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Take it Like an Artist: How to Accept Criticism
by Ellen Million
Being an artist isn't easy to begin with. We tend to get enormously attached to our creations, and we become very fragile indeed when it comes to being criticized. This is a guide to accepting criticism without allowing it to deflate you, how to get the most out of critique, and when to disregard a review.

Art versus Artist

The first thing to remember is that the item being criticized is not you. Because of the time and effort you put into a work of art, it is difficult to detach yourself from it emotionally. It's a little like a new mother being told her baby has an ugly nose.

Never judge yourself or your skill as an artist by a few comments or criticisms. I can criticize a piece of Michelangelo's work if I want to; that doesn't mean I'm a better artist than he was, that Michelangelo wasn't a great artist, or that Michelangelo wasn't a perfectly groovy person.

Having a measure of self-confidence is important. In fact, it's a vital part of being an artist. If you are bold enough to believe in yourself, you will try more challenging poses, you will draw more frequently, and dramatically increase your skill.

Remember Who's Critiquing

It is also important to remember is that most people who do the critiquing are not experts; not in the art of critiquing, nor in your art, nor in art in general. There is a knack to giving criticism without being mean, and in being able to praise something helpfully. In nine out of ten cases, it isn't that the commenter is trying to be mean or harsh or unhelpful at all, just that they don't know how to give effective critiques.

Remember, too, that they don't know that you've improved drastically on point a, or eliminated mistake b, so they don't have the knowledge to comment on that. They don't always know what you're looking for. It can be frustrating to want advice only on an anatomical problem and get lots of remarks on needing more shading. If you want advice specifically on something, or specifically not on something else, you have to tell them. And remember that, in the case of an Elfwood gallery, they may not have gotten to a specific picture through your main page, so a blurb in your bio may not be sufficient. You may want to specify in each picture description what kind of criticism you are looking for.

Some criticisms come from people who are not familiar with your field. Perhaps you draw really great anime, but a classically trained figure artist can't get past the fact that the eyes and head are too big, and hair is all clumpy looking. There is a great deal of personal preference involved in critiquing, and you have to be able to allow your commenter to express their own opinions. If you step back and try to see your artwork through your critic's eyes, you'll feel a lot better about what may have seemed unnecessarily harsh.

Explore for Validity

The first stage of accepting criticism is denial. Like a new mother, we want to believe our baby is perfect. It is easier to feel offended and dismiss the comment as the product of someone being mean than it is to accept the verdict as correct. If the critic has been particularly blunt, or written a barely-literate review, it is even easier to disregard. Recognizing this stage and moving past it is important to getting the most out of every critique.

Every review (with the relatively rare exception of 'you suck' intelligentsia) should be approached with the idea that maybe they have a point. They may be useless (see below for when to disregard a comment), but try to look at the work objectively, and decide if there is validity in their comment. It is often difficult to get past the point of denial and feeling hurt, but it is important to give every piece of feedback the benefit of the doubt if you are serious about improving.

It is safe to assume that the harsher the review, the higher the standard that you are being compared to. This isn't something to treat lightly. In fact, you should feel flattered, because any reviewer who takes the time to compare you to that high standard probably believes you can achieve exactly that.

Positive reviews can be valid as well, and useful information can be gleaned from them even if they don't have specific advice. If seven people comment on how great the hair looks, it is likely that you really hit on something successful. Look carefully at your piece, try to decide what you did differently, and how to use it in future work.

Picky Points and Style

Some reviews will seem incredibly picky, or as if they are criticizing your style, rather than your skill. Communicating what you are looking for to your reviewer can help avoid getting these kinds of comments if they aren't what you are looking for.

Don't dismiss fussy comments as irrelevant! What may seem finicky to you may ruin the picture in their eyes. Hands, for example, are very difficult things to draw, and misshapen hands may disrupt one viewer's pleasure. You may think that the rest of the drawing is perfect, and that complaining about the hands is being picky, but the critique is an honest one if the hands actually need work. Most of the point of a critique is to be critical of flaws, and to point out things that need work. If they are bringing up minor points, it's likely that either they can't find helpful things to point out about major issues, or what you thought was a minor point is something that stands out glaringly to them, even if it doesn't to you.

Style is one of those nebulous, creative things that separates your work from the masses. Anatomically, perhaps you have chosen to pursue an elongated figure with very big hair. A reviewer may tell you, 'this is too skinny and the hair is unrealistic.' This is a reaction to your style, not the particular piece of art, but that doesn't make it invalid. In 95% of cases, the critic believes that they are being helpful with this observation. It is up to you to recognize a style comment for what it is and to ask yourself whether or not your style would improve by incorporating their ideas. It is okay if you disagree with their prognosis of your style (though it is highly recommended that you not disagree with them with angry retorts and flaming defenses). It is also okay to agree with it, and to see if you can learn from their comments.


Other Problems to be Aware of

Not everyone's first language is English. There are often messages with grammar that you may have difficulty understanding, or words that are misused. Usually the message is easy enough to decipher, but in cases where you aren't sure what's going on, give the commenter the benefit of the doubt; don't assume that they are trying to say something negative if you're not sure.

For example, one commenter wrote the following: 'woah is that me no the eyes are wrong.' Two people commenting afterwards mentioned that the eyes looked fine, and that there was nothing wrong with them at all. The first commenter was really trying to say: 'Woah! Is that me? No, the eyes are wrong.' They were trying to indicate that the eyes were wrong for being a portrait of themselves, not that the eyes were 'wrong' in the picture.


When to Disregard

There are plenty of critiques that aren't worth the pixels they occupy. Rather than bending your mind around trying to use them to improve your work, or wasting the time feeling offended about them, they should be shelved in the 'useless space' file. These can be positive or negative comments.

Any personal attacks can be disregarded. Something is personal when it no longer refers to the art at all. 'You suck,' 'You're so conceited' or 'Your bio picture is ugly' is just someone venting, either with a personal vendetta, or perhaps just someone having a bad day who wants to be noticed. Don't reward them by replying or making a big deal out of their stupidity.

Unhelpful negative responses include things like 'this sucks' or 'my two-year old sister could do better.' Like personal attacks, these kinds of comments are sometimes prompted by personal conflicts, and sometimes they are simply uselessly expressed personal opinions. It is important to note that comments like 'the shading sucks' can still be valid criticism. If the critique refers to something specific, however poorly worded, it can still be useful.

Positive responses that are equally useless are the 'cute,' 'u r so good' or 'kawaii!' These comments are great for feeling good about yourself, but fairly useless in terms of improving. Don't dismiss these in terms of being invalid; they just aren't very helpful.


Closing Opinions

Opinions; everyone has them. Every critic has their own idea of what a dragon looks like, or how hair should be. Some people can't stand anime, or think that realism is artistically dead. It is okay that someone does not agree with your artistic vision. The fact that a person has taken the time to comment on your work, whether they agree with it or not, means that it has touched them on some level.

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