Giving a Good Critique

The art of giving a good critique is not a simple one – however it is one of the most useful skills you can learn to have as an artist, no matter your focus. It will help you to interact with other artists and collectively improve your craft. Giving feedback to artists is a tricky business for both parties. The person looking at the artwork needs to be able to formulate their thoughts and comments in a way that they can express to the artist. The artist needs to learn how to listen (or not listen) to the feedback that they are getting. There are chiefly three forms of feedback that you can receive as an artist: edits, comments and critiques. The first of these often refers to pointing out grammatical or other technical errors that need to be fixed in a draft of a piece. I would like to focus on the latter two of these today, as I have noticed that a lot of times people get these confused.

Please make note that this is an opinion piece. I do not require expect everyone to agree with me on these topics. You may agree or disagree with me how you may. I encourage any and all commentary, thoughts, opinions, or side notes in the comments.

Comments vs. Critiques

Aren’t comments and critiques the same thing?

Short answer: No. They’re not.

The long answer is a bit more involved, but important to know. Comments are the general term for any kind of feedback you might give about something. Critiques are designed specifically to provide clear, detailed feedback about both the strengths and weaknesses of a piece. They are designed to help an artist both know what to keep doing with their work as well as areas that they can improve upon.

“I hate it” is  criticism. “I love it” is flattery. Both are comments. Neither are critiques. Social media has complicated matters a lot as well. A “Like” or “Favorite” or “Collect” or “Pin” or “Share” are not critiques either. They are simply a comment bundled with an acknowledgement that the person has seen your work. They typically don’t cost anything, and the value that they hold quite literally varies from person to person. For some, a “Like” or a “Favorite” is reserved for only those works they truly find awe-inspiring. For others, it’s a simple “seen it” remark. It really doesn’t mean a whole lot.

A critique, on the other hand, shares elements of the piece, both positive and negative, with the intention of helping an artist to learn and grow. It goes beyond a regular comment and explains what could be improved and often how one might go about doing that. A good critique can be incredibly valuable to artists. Unfortunately, I have noticed many people either do not know how to give a critique properly, and many artists do not know how to listen to or accept critiques when they are offered.


Giving Critiques

To all of you wonderful folks out there, I would like to share a few simple guidelines that have helped me to give good, constructive feedback to others. This has applications far beyond just art, of course, and these skills can help you tactfully navigate many situations.

Anybody can give a critique. The opinion on this varies from person to person. Many artists think that they should only be critiqued by artists that are better than they are. I find this opinion to be rather narrow-minded, as some of my best feedback has come from people who weren’t even artists. I’m in the camp that anybody, regardless of background, can give a valid critique. It shouldn’t matter if you’re a pro in a particular field, or just a passer-by. Your opinion is your own, and your perspective is your own. And you have just as much right to express it as anyone else.

Critiques should discuss the strengths of a piece. You know that old adage “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all?” Well the same goes with critiques. If the only commentary you can give would be negative, it’s best not to say anything at all. Don’t even critique the piece. Part of the point of a critique is to point out both the strengths and weaknesses of a piece. So you should always mention the strong points of a piece and why they help the piece as a whole. This lets the artist know what they are doing correctly so that they can continue to do so in the future.

Critiques should list one or two things that could be improved. Okay, this is important. Regardless of how many problems a piece might have, only pick one or two of these to talk about in your critique. And be specific. Don’t just say something like “the anatomy is wrong”. Talk about what, specifically, looks wrong to you. Picking one or two items to discuss keeps your critiques short and concise. It also helps to keep you from coming across as a jerk that only points out the problems with a piece.

Critiques should explain HOW things can be improved. This is a big one. Don’t just say something looks wrong. Give a reason why, and explain what could be done to fix it. Always back up what you say with reasoning. This will give your critique added weight and validity in the eyes of the artist.

The artist doesn’t have to respond/listen to your critique. Now that you’ve spent your time sharing your opinion on the strengths and weaknesses of a piece, it is up to the artist to decide if they want to listen to you or not. Just as giving a critique and sharing your opinion is your right, following suggestions or feedback is at the discretion of the artist.

Avoid giving critiques unless someone specifically asks for them. A lot of artists can get a bit annoyed if you give unsolicited commentary on their pieces. If they want feedback, they’ll ask for it. So look for requests for comments/critiques before sharing more than a simple comment on a piece. If an artist shares a picture and has a request posted for a critique, the piece is fair game. But even if somebody requests a critique, it’s not always wise to give one. There happen to be a rash of immature artists these days that say they want critiques but really just want flattery and praise. More of that next.

Avoid immature artists. Almost all of us know at least one person like this. They’re the type of person that asks for a critique, often begs for it, but can’t take any form of negative or constructive feedback. They only want flattery and compliments and an ego boost. They’re also the type of person that tends to complain a lot if they ever get negative feedback. They often try to conceal the fact that they cannot take constructive criticism by disputing the critique and/or trying to discredit either the critique or the person who offered it. Avoid critiquing these people like the plague. It’s a waste of both your time and effort as your commentary will fall on deaf ears.


Taking Critiques

Thought I was done? Well not yet. I’d like to address my fellow artists now. I’ve spoken at length about how to give a proper critique, but there’s often one aspect of this discussion missing – how to take a critique, as an artist. So there are a few things I’d like to mention to my fellow artists.

Anybody can give a critique. Whether or not an artist is better or worse than you does not mean they can’t give you valuable feedback about your work. Every once in a while you will find a little gem of a comment that will help you to improve dramatically. So never discount somebody simply based upon their own artistic skill level.

You don’t have to listen to, follow, or respond to a critique. Everybody wants to hear good stuff about their work. Nobody wants to hear negative feedback. But sometimes we’re going to get it. That’s life, and you’re going to have to learn to deal with it. If you disagree with a critique, feel free to ignore it.

Don’t let your ego get too big. Most people are afraid to give honest critiques these days because there are so many immature artists that complain and rave if anyone points out a flaw in their work. The fans of these types of people tend to only ever give positive commentary without attaching any of the constructive criticism to it. Make sure you don’t fall into this rut. Don’t let the flattery and praise go to your head. Everybody has areas in which they can improve.

Treat everybody respectfully. Even though you don’t have to listen to or follow the advice in a critique, it’s always considered good form to acknowledge the person and thank them for their input. In a live critique session, this is the equivalent of looking the person in the eye and nodding your head as they comment on your piece. On the internet a “thank you for your input” is sufficient.

Nobody’s perfect. And I really mean that. We all have areas we can improve upon. This applies to all of us. So if you’ve heard the same critique from several dozen people, regardless of your work experience or level of education, it might be something worth considering.

Remember that critiques are not personal attacks. When someone writes a good critique, it is not meant as a personal attack on you. Sometimes it feels that way, but it isn’t. A critique is meant to reflect on your piece. I’ve run into many artists who think that simply because they received a bad critique that they are a terrible artist and should give up on art/work/life etc. If the person leaving the critique attacks you, the artist, directly, they’re probably trolling you. And it’s always best to just ignore trolls.

Take blatant and heavy-handed criticism with a grain of salt. Like the above, keep an eye out for blatant, heavy-handed criticism. A lot of people think that to critique is to point out each and every bad part of your piece. You don’t have to listen to everything they say, and like was mentioned above, you don’t have to follow, or even respond to these comments. Some people are just bad at giving critiques. Most people don’t intend the comments to be personal.

Be mature. If someone said something that made you mad, or if they didn’t simply shower you with praise, let it go. Feel like arguing with someone because they told you your intentional approach was wrong? Let it go. If you don’t like the comment somebody left, simply thank them for the feedback and move on. Arguing, making fun of, or trying to discredit the people that have given you an honest critique makes you look rude, selfish and unprofessional.

Learn to give good critiques yourself. It takes a lot of work to write a critique. The more you critique the work of others, the more it will also help you to train your eye to notice strengths and weaknesses in your own works. It will also help you to read critiques and commentary objectively without letting it affect you personally.


These are my thoughts on the art of both giving and taking critiques. I hope that you find this information valuable to you in the future as you all learn to grow as artists and readers/viewers alike.

Cheers!

Nathan

4 Comments

  1. jenn said:

    Good critiques are what can really help an artist become even better. I find that I spend so much time in my head (or on my canvas) that sometimes I can’t see the flaws as easily as a fresh set of eyes can. Sometimes I’ve found that the things I thought were flaws were not as problematic as other things I’d completely missed!

    You’re right though, people do need to know how to critique. I was lucky to have a fantastic teacher who taught us all many of these points that you’ve brought up, but I also realized once I left that classroom, “critiques” were more of a trial by fire than a way to help learn and refine your skills and artwork.

    I’m glad you touched on the comment vs. critique, because I think that’s a confusing one for many people, and it’s incredibly awkward when someone asks for a critique (meaning comment) and you launch into an discussion of the strengths and flaws of a piece. I hardly ever give critiques anymore because I’m not sure what people mean when they ask me for them!

    July 17, 2014
    Reply
    • Lately it has become much more common to run into artists that are self-taught. Which is awesome – but it also provides a few challenges when said self-taught artists want to present their portfolios for review and they don’t know how to take constructive criticism.

      Inversely, they don’t know how to give it properly. And I think that can pose a rather significant problem.

      November 19, 2014
      Reply
  2. Ronin Glen said:

    I keep meaning to come back and discuss this in some depth but finding the time has been problematic. My thoughts on the subject are convoluted and extensive and really I should just work on an extended essay 🙂 Barest bones edit: I like what you have written here and I think it has a lot of really good points but it didn’t do anything to change my default position that “critiquing” webcomics is a concept that needs to die. I see waaaaay too many people getting hung up on the idea of “reviews” or “critiques” and bottom line, most of these comics are free. There is no investment risk in going to see for yourself if you like something or not (unlike, say, a movie). I’d really like to see a greater push back against the idea of critiquing rather than an article on how to do it but again, just to be clear, I enjoyed your take on the subject and appreciate a thoughtful discussion.

    August 7, 2014
    Reply
    • My discussion about critiquing is geared more towards the concept of critiquing in general, not specifically critiquing on things such as webcomics. You do make a good point that with a low bar of entrance with webcomics, there isn’t really much risk in deciding if it’s something for you or not. But if you are an artist, especially one hoping to break into professional illustration (in which you will have to work with or deal with other people) learning how to give and take a proper critique is only going to help you.

      Thank you for sharing your commentary, Ronin! I really appreciate it!

      November 19, 2014
      Reply

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