) and also finding the people who are really genuine and knowledgeable to do the critique.

Non-anonymous critique can work if all the participants genuinely want feedback. We learned this with "reviews" at Tyler School of Art. Everyone's work was stood up against the wall several times during a six week painting project. Everyone got to say what they thought about the work, and then the instructor(s) would give his own critique. Each of us got the "treatment", and also a wide collection of viewers. It is a good way to teach both tolerance of honest critique, and how to give undaunted critique. But we were all in there to learn, and willing to take the slings and arrows...and, I might say, very encouraged when we got some good words-- they were not easy to come by!

Roy Prinz
Some thoughts on art criticism. Often a critic's comments come from a place such as "if you painted more like me, you be better". Hmmm... maybe, but would I then still be original? While we're all entitled to our opinions and if you expect to be creatively noticeable you should have strong ones; the reality is that the basis for definitive opinions should come from honest experience keeping the ego in check.

What matters is did the work which is being criticized come out to a high degree of the artist's expectations. If there is any ambivalence or uncertainty about the answer to that question, then most likely there are be shortcomings that could be worked on. In all honesty it is most likely a rare occurrence when a piece is perfect in our mind's eye. Thus it is in those shortcomings where one needs to look for answers. The improving artist is a perpetual student.

In studying the works of others I always try to find an aspect of the piece that approaches perfection, even if it is only one brush stroke. There may be other aspects of the piece where I think that a particular attempt at representation falls short. As a student of a medium both perspectives help guide one's path. Take what helps your progress and recognize what you would leave behind. Practice, study and instruction will erode uncertainty.

More often it is the self that needs work as much as the technique. A famous and well respected jazz musician once said: "You can't play it if you haven't lived it." The same is true in painting. If a work is executed without empathy and an intimate knowledge of the subject how do you think the end result will look?

Kathy Chin
This topic is great! Because we are a community of artists..maybe it might be a good idea for us to critique each other's work....for those who genuinely want constructive criticism. I think it can be done in such a way so that it is constructive, and not nasty or demeaning. And, even though there are so many different types of artwork among us, I think we could comment on the parts that we like..and if we don't think we know enough to comment on the negatives, leave that to those who really know.
Yes, we can have fragile egos...but I for decided to leave that behind in order to improve my artwork and make it a success. If one is worried about what they might hear, they don't have to sign up!
Anyone else think this might be a good idea...and if not, give us a good reason why not...i can take it :)

Donald Fox
If someone is genuinely asking for critical feedback, then he/she should be prepared for whatever comes. It is important to ask someone who knows something about art and whose opinion is respected.

I've been part of ongoing creative writing groups that have been quite powerful. Each week at least two of the group would be the focus of criticism for that week. Copies of specific work would be supplied to all in advance. During the critique, the author would not be allowed to speak. Those critiquing would exchange and discuss their opinions. Sometimes those opinions would be strongly questioned by others. Only after the discussion could the author respond by giving his/her viewpoint, asking for clarification, questioning specific views, etc. Revisions could be submitted later for further critiquing. Since these were invitation only groups (6 to 8 members), all participants were already working at a high level of achievement. Everyone's interest was to strengthen their own writing, but an inevitable result was to also strengthen critical skills. Many published works came from these groups. I don't see why this format couldn't be adapted for visual artists.

Carol Griffin
Another problem with online critique could be subjectivity. Art is subjective. If a well known, very accomplished artist were doing the critiquing, I would respect his/her opinion. I would take with a grain of salt the critique of an artist whose work does not show growth. I started a critique group a couple years ago. We meet once a month in the evening. We rotate as hosts and enjoy a little wine and cheese as well as our critiques. We focus on art. We have different levels of expertise, but everyone learns something. The serious artists makes it known they are not there for compliments. We are committed to learning. Several of us work really hard at participation in workshops from other professional artists. We come together with excitement in sharing what we have learned and offer help to anyone in our group who asks for it. Handled properly, feelings can be unaffected.

Susan Holland
Great discussion here... Roy Prinz's comment is certainly pertinent, and emphasizes that always, a person receiving a review must consider the source of the critique. This also applies to juried shows, where a juror might be a champion of, say, conceptual art, and eschew even the most brilliant piece of say, traditional portraiture.

I do believe that "newbies" can make remarkably helpful comments as they view paintings that are beyond their realm of expertise. Sometimes they can just be ignored (e,g,m someone who doesn't know what encaustic painting is all about will likely be unable to critique the technique) or sometimes a totally new view of one's own work will be spawned by the emotional response a tenderfoot artist has to a work.

"Mommom, why is his head so BIG?" asks my littlest grandchild. Good to listen to might be the most salient comment made!

I'd love to be part of a group of fellow artists who can honestly look at my art and say what bothers them, or what they like, or what they wish were different.

Diana Moses Botkin
A local critique group can be helpful, even though it is not an anonymous group. Others have a fresh perspective and may see a problem with composition, etc. that one doesn't with one's own art.

The mirror can also do that, as Jack White suggested. However, sometimes the artist may still not "see" because the project is so close to him or her. Or perhaps if he or she does actually see the problem they don't want to go to the trouble to make changes, thinking others won't notice.

It can be a bit scary to ask for criticism, but honest comments about problems should be taken bravely. Assess them, make changes if they're viable... and grow. Isn't that the reason any of us want honest comments about our work?

Jacqueline Kinsey
I agree Diana.

When in art school, critiques were common and tough at first (especially for a teenager just out of secondary school) but now I wish I had that! My husband is learning...but I need more of a technical critique.

I always think of a critique as one person's point of view and would take some of what they have to say about it and leave the rest.

One way to look at a painting is as a problem to solve and to have another's point of view can only help us see things we miss.

Also...someone more knowledgable about technique and composition etc can help you fix problems you know you have, but have not found the answer to yet.

I would love to join a group (beginners to masters); To help me improve my work.

Yes, jpeg is not ideal...but I live in a rural area where it is not easy to find other artists.

Diana Moses Botkin
Jacqueline, I also live in a rural area. The nearest town's population is about half the number of people at my high school in the big city where I grew up.

Our local artists' monthly critique group has an array of abilities and experience, but I believe we all benefit from each others' observations. If a grandchild can see the obvious, then probably so can an artist who possesses lesser abilities than one's own.

I think it is the fresh look from others' eyes that helps the most. Of course, knowledgeable help is ideal, especially as we mature and need specific guidance for composition issues, etc. However, I am often surprised how wise can be the analysis of an artist whose own work is less than mature.

Diana Moses Botkin
Here is something else to think about for those searching for knowledgeable and helpful criticism: Oil Painters of America offers critiques. There are likely other organizations who do the same.

If you're a member of OPA, you can submit work for critique from signature members. The cost is about that of lunch at a decent restaurant.

Additionally, if you are in attendance at any of the national shows (and are a member) there are usually free critique sessions.

And yes, this can be a little tough but be a big girl (or guy) and hear what is said.

Brian Sherwin
Jack -- Good points. The other problem is that some artists refuse to accept that they could be stronger with their work. As you pointed out, they may ask for feedback only get riled up if someone offers something other than praise. Best to make sure that you really want to receive criticism before asking for it.

Susan -- Thank you for your kind words... and for sharing your experience.

Kittie Deemer
I belong to an online critique group and attend 2 critique groups in real life. The contemporary/abstract group comes closest to being bona fide critique, but the traditional group is just "show and tell". Both real life groups have coalesced around a perceived expert and any critique not in line is discounted. Needless to say, my personal experience with groups is not very beneficial. I have a few artists whose opinions I respect and get my best and most productive critique from them. One of the most valuable aspects of effective critique is that I have learned SELF CRITIQUE, which comes in quite handy!

Brian Sherwin
Roy -- You said, "Often a critic's comments come from a place such as "if you painted more like me, you be better".". Excellent observation. That is another potential downside of receiving feedback from a fellow artist.

Some artists have a very difficult time keeping their ego in check -- I will be sharing a story soon on FineArtViews that points to that fact.

Brian Sherwin
Everyone -- I'll add that sometimes it can be a very good thing to receive feedback from people who are not overly trained/knowledgeable of art. I say that because your average Joe is not an artist and has likely not studied art history for that matter -- yet they make up a huge chunk of the people that will be viewing your art online or at brick and mortar spaces. In that sense, it can be valuable to know what those outside of the art community, if you will, think about your work. That may be a topic for another day.

Brian Sherwin
Roy -- You said, "More often it is the self that needs work as much as the technique. A famous and well respected jazz musician once said: "You can't play it if you haven't lived it." The same is true in painting. If a work is executed without empathy and an intimate knowledge of the subject how do you think the end result will look?"

I have to agree 100 percent with that. I've seen so many students target specific social themes with their artwork... and the whole time I'm thinking, "You've not even been out on your own yet...". The lack of experience -- even if it is just assumed -- takes away from the visual message.

Living life -- all the good and bad experiences that come with it -- can make one a better artist. If you have been living in the protective bubble of youth / academia -- pop that sucker and face life head on. The experiences you have will fuel your work.

Susan Holland
Kittie said, ". Both real life groups have coalesced around a perceived expert and any critique not in line is discounted."...this is a good reason to have a group with some wide experience. It occurs to me that combining the critiques with a big emphasis on Art History and different disciplines was a definite bonus to the reviews at art school.

A note: One open studio I had with several other painters yielded this humbling comment in our guest book: "Nice array of young art." That one made a huge impression on me...making me much more aware of what the characteristics are of "young art." It was really a good move forward on.

I take anonymous criticism with a grain of salt cause I don't really know if the person knows what they are talking about.
Anyone can say "use more blue" or "move it to the left"; and what good does that do me if I don't know if they are any good at what they do.... IF they do art at all.
I would rather seek out criticism from artists whose work and work ethic i admire. Give them an incentive to visit your work, give them a few drinks to loosen them up and then let them talk.
I have to be able to talk about my work and explain what went into it. and be careful NOT to be defensive about me. Cause #1 I asked them to tell me. #2 I want to get better. #3 i'm not obligated to change if i disagree.

Kathy Chin
Went to a gallery reception last nite and this very topic was discussed among a number of the artists. Bottom line, we didn't think putting together a critique session would work for our gallery members. We based our decision on previous history and attitudes we've encountered...obviously purely subjective but involving egos. I agree that there are those who adamantly insist they want constructive criticism...and yet do get defensive as Jack says at the first sign of feedback that says "less than great."
But I stil maintain there are those who seriously want that constructive feedback as a means to further their artistic vision.
Clint - do you think there is way for us to have an area where we could exchange ideas and feedback if it is requested. Seems to me there are a number of us who might like to participate.

I am guilty of just saying great, while I am not comfortabe with critiqueing someone's work on line, I will try to leave more as to why I really like this work. I was brought up with the view if you don't have something positive to say,say nothing.

Carol Schmauder
Thanks for the article and the "great" ideas, Brian. I think it is important to receive constructive critiques of one's art works. I really like the idea you presented of the the once removed critiques. It leaves personal bias out of the picture.


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