Over the last couple of months, we’ve received quite a few requests from our community asking how to effectively offer and receive critiques. Kristie (who had no art training when we got married) has been critiquing my paintings for close to 30 years and is responsible for much of my success as a professional artist. So, I thought it would be helpful for you if she shared her insights and helped demystify this very essential process! – Bill
This is a Kristie Blog about critiquing landscape and flower paintings (or any other subject):
- Detailed analysis and assessment of something, especially a literary, philosophical, or political theory.
I took voice lessons throughout my college career. At times I would perform along with my fellow pupils in front of a panel of professors for the express purpose of getting critiqued. It was nerve-racking knowing that every note I sang was being dissected under the microscopic skill of my professor!
Two specific critiques have been permanently burned into my memory. After finishing an Italian aria I was asked to go back over certain measures again and again – and again – until I met the professor’s criteria. By the end I felt like I had just come out of battle – my muscles were tight and my brain was a fog. I don’t think I gained much from it, and I felt like maybe I shouldn’t sing anymore.
The other critique that stands out was when I didn’t get any feedback at all! It was almost worse, not to have anything to work on, and not knowing how my performance rated. I know I was far from perfect and that I needed feedback, but I had no idea where to start or what needed improving.
Throughout my years in the art community, I have seen the ups and downs of juried shows. I’ve seen artists become offended or lose confidence by comments from jurors. On the other side, I’ve seen artists with supposed super-star status get in a huff when a waiter didn’t recognize them (no humility at all).
When I first started helping Bill by offering a second eye for weaknesses in his paintings it was a bit overwhelming, and quite frankly, sometimes still is. It’s easy to feel a lot of pressure because I’m not a trained artist or critic!
First off, I really hate telling him something is off in a painting because often I see his face visibly fall. But, since this is our livelihood it’s important that his paintings are gallery ready when they leave his studio. Plus, I remember back to when people left my critiques unsaid and how helpful it would have been if they just said what they were thinking.
And of course, I’m not always right (or at least, he doesn’t always agree ;)). With a painting of roses that I suggested some revisions to he confidently told me he preferred the roses the way they were.
A couple of years ago Bill finished the painting below that he started Plein Air while we were camping at Yosemite. After bringing it home, the cliff went through many face-lifts before he decided he liked it, and he did an amazing job with it. When I came in to check it over he was obviously pretty exhausted. He had been working for hours to get it ‘right’ – adjusting the final touches in his studio (by the way, the step by step video can be found in our Members’ library).
Here’s an early pic of the painting and the cliff.
I’m sure when he asked me to come in for the final lookover he thought he was done and ready to ship. But, I spotted a place that looked like a splatted spider, and my eyes kept traveling back to that spot. I circled it in the pic below just in case the spider shape wasn’t apparent to everyone (which it probably isn’t for most, but it was a pretty big distraction to me in an otherwise beautiful painting, and I figured I wouldn’t be the only admirer to notice).
Luckily this was a quick fix, but not all have been.
I’m now blessed to take voice lessons from an amazing teacher! She was a professional opera singer in Germany for more than 20 years. She’s very honest with me, but I never feel foolish or inept when she gives me feedback. I value it and earnestly try to improve. There have been times when she’s suggested something to change as I prepare for a performance, and I’ve found that I like it my way better (although I think that’s only happened once). As I said, we all have opinions, and that’s what a critique is – our opinion of something.
That opinion may be based on years of education and life experience – like my voice teacher. Or it may be based on… well, nothing more than just what we’re attracted to, or a gut feeling. And isn’t that wonderful!?!? How boring our world would be if we all thought the same and saw through the same eyes.
If you’ve learned anything about Bill’s personality, you know he’s very tenderhearted. He genuinely loves people, and sometimes I think he would rather poke out his eye with his #8 Filbert than offend someone. When you watch his critiques, you can see the toll it takes on his voice, but you don’t see the strain it causes him days and hours leading up to the event as he works on the critiques. He wants so much for all the suggestions and changes to actually help each artist.
I try to organize the submitted paintings a week ahead of time, and then we send out an email with the line up a few days before the critique event. After that, I put all of the images on a USB, and Bill downloads each of them into Photoshop.
That’s the easy part.
It takes courage for an artist to allow their piece to be viewed and talked about in front of peers. Every month we’re so impressed with the paintings that we get to critique. We have such incredible artists in the Master Oil Painting community!
That’s why we set aside several hours to sit and study each image – beginning with a discussion about what we love in each painting.
Then we discuss aspects that we think could be improved. I think Bill should have a scrolling text at the bottom of the screen explaining that “these are just his opinions and are subjective” because he reiterates this at least once per session.
Once we’ve decided what needs attention, he gets to work in Photoshop trying out ideas to help make the piece stronger. This is typically a 3-5 day job since he allows up to 15 painting submissions per session.
I think the reason these critique sessions work out as well as they do is because of the way Bill goes about it, and I would recommend that anyone going into a critique session carry some of this same attitude with them.
Here are my top 4 observations as I’ve watched his critiques:
1) Bill has nothing but love for each student and a desire to help them achieve their painting goals.
2) Bill sees the good in everything. A man came to our door begging for money and without hesitation, Bill helped. He never looks down on someone in need. He said to me after, “I hope I always remember how much more I’m like that man than I’m like my Savior – we all need help from someone.” Seeing the good in each artist’s submission helps them understand that they are on the right path, that they are good at what they’re doing, and that they should keep up the excellent work. Often, the paintings are only a few small changes away from meeting their goals.
3) What I love most about Bill’s critiques is that he offers solutions. He shows how to improve the painting right there during the webinar. The student isn’t left feeling like the piece is hopeless. This is where his mastery of the subject comes in, and where I fall short when I’m critiquing Bill’s paintings. Many times all I can say is, “That doesn’t look right” but I don’t know why or what to do about it.
4) Even though it wears Bill out mentally and physically – he loves it! He loves the opportunity to help others. He loves the interactions he sees between the students and the support the members of this wonderful community give one another. He loves seeing the paintings after artists work on them following the critique, and he loves that the artist is happy with their finished paintings.
My bit of advice before you offer any kind of critique is to make sure you really want to help. Be gentle – paintings seem almost like a piece of the artists themselves. If you ask a friend for a critique be patient, it will take repetition and training for your friend to spot the weaknesses in your work with an art-principles-based ‘eye’.
Most people are going to be very hesitant to point out weak spots because they won’t feel qualified and they won’t want to hurt your feelings. Those same friends can, with some guidance and encouragement, become a helpful resource to assist you in improving your art.
One of the most important things you can do if you want your friend, spouse, or fellow artist, to continue trying to help you is to not get upset at the suggestions or insights they offer. Thank them and reassure them that they are doing you a huge favor by being honest and giving you their immediate impression. I know that’s not easy, but you can curl up in a ball or throw things after they go home – that way they will keep coming back to help.
Tell us in the comments below about strategies you’ve used, or have seen others use, that have helped a critique session go splendidly. Here’s a 10-minute clip from one of our monthly live critique sessions that you can show to your critiquer:
Please Note: Before you send in your painting for our next LIVE monthly critique session you need to know that ONLY artists from the Membership community are able to submit paintings or attend the live webinar. However, we do an OPEN critique webinar once or twice a year and we’ll send out an email (to those on our list) when the next one opens up.
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