Critiques Along The Way

Critique_Grop_TNFrom our days of shouting “Look Ma, no hands” when we first balanced a two wheeled bike, we’ve looked to others to recognize and hopefully applaud our accomplishments. As artists we would be advised to seek constructive criticism from others who are sensitive to the process of creating art and are aware that our art is a personal expression of who we are.

I believe as oil painters we travel the path to master our craft with a common goal of accurately expressing our view of the world with our own recognizable style. Some of us have been on the path longer than others and have reached this specific goal. It is not a race and every artist travels at his own pace.

When one declares themselves an artist they become one with other artists who understand and appreciate the process of laying bare your emotions on canvas. It would be unfair to compare a beginning artist with an established artist; realistically, to compare artists is like comparing the “incomparable” apples and oranges.

I offer two critique stories about my art work and the lessons I learned. As a young artist I was thrilled to even call myself an artist. I moved to the desert southwest, immediately connected with a gallery and an article was written about me in the newspaper. New in town I hoped to meet other artists and soon an offer came to sketch and paint at the home of a local art patron, Winifred. Winifred, known as Win, loved the arts and artists. She built a state of the art studio behind her home, hired models and invited local artists to her facility.

After several weeks I felt comfortable with the group and was approached by Win’s daughter, also an artist, who suggested I might bring some of my paintings for Win to view. I agreed and thought it might help me progress to the next level. So I arrived at the next session with six of my freshly painted desert scenes for Win to critique.

I lined them along a wall and Win began to pace back and forth in front of them. It seemed like ten minutes went by and the suspense was unbearable. Then, what did my naïve, wondering, artist’s ears have to endure? Scathing, emotional, colored words spewing from Win’s mouth. I couldn’t believe her vicious tone as I gathered up my paintings and fled, resembling a beaten dog dragging his tail between his legs as she yelled after me, “How you think you are able to paint at all is the ultimate question!”

After the attack I came back the next week to sketch because I was afraid I would never create art again. It was my last visit. I realized her attack was unprofessional. A critique would have suggestions about composition, perspective, edges, color harmonies or some useful hint to improve. And if someone had forewarned me, I could have tried to thicken my skin to tell the old “Win Bag” she was in no position to critique art. Her critique was emotional, lacking constructive criticism and thus was not a critique at all. So there!

My second critique story is short and sweet. At a workshop at Kevin Macpherson’s studio in Taos, his class was outside painting around his pond. I could overhear his suggestions to the other students and every comment he offered was very positive. When he got to me he told me an area in the upper left of my 8 x 10 painting had some nice qualities to it. I actually thought it was messy looking but realized it conveyed more emotion than the other more precisely painted areas. Near the end of the workshop I told him about my observation and asked if he ever pointed out something wrong in a student’s painting. He said, “I encourage the artists with the things they are doing right and hope they will figure out on their own what isn’t working for them.”

What a contrast between these two critiques: one tore me down and the other built me up. I learned that a critique is really just an opinion. However, when expressed by a professional artist who has painted acres and acres of canvas and speaks from that experience with positive suggestions, it is invaluable. Learning to paint is a process and patience is to have its reward when all the disparate elements of creating art come together for you to create the art you dream about.

As a footnote, writers are artists too and the majority of the OPA Guest bloggers are practicing artists sharing their knowledge and insights, much like Kevin Macpherson did with me. OPA’s talented web designer has created this blog for us to enjoy with a simple way to send a comment to the bloggers to let them know if they connected with you.

Feedback inspires us and everyone benefits from reading other artist’s comments.

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  • Jeanean Songco Martin

    Constructive criticism is crucial to learning especially if you are a painter. As an alum of the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore I quickly learned to seek out the instructors who could help me the most in the disciplines I was interested in. The foundation courses which were required were invaluable. Drawing is the basis for everything and in these foundation drawing courses which culminated every day with a very long critique, I quickly learned what I was doing wrong and how to correct it through the critique process. Today, I continue to paint and to teach and a group critique is always an essential part of the learning process in my classes. The first thing that I do is have each person begin with a statement about what their painting is trying to say, what their interest is in the piece and what areas are successful and what areas are not as successful and why do think it didn’t work. By getting the student to understand the formal principles of art and to become verbal in voicing these principles I think this helps to guide the student in the direction of becoming self motivated and forming their own “critique”. After listening to the student express their views, I begin my evaluation of the painting. I do not hesitate to point out areas that need improving. Like McPherson, I look for something positive in the students painting and build on that first, secondly I point out areas that need work and I ask the student how do you think you can improve? I then try to make suggestions. Usually the suggestions are very technical and are easily understood.

  • Lecter

    Interesting enough, Cathy, your critique of the two experiences contain some good and some harshness…

  • Bruce Newman

    In art, so many people drop out after several years of painting so encouragement is so important during critiques. Thank you for sharing your experiences!

  • Susan Astleford

    Cathy, your description of that scathing critique made my heart pound! Why are we artists so unsure of our talent?
    I was privileged to take Kevin Macpherson’s ‘Master Class’ near Poitier, France….besides having a very witty (and hilarious) personality, his critiques were very thoughtful. That was the first time I was able to recognize myself as a legitimate artist — and I learned that when I follow my own star, others will appreciate my paintings, too. But not everyone will…ignore them!

  • http://www.facebook.com/davidmcneillart David McNeill

    When I take an art workshop, the most valuable part to me is the critique by the instructor – and the most important part of that critique is for the instructor to point out the weaknesses of my painting. The main point of the workshop for me is to help me make stronger paintings. While it is great and encouraging to have the instructor point out the positive things in my painting, I know that all of the attributes that make a strong painting need to be there – and I want to know where those attributes in my paintings are weak. I don’t see any excuse for a workshop instructor to confuse a painting critique with a personal critique. For me, I would rather have some degree of harshness in the critique of my paintings with the hope that in the long run, I will become a better painter.

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