Art School Critiques: Do They Help?

written by Sophie | Beginners, Materials & Technique

Many art schools use art critiques as an important part of their teaching. And I am sure it works very well in that context. But in my online art school I don’t offer critiques and I’d like to explain why. I believe that in an online situation and with many complete beginners in art attending, that critiques are difficult for the tutor and difficult for the student.

In my online art school I offer video courses, tutorials and a private online forum (or community). Students can post their work and ask for feedback. But I don’t usually offer a structured critique. Still, many of the points that would come up in a critique do pop up in feedback. In our forum all fellow students are welcome to offer feedback as well. Feedback is only offered when requested though. Often we all simply share what we’re working on, or ask a specific question. When feedback is requested I do my best to understand what the artist is after and hopefully provide some constructive ideas. But why do I not offer critiques?

Traditional Critiques

Usually art critiques are live group events where an artist presents their work, explains what it is all about, how it was made, what the goals were etc. A group of fellow students and a tutor then go round and share their response to the art work. The artist might find it useful to hear how others feel when they see his or her art. The tutor sometimes offers a structured comment on the art work, talking about composition, use of colour, vision etc.

Many artists find these critiques difficult. It takes an awful lot of guts to position yourself like this, and accept any and all incoming. Sometimes the tutor is keen to keep things positive and won’t allow any negative comments.  Still, putting yourself in front of a group is hard for many people.

In an online critique only the tutor’s part is taken on. Someone posts an image, gives some information about the piece (hopefully) and the tutor can go over either a fixed list of points: composition, colour, vision, etc. or the tutor can give a more organic response to what he or she is presented with as a whole.

I hope I am getting this right. I have not experienced that many critiques. If you have, then please let me know if this applies to what you have experienced.

No Critiques Here

In my art school I there is no place for specific art critiques. In fact I like to stay away from the word ‘critique’. I don’t use the word often because it creates associations of setting yourself up for a wave of criticism. The words ‘critique’ and ‘criticism’ are just too close together, even if they don’t mean the same thing.

A ‘critique’ also creates the expectation of a structured comment from the tutor on the art work presented. And this, I find, is an impossible expectation.

If art was like cooking, you could taste the bread, or the soup, and say ‘it is too sweet’ or ‘too salty’. You can ‘critique’ and say you forgot to add the herbs and spices. If you were building a wall with bricks, I could tell you your bricks are not placed in a straight line. But when you are painting a wall, should I tell you your bricks are not in a straight line?  Should I tell you your forest is not vibrant enough?

Art is really not that simple. I would like to think I know quite a bit about art, ahem (sorry), and I can critique a painting in an exhibition. But even if I find the drawing off, the use of colour weak and the composition lazy, many will agree with me, but others won’t.

And when it comes to amateur art you would never put the same criteria on a piece of art!  Your drawing might be off, your colour weak and your composition not right, but it would be unfair to expect all of that from someone who has not chosen to be a full time artist and who does not profess to be at the highest level of their profession. I would need to set different standards.

So a critique for students is a different cup of tea. The aim for a critique should not be to go down a fixed list of points and find its weaknesses and strengths. It should be to help, to make you think about what you are doing, to point out what you might want to choose to work on.  That’s what I call feedback. And that’s what you can get here in the art school. I’ll get back to this.

Why don’t I offer Critiques?

If you post your latest painting, wanting a critique, I would feel a little lost, to be honest. I would be presented with a painting that has strengths and weaknesses. I can tell you your colours are garish and off. But I would not know that you’ve taken some inspiration from Gauguin and Van Gogh, and just didn’t get it quite right yet. I’d be telling you to tone your colours down when I should be telling you to push through and experiment further!  I can tell you that your composition is boring and predictable, but I would not know that you are looking for simplicity. I can tell you that your foreshortening is not right, your proportions all over the place, but I would not know that you only started drawing a year ago and that you are about to throw in the towel as it is so hard. I can tell you to put in some hard edges and focus, but you might well be experimenting with a dreamy, hazy look, but you haven’t perfected it yet.

If I offer proper ‘critiques’ you will expect me to rattle off a list of pointers (composition, colour, drawing etc) and comment on each of them. I would have no idea about what you are trying to do, where you are coming from or any other background.  However, if you would present your piece to the National Gallery then you state, with that piece, that you want to be critiqued at the highest level. Your own personal voice should be developed and legible to others. Your vibrant ‘Gauguin inspired’ colours should ‘work’. But as a student, or a learner, you are on a journey and much will not be legible to others (unless you tell them).

I don’t offer structured critiques because they are not needed. They won’t be helpful for you and I end up writing nonsense because I simply don’t know enough about you and your piece and your journey. You might have simply worked from a portrait reference photo and then I come in and start critiquing your composition? It would make no sense as you were simply trying to get a likeness down.

I Offer Feedback

I much prefer the term ‘feedback’. My students post their work in our community and ask for feedback, and they will get valuable reactions from everyone. And everyone counts. The ideas and reactions of fellow students (some of whom have been painting for many, many years, while others, less experienced, can give unexpected fresh insights) can give you just the idea you needed. I, as the tutor, will do my best to also provide feedback. It might not be a structured critique but it is my reaction to that particular piece. I might remember what the student was working on before and tailor my feedback to it. But it is always helpful if the student writes a little bit about the piece and what they were trying to do, and always include basic information such as size and materials.

If a students wants help with a portrait likeness we can all chip in. Fresh eyes always see more. If you have painted a still life, a landscape or anything else, I will try and provide some constructive feedback. Things you could consider, pointers to improve the drawing, ways of seeing. I might ask you about what you were trying to do. What was it in that landscape that compelled you to paint it? What mood or effect were you after? And yes, sometimes I am not even sure what to say.  Sometimes I see a student get stuck on something and I am still thinking about how to help him out. Sometimes  I see someone is on a wonderful journey and all I need to do is cheer her on.

So you won’t find structured critiques in my Art School but you will get feedback. Some feedback will read like a critique, some feedback will read like I am just cheering you on. Some feedback is an essay and some are just a few lines. I try to keep track (a bit!) of all of students’ work, but students can help me and fellow students by not just posting a picture and no other information. As long as you include size, material, your inspiration, your goals, your ideas as well, so we all know what we are looking at. Your art journeys are individual and unique. You really don’t always need me telling you your composition is off.

Feel free to let me know whether you agree or not. I am open to have my mind changed! Do you love a good critique? What does a good critique look like? Leave your comments below.

Published: December 14, 2020

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