Saturday, October 16, 2010

How to Criticize

Artists rarely create in a vacuum. Even if you paint alone, you’ve got to consider the feedback of art directors, patrons, or galleries. If you’re a student, you have to present your work to teachers and to your peers for critiques, and sometimes you’re called upon to criticize others’ artwork.


When you work for an entertainment company, such as an animation or game company, your efforts are part of a larger shared vision. Developing the diplomatic skills both to give and receive constructive criticism becomes especially important.

This subject has come up during our recent visits to entertainment companies. Angela Lepito, manager of art development and training at DreamWorks, told me that entry-level artists are assigned a mentor to help them learn the company etiquette. It can be vital to the career of a concept artist to know when it’s appropriate to speak up in meetings—and when it’s best to keep silent and listen.

Kevin Bjorke of Trion World Network, a massive multiplayer online game company in Redwood City, told me about how Phil Perkis teaches critiquing to his photo classes. In a nutshell, “It’s about the work and not about the person who made the work.”

Perkis lays out the following rules for in-class criticism, which are strictly followed:

1. No rudeness
2. No competition
3. No telling the artist what the work means about them (a critique is not psychotherapy)
4. The class chooses what work will be talked about (Students should feel free to ask that their work be dealt with because they need feedback). No need to address every work in every class.
Here's the main principle:

“The person whose work is being addressed can answer factual questions in the beginning, i.e., where was the picture made, what film, lens, etc. They can say nothing about intention, content, or other meaning. At this time, the rest of the group can say anything they like about the work, be it craft, aesthetics, politics, art history, et al. The are free to say anything. They can report associations in their minds, dreams and fantasies as long as it's about the work and not about the person who made the work.

“Something very interesting starts to take place if this is done with openness and intelligence; the student is getting real information about what their work is communicating to a group of people who are being as honest and caring as possible. This information is for the use of the student and they can do anything they want with it. The work never has to be defended, justified, or explained. At this point, if a student wants to talk about the work just discussed, they can do so as much as they would like, and a long back and forth discussion can take place.

“The role of the teacher in this process is to moderate, and to be a participant along with everyone else.

“The sole purpose of the critique is for students to gain insight about their work and have information that will help them proceed to the next stage of development. As a group works together from week to week, a level of trust and understanding can develop so that people are more willing to take chances both in the discussion, but more importantly, in their work. Then you've really done something worthwhile.
“It is vitally important for the group, and especially the teacher, to make clear the difference between fact (a smaller aperture gives more depth of field) and opinion (this picture has a violent edge). Making this difference clear allows the discussion to range much bigger.”
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The Perkins method of critiquing
DreamWorks Animation
Trion Worlds
Photo is of Bill Eckert, Gary Geraths and me at Otis College of Art and Design
Thanks, Angela and Kevin!

14 comments:

Dan Gurney said...

As a teacher of young children, I strive to keep my comments purely factual and focused on what I find pleasing. My effort to describe clearly what's actually in the work of art is almost always received as praise.

draigstudio said...

In my college classes I am honest and truthful about what people need to do to get better, but I am also critical if I know they wasted my time by not pushing themselves. I have made students cry and students have made themselves cry. At the end of the day I just want the students to improve and to go out and be successful as artists. It is essential that they understand as artists a critique is vital to their improvement and growth. It is also important for them to know that art is not easy and often a hard path. It is difficult and they will struggle with the desire to create as well as the desire to succeed. I never let a student walk out of my class without realizing that I will not pat them on the head and tell them how great their work is when it isnt. Critiques should be about growth for that artist.

boxset4less1 said...

Like your blog!

Kali Fontecchio said...

It was great meeting you the other night!

Love Bill and Gary to pieces!

James Gurney said...

Hi, Kali--good to meet you too, and I appreciate you taking the time. And thanks, Box!

Dan, I think that kind of feedback is most valuable: just verbalizing the facts that are clearly evident in the work. An art teacher can be the first and best audience. The criticisms of the great illustrator/teacher Howard Pyle were legendary and transformative because of the way he described in powerful, elemental, and poetic terms what the student was struggliing to express visually.

Draig, you raise an important point too. Both teachers and managers have to be coaches, working on developing a good attitude and a capacity for hard work.

Libby Fife said...

This is a great post and especially helpful for those of us that post our art on our blogs. The comments can be difficult to sort through; it is often hard to get to some truth that could be helpful. It does feel personal at times when someone says something negative.

I also run an online critique group for quilt artists. Making it a closed group and laying out similar ground rules as stated in your post has worked well.

Lastly, I loved the idea of being paired with a mentor. Wouldn't it be wonderful if everyone had one in real life?

Ledeaux said...

This advice is useful for critique of writers as well. They are respectful but also demonstrate the idea of holding to a standard. Thank you. I will use a version of them when I teach my next writing course!

Begnaud said...

I agree with Perkis's rules 100%. After years on both sides of art education, I only wish more instructors would follow these simple guidelines.

P.J. Magalhães said...

I'm with Begnaud.

It boggles the mind sometimes the kind of freedom that some teachers allow themselves when talking to students about their work (and in a lot of cases about the student). I've had some very awesome teachers that just seemed to know, almost instinctively what are appropriate things to say and what are things that should never be uttered by a teacher towards a student.

Then I've had teachers where you wonder if they even know the word pedagogy or care about researching and improving their teaching methods and philosophies.

The sad thing is for most students a teacher can make or break a subject and a lot of times a student as well.

Awesome post. :D

Brine Blank said...

Great post! Having been through the system I find that one of the main reasons student end up dropping out is because they are not prepared for ANY criticism. I blame high school art teachers for a lot of this...(there are good teachers out there mind you)...but too often just because something gets turned in students get an A with no realistic feedback. Unfortunately this sets students up for a lot of pain the first time they hear an honest critique and they curl up in the fetal position. I tell my students that they need to be self-critical and realistic...that by catching mistakes beforehand that are obvious they can avoid a lot of issues. Easy teachers are easy to deal with but you also have to be thick skinned enough to deal for those that are the bare-knucklers of the world. I have former students come in all the time and share 'critique horror stories' as well as telling my own. We had a prof that would use a red magic marker on paintings during final crits...and his answer was "didn't I tell you to fix it? If you didn't want me to make the correction for you then you should have dealt with it on your own." Tough, yes...maybe not the best approach...but it did make me a better artist and I learned to analyze and problem solve much better...

Kyle V Thomas said...

James,
What a great post. The critique is there to help the artist. It is to foster healthy growth. When I taught art, the critique was a time to not only help the students become better artists, but to help teach the class how to talk about art, how to help others to be their best.

Johnnyburn said...

Since the pulled quote deals with photographs, the element of construction is not necessarily addressed.

That is, with a photograph, you would never have to say, "I think that your perspective is incorrect," or "This person's arm is too long."

Those are things that I find most difficult to see for myself when I am enraptured with my own work. Outside opinion is very useful in those cases, but I wonder if there is a good way to ask for and give that sort of advice. Be kind but honest and build trust, I suppose.

Paul Hassett said...

Wouldn't this be counter to how critiques were structured at Art Center and Chouinard?.....Ted Youngkin, Burne Hogarth, Bill Moore and so on. These people have passed away but should be familiar to you. Do you feel their way of criticizing was production and enhancing?

James Gurney said...

Hi, Paul,
I had heard about such harsh critiques at ACCD, but never really remember seeing them in person, even from Ted Youngkin. My recollection of him was that he was uncompromising, but not ad hominem. I never had the other instructors you mentioned as teachers, so I don't know their style.

I think a good teacher can be kind and respectful, but have extremely high expectations.