There’s a saying in the music communities, practice makes permanent. This is true of art as well. It’s very easy to repeat the same mistakes over and over; this is why critique is so valuable to an artist. It can help us look at our work with a fresh new perspective.
Where critique goes awry
The issue I’ve found is that it can be difficult to source good critique. Not everyone has the eye, or the ability to focus on what really matters. For example, I have a friend who has an excellent eye for anatomy but doesn’t understand the artistic process or composition and has no appreciation for stylization. She’s a great person to go to if I need advice about where a horse’s leg joint is off, but she’ll get stuck on anything that isn’t realism to the point where she will keep pointing it out as a “flaw” and miss the really obvious issues that I actually care about.
As someone with a background in biology, I had this issue for a time too. Hyperfocus on the details: behavioral accuracy, anatomy, proper species….
The fact is, the most important things about picture making are not the details, but how it reads and how it makes you feel. The art is not in painting the perfect kneecap, but in the overall design of the masses of light and shadow, and the mood cast by the lines, color scheme and composition working in unison to produce a story. Ultimately, if the foundations of good art are the cake, details like perfect anatomy and good rendering are the frosting. It can separate the good from the really good, but it’s not going to save a painter who doesn’t know composition. It’s still important…but a cake can stand alone while frosting can’t.
If you only get critiques from people with no art experience, it’s easy to work hard to improve in some areas and neglect critical ones. If you aren’t trained, it can be difficult to name what you see. Something may be “off” but you don’t know what. Both input of knowledge/study and a community of other people that can offer perspective are necessary to progress. You can get pretty far on your own, but a community can certainly push you further.
So, how to get good critique?
Fortunately, we live in a day and age where you can seek others with the same interest in ways other than stumbling into them sketching at a coffeeshop, or paying a lot of money for art school.
Some suggestions, though not an exhaustive list:
- Meetup.com works surprisingly well, is fairly popular and simple. You can make them specifically tailored (and I recommend that, because “art” is fairly broad. “fantasy art,” “illustrator” or similar can help set expectations.) If there isn’t already a group that meets your needs, make one!
- Facebook. Create a local group and ask to be shared on pages with related interests. You can also find established groups like “Level Up” where you can post your work for critique. Some are private, you can try asking in art related communities for links to good constructive crit.
- Other art friends. Art friends are the best for in-depth crit. Try to find an acountabilibuddy to learn with and check in, sometimes you can find one by asking on art communities.
- Forums like Conceptart.org. The key is finding places that both mesh with your personality and the type of art you do. Make sure it’s not just amateurs, while other artists at your level can certainly give crit that is useful, often it’s experts whose crit will have the most value for the reasons I cited above. They can look past the details and into the structure.
- Online classes. Even if you can’t afford a school, you might be able to save and afford a class to get feedback from other artists and instructor.
- Portfolio reviews. You can get these in person at conventions and art shows, both from other artists and from art directors. It’s best to take this route once you have something of a body of related work and are starting to be more serious, but you don’t have to be a professional. It can help tell you what you are lacking in general, not just in a single piece, and hearing what others have to say can be eye-opening.
- Email an artist you admire and want to be like. For serious. Just do it. You might be surprised, many are very friendly. Be polite, be humble. Accept no for an answer but who knows, they might say yes to a portfolio review! Don’t be creepy, and don’t be fangirling, keep it professional and remember that they are people too–have some boundaries!
Is non-artist or amateur critique worthless?
Listening to your audience is essential and can make sure that you are communicating your idea effectively. That said, like any tool you need to be thoughtful about it’s use. It can be great to figure out that there is a problem, or if you need specific anatomy crit or whatever it is that your audience likes.
The key to remember is that most of them do not have the language to explain to you how to improve as an artist, or to point out issues in the underlying structure that could make the piece better. Remember that critique is not always about the piece at hand. Just because you cannot fix this piece, or if it’s already finished doesn’t mean you cannot evaluate your progress as an artist. Even better is to evaluate the whole…what is lacking in the body of your work? Then aim to improve it.
Also, don’t neglect studying art theory and technique. I’ll be posting some excellent resources later including books and other sources that I found helpful in my learning. You can find that you’ll get better at critiquing your pieces overtime (a mirror/ Photoshop flip or sleeping on it can certainly help!) but that you’ll inevitably have blind spots. We all do! That’s why an outside perspective is so invaluable even for the hermits among us.
Stop practicing the same mistakes, and purposely design your next piece to face your weaknesses head on. You may be pleasantly surprised.