Thursday, May 7, 2015

I'd rather walk over hot coals!!

Why can't I find an honest critique?! 

And do I really want one?!

Finding a place to give and get a genuine critique is a key element in learning to paint. It is also very rare. There are many places to go to get "nice" comments. And those places are greatly encouraging. But if you really want to grow, the honest critique is invaluable. 

The key here is that getting and GIVING the honest critique is invaluable.

When I started my free teaching website, I knew I wanted this to be a big part of it. Why? Because as I was first learning to paint I knew I needed them, but couldn't find them. Not honest ones. Sure I enjoyed the nice ones, but after a while I realized they weren't really helping me be a better painter. So I decided to start a website! But a couple of things surprised me. One, It's not easy to give an honest critique! And two, what I really didn't expect, I have LEARNED so much in giving those critiques!

At first I dreaded commenting on other people's paintings. I was terrified I would discourage them, offend them. Even start a confrontation. And now, years into moderating my website, I realize the vast majority of our members dread it just as much!

Maybe you will recognize your own thoughts in some of these:

 Why don't we critique? 

1. I don't know enough about painting to critique anyone.
2. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings
3. I just don't like the painting, I don't have anything good to say.
4. Their style or medium is different than mine.
5. I don't have time, I want to get back to my painting

  Why don't we post our paintings for critique? 

1. My painting isn't good enough to share.
2. People will say mean things.
3. People will say things I don't agree with.
4. No one will say anything.
5. I know what I'm doing I don't need a critique.

And so we don't post for critique, and we don't comment. Such a loss! For everyone. Given that you have a safe, moderated space, like our website. You have no fear of any of the above! Don't the excuses sound a little silly written out loud? And to address the more ego-centered issues, we all have things to learn, and in an open, honest, supportive environment we can all blossom. The skills and knowledge you have are greatly multiplied by sharing.

So What IS a good critique? 

1. Honest

2. Constructive

3. Gentle

4. Encouraging

5. A key learning tool

How do I do it?!

  • Look at the painting, read the artist's comments 

    This is a first impression. Don't filter your gut reactions, your emotional ones. But don't write anything yet, either! This is the surface. The unexamined reaction. " I love this", "Ugh that is so much better than mine", "I hate this", "Boring", "Bright", "Cheerful", "Colorful" "Weird", "Ugly", "Perfect". Good impressions, bad ones. With the "nice" critique, we just filter out the negative ones and comment with our positive reactions and call it done. Sometimes I have to give it a few hours or a day to let all this surface stuff have its say. Then I can get down to the real thing.
  • Filter out everything that is about you 

    Some of your first reactions will be all about how this painting compares to your paintings. Better, worse, different. If you feel it is better, you might not even comment! Set all that aside. Stop thinking about you and focus on the painting. Set aside the insecurities and the ego. This in itself is a great exercise! For life, not just for painting :)
  • Filter out everything that is about the artist 

    This may be a friend. They may have made a comment you didn't like. You might feel they are so much better than you, or worse.  All those categories, judgements we make about ourselves and other people. Forget about them. Remember, this critique is a learning tool for you, too!
  • Now, really look at the painting 

    Step through the painting, using everything you know at this point. And you know more than you think you do!
  • Subject choice. Does it tell a story? have a focal point? Lend itself well to painting?
  • Composition. Are the main elements placed well? Does it have balance? Does it lead the eye?
  • Focal Point. Does it have one? Are we led to it? Is it developed enough?
  • Values. Do they create distance? Define the focal area? Describe the forms? 
  • Color. Does it suit the mood of the painting? Is it harmonious? Support the story?
  • Drawing. Does the perspective work? Relative sizes and shapes? Overdone? Underdone?
  • Brush Strokes. Are they effective? Consistent? Support the style of the painting?
 THIS is where YOU really learn. By slowing down and applying everything you have learned so far to a painting that is not yours, you WILL grow leaps and bounds!! Once you get past the "I like it" or "I don't like it" you start the learning. Study their reference photo. Can you find solutions to areas that aren't working?
  • Write your critique

Now just share your thoughts! Keeping these ideas in mind
  • Lead with the positive. Describe your honest positive reactions to the painting. What areas work and why?
  • Be specific. Talk about the points above that you feel are successful. For example: "The composition is great, the focal point well placed. My eye enters by the path in the foreground to the focal point tree, and then the flow of the branches directs me back to the distant mountains and beautiful sky. The tree on the left brings my eye back into the foreground".
  • Be honest. Don't say things you don't mean.
  • What isn't working. If you leave this part out, it's not an honest critique. And this is the part we all have the hardest time with. But it is so key. Address specific points that aren't working. For example: The value of the distant hills is too dark, keeping them from receding. Or, The bright orange in the mid ground trees is competing with the color in the focal point.
  • Offer suggestions for fixes. I would add a little blue to the orange to dull it down a bit. Add some white and blue and a little red to your distant green hills to make them lighter and greyer. Just give input on what you would do. We all have different techniques and have discovered ways to solve problems. Share them!
  • Balance. Think about it this way. If the painter is very much a beginner, there will be many more things that need fixing than that are working. And, also, our egos are very much more fragile when we first start out. What is the answer? Balance. Choose your constructive points so there is a balance of positive and constructive. Same goes for the really advanced painter. A critique filled with praise, and nothing constructive isn't helpful. So tone down the praise and search for those constructive points. Remember they posted looking for a critique!

Some final thoughts

I hope you are feeling encouraged now! Both to give and receive critiques. And if all this sounds too complicated, no worries! Just keep these ideas in mind. Read through them a couple of times and write what comes to mind. Above all, please share. Share your paintings, your comments. Painting is something to bring us together. To share, experience, learn, grow. Discovering and using tools, like the critique, will help us do that.

We are all creative, it's just about overcoming our fears, being kind to ourselves. Releasing what is within. So let's help each other do that!



  1. Great article, Karen. My cousin stopped by yesterday and showed me some of her paintings she had been working on. She has just started her art journey. I was able to identify what was working and what was not workings in some of her paintingsI I have learned a lot in the last few years and those things just popped into my head. I encouraged her to keep on painting & not to be timid with her paint. Thanks for your wonderful website.

    1. You're welcome Carla. So great that you could help your cousin that way, I'm sure she really appreciated it!

  2. I love the clarity in your writing style, Karen. I`m sure I will use this information for self-critique. I believe we must be able to critique our own work, and learn to know when it`s working or not. Thanks for all your great blogs!