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The Art of Critique: a Conversation

Rebecca Crowell and I at the Uragh Stone Circle in County Cork, Ireland 2012

My friend Rebecca Crowell and I have decided to explore the idea of co-blogging: a back and forth conversation about a chosen topic that we conduct via email, and then publish on both blogs. This idea grew out of the habit that Rebecca and I have of sending each other long, frequent emails, which we do mainly because we are good friends with much in common. But in bouncing ideas back and forth, we've also had some enriching and stimulating discussions about our painting processes, teaching, art business and the ups and downs of our art lives.

Because this is a new idea for both of us, we are interested to see how our readers respond, and this will help us decide whether to continue co-blogging now and then. Please feel free to comment! 

We decided to begin with the topic of Critique, a subject we've both delved into in the past in our individual writing and teaching. In addition, I am scheduled to teach a 5-day class in June at Cullowhee Mountain Arts in North Carolina, called Visual Language and the Art of Critique, so the topic is timely.

J: Critique is so important to the development of an artist, and I wish that I'd had a workshop like the one I'm giving in June available to me earlier on in my art career.  But do you think a person would perhaps be intimidated to take a course that is about Critique?

R: Maybe--critique does have a fairly scary reputation! But it might help to demystify the word a bit. Basically critique is just a conversation about a work of art, your own or someone else's, right? Focused and perhaps intense, but not something that has to be judgmental or harsh. 

J: The word critique carries quite a lot of baggage and can seem to be only focused on the negative. I'm thinking of it as learning a visual language, learning a way of looking rather than in a critical sense. 

R. Can you say more about that? 

J: Sure, what I mean is that in verbal communication, we choose which words to use and how to put them together to best communicate our thoughts and ideas. We learn this at an early age, how to write a paragraph, how to write an essay.  We don't throw words and punctuation on a page and expect them to communicate.  Should we do the same with images?  Seems to me that we don't learn how to analyze visual communication in the same way.  I'm interested in how we make marks, how we structure a work of art.

R: That's a great analogy to written communication.  It brings to mind another aspect of writing that carries over into visual communication--editing. I seem to talk about that a lot in my workshops.  What is the main idea, and what supports it, and what is just excess, unrelated? I think this analogy to written language is also useful in countering the idea some people have that abstraction is only random mark-making without intent or structure.  We need to use visual language in a conscious way--at least at the point when we step back and evaluate our own work-- if we hope to communicate our intentions. 

J: It's difficult to get any opinions on our work after we leave art school.  And if we didn't go to art school, there are few places to learn this.  How have you learned to assess your own work?

R: In my college classes, especially in grad school, critique really WAS pretty negative, sometimes... so I started critiquing myself ahead of time to try and prevent whatever negative response might be coming. I would try to imagine what various instructors or other students might find to pick on, without understanding my own intentions or what I wanted in the work. Not a very good strategy but I bet it's a pretty common way to get through art school! 

Once I got away from college, it took a few years for me to lose the negative voices in my head and to focus on my own path. Gradually I started to develop my own criteria for what I want in my work, and at some point I made a list, which I keep posted in my studio, of things I aim for (for example: complexity, authenticity, presence, tension.) I can refer to it when I am stuck or assessing if something is done and ask myself if the painting reflects these criteria or not. How about you? 

 J. Before I taught myself the elements and principles of design, which I never learned in art school, I always judged my work in the old gut reaction way.  After we've been painting for a while, we get better at this:  simply sensing what is working or what is not working in a painting.  The gut reaction method is this:  put the painting up on the wall, in an area you will pass by quite often.  After a period of time-a day, a week-f you still like looking at the painting, you know that it's working and that it's finished.  If you don't feel that way, you know that there's something else to do and most often you'll know exactly the area that needs the work.  Sometimes the entire painting needs the work!  Ha!  Another way I've judged my work is to put it away for a few weeks or months and look at it with new eyes when I pull it out again.  This is usually a pretty good method, but sometimes we just don't have that time.  I haven't had a list of requirements for my work. I think that's so interesting that you have that.  I have always based my assessment on the feeling of the work, and really, I still do.  Even when I can more easily deconstruct my work now, in the end, it's still the gut reaction that is most important to me.   Do those criteria ever change for you?  Are some more important than others?

R: I don't refer to my list all the time (I do a lot of gut-level reacting too) but when I do, sometimes it opens my eyes in a new way. Although I have added and reworded some things, the list doesn't seem to change much over time--although the way I express the criteria does, as my work evolves. (That's one of the things on the list actually--that I see growth or new insight in the work.) 

I'd say the more conceptual criteria on my list are the most important--for example that the work has authenticity, authority, presence. And really, those are gut-level judgments--going back to your comments.  Hard to define, I just feel whether they are present. Some of the more specific items on the list, for example that there is contrast or a complex surface, have more to do with the deconstructing and analyzing you refer to.  So probably we have close to the same process in this.  It is a combination of intuitive, gut level response and more thoughtful analysis when something seems to call for that. 

So this leads me to wonder, how does this process play out when it's not self-critique, but instead looking at the work of other artists, or when they look at ours? how does that conversation get going? I presume this is where visual language becomes very important.

 J. I think there are certain choices we make in our work that are particular to each of us. I'm interested in teaching how to take apart a painting, just as we learned to take apart a paragraph to understand it when we were in grade school, so that we can see what is going on in the work.  What makes a painting work?  How do we describe it?  By learning a visual language that is easy to understand, we can better understand what we are personally interested in.  One big question we all ask, is who am I?  What do I like?  How does my work differ from yours?  That sort of thing.  They are difficult questions, but by learning to understand what it is that we are personally interested in, by learning to take apart our paintings (and others'), by talking about our work, putting words on it, we can help each other with those questions. Learning how to understand your own work is crucial to moving forward as an artist. I think my background in Psychology has given me a more personal orientation toward critique, where I see it as learning about ourselves, our choices and preferences, as well as about our painting. They can't really be separated can they?

Rebecca and I would love to hear your thoughts on this.


  1. I found this session to be quite interesting. It is so good to have a compatriot to share work and ideas. Thank-you for sharing this bit of conversation. The only thing that made me wince just a little is the taking apart of a painting. Thinking can sometimes inhibit the work, the freedom to just work intuitively. Too much thinking can hamper an idea. Learning about critique in your class would be good but I hope each student once back to their studio can make their way without a lot of thought and put down what is within them.

  2. HI Ruth

    I think that in the early stages of painting, it's good to have an understanding of what you're doing. As I mentioned about writing, we don't just throw the words on the paper, we've learned how to structure them to make sentences and paragraphs and essays. Most of us don't learn that in visual art. I think that conversation is overdue. Many of us never learn about the structure of visual art and many of us don't know how to incorporate that structure into our own art. Once we have that under our belts, then I agree, that it's good to go into the studio and work intuitively. I know that I work that way.
    Thanks very much for your comments.

  3. Hi Janice and Rebecca, Thank you for this. I like the idea of revealing ideas through dialogue, showing the unwinding toward them and showing them as process. (I think of how often Virginia Woolf's essays use letters and conversation as a structure). I have a long relationship with Sandra C. in which we read for each other. She is a dear friend, but also my "writing partner." One of the things that has evolved is something we call freefall response. (This does not have the associations of the word critique). When we do this we simply say what worked for us, what we did not fully grasp, where we wish for more. In this way we deepen our thought about the stories and characters and are free to go with each other's freefall response or not. It is a very expanding way to critique and its goal is to deepen. I find that as I become more conscious of what I am doing through this process, the technique follows. The technique must be there, and Sandra and I have often studied other writers to pick up their "writing tricks" or stylistic devices--rhythms, imagery, sentence lengths, rhetoric, that sort of thing. Thanks for sharing your dialogue.

  4. Hi Kim,
    Thanks for your wonderfully thoughtful comment. I really love this dialogue format, which indeed, becomes a process itself. You're very lucky to have a writing partner in Sandra that you can be so honest with and who you feel so safe with when you share your work. I really like the idea of the 'free fall response", which doesn't carry the associations of the word critique. You've given me some good thoughts to carry into my workshops.

  5. Hi to all, thought I would jump in on this insightful thread of comments. For Ruth--a friend said once he asks himself just two questions in self-critique: where is the structure, and where is the energy? Jan has addressed the need for structure, and perhaps the intuitive aspect is the energy? held in balance, supporting one another....Kim, it is interesting to hear of this process in terms of writing. From your description of freefall, it sounds similar to what my students do at the end of a workshop. Each person talks about what worked, what didn't, what they have questions about. If they want feedback on a particular painting they just ask. It seems to really open up discussion. (I reassure them that "this is not a critique" before we start--although that probably just reinforces all the negative critique associations!)

  6. Thanks Rebecca,
    I love the idea of looking for the structure and the energy! It can't be all one or all the other-the balance is important. I hadn't put those words on it before, but yes, that's what we do in my workshops. We focus on structure as a starting point and over the days of the workshop, we talk about what preferences and interests an artist has, and the process of letting go and playing-keeping that excitement and energy in the work.

  7. Very interesting to see how your two approaches differ and overlap at the same time. Together they offer a rich way to explore a painting. The one concern I always have about using words to explore art is that they sometimes distract me from insights that cannot be captured with words. That said, the only other way I know of to communicate with others about art is to create more art. Are there guided ways a person can learn to explore a painting beyond words or is this intuitive and unteachable?

  8. Hi Chris,
    I've had a few people write me about this. So I'm going to try to explore this in my next blog post. Stay tuned................

  9. I'm reminded of Somerset Maugham, "Of Human Bondage,", where our young hero is finally taking art lessons in fin de siecle Paris. Especially the visiting established artists feel no compunction about sparing the student's feelings in their critiques. An art boot camp. I remember when I was in art grad school in the 1980s we strived for that atmosphere, too. Then us students would congegate at our favorite dive bar and lick our wounds with more stimulating art conversation.

    1. Hi Jeff,
      Thanks for your thoughts. Yeah, we all know about harsh critiques in art school. The word, critique, really does carry a lot of negative baggage. In my painting workshops, I found that there were so many students who didn't know about the Principles of Design that I decided to develop a workshop based on the language of art in order to teach how to give and receive feedback in a gentle and supportive way.

  10. What a great post. I like the idea of thinking of our painting the same way we might think of a piece of writing that manipulates aspects of written language. Abstract painting has it's own language and I love how you address this. I love abstract work and feel fairly good about where I can get with texture and colour but the "form" eludes me mostly, unless I strike it lucky. And I know this makes for long hours of wandering around a canvas. I agree that for beginners like me, learning the language we need to manipulate is a really important part of the process. But not so easy to do! Any suggestions for reading on principles of design?

    I too use feeling as a guide when I look at my work and that I am looking for something that elevates my work out of the expected, the predictable.

    I also like the way you talk about critique. If we think of ourselves we know that the best help comes with words that empower us, rather than deflate us. The best help comes when someone leads us to our "issue" and then let's us discover the solution.

    I feel like an explorer as I work at abstraction and your words help me get back on the path and out of the thickets.

    1. HI and thanks for your response. I don't mean to sound too much like I'm pushing my workshops, but I'm addressing those concerns in my workshop because I couldn't find books that would help me enough. I don't mean to say that I have all of the answers. We find most of them simply by continuing to paint...or to write. But I'm aiming to make the process a bit faster by having a workshop where we can, as Sandra says below, 'witness' each others' work and learn to give feedback. I enjoyed hearing your thoughts.

  11. Hi Jan and Rebecca,
    Love this conversation and apologies for being so late to it. I'm Kim's writing partner and I wanted to add to her comments the idea of the power of witness, especially in a work's early stages. Writers work alone-- and in early stages, most of us are fumbling in the murky underworld of the unconscious, not quite sure where we're going, just following the words that find themselves on our pages. Wayson Choy called the result of this fumbling 'the first vomit of creation'. A trusted person to witness it as evidence of the writer-at-work is powerful. It gives me the courage to keep on groping, to keep on being a beginner until at some point, within my ongoing conversation with my reader and my pages I come to a deeper conceptual understanding of what I'm about. Kim and I have done this for each other countless times over the years. The process enables me to maintain my faith that eventually, I'll find the way to tell the story exactly as it should be told.

  12. Dear Sandra,
    Thanks so much for these wonderful, touching words. Writing this post has been so worthwhile for the depth of the responses it has evoked. I love the idea of the witness. That is such an important piece to add to this discussion. You and Kim are very lucky to have this writing relationship. What a gift.

  13. Some more thoughts about the interconnectedness of intuitive creativity (and critique) and technique. One of the things Sandra and I have done is to study the masters together, both for the fun and pleasure of it, and to learn. For example, I was having difficulty pushing one of my stories through a long time span and together we studied some of Alice Munro's stories which frequently span decades. We identified her techniques. Studying and discussing together is fun, but there is more to it. I sometimes go "deeper" in the presence of another interested and kindred spirit. For me, this is the core of teaching, and likely critique. To be together in the exploration. Unexpectedly a friend who has returned to painting after some years away showed me some portraits she was doing and together we appreciated them. She said she was dissatisfied with an eye in one and could not figure out how to fix it. Together we examined some Gaugin eyes (he is one of her favourite painters). I have no training in art but I can appreciate and listen. I found our exchange, writer/painter/technique/intuition/relooking at a master very rich. Creative sharing may be one of our most profound forms of humanity as it asks us to be present to each other.

  14. HI Kim,

    I'm really honoured that you and Sandra are having a conversation here and offering such thoughtful insights into using critique in writing and the intersection of creativity and technique. I'm learning a lot from this conversation too. Many thanks.


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