Shop Talk

The 5 Best Ways to Critique Artwork

It’s not uncommon to be asked by artists, friends, and peers to critique their artworks. Hopefully you’ve had a chance to check out our posts on creating networks and promoting yourself to get yourself in touch with other artists who want to branch out who they share work with. This post is designed to be a jumping off point for giving criticism in a way that is actually directed and concise. I’ve asked for advice from a series of artists and art school lecturers to compile the tips below, which are a common thread of advice I was recommended over and over again when I asked; how can we best give critique of artwork?

"Give your ideas." Laptop Skin by Steve Leadbeater

1. Be kind, not nice

This motto was passed onto me by an artist lecturer who stressed the importance of being kind when giving critique. Being nice can get conversations stuck in unnecessary and awkward beating-around-the-bush exchanges, in which people sometimes get caught up in not offending anyone by not really providing any critique at all. If you approach being asked to give critique with a mindset that you are being consciously kind, but not sickly-sweet-nice, it will make the process of giving feedback much more relaxed for everyone involved.

2. Serve An Honest Shit Sandwich

This is an oldie but goodie. Word your criticism so you first make a statement or remark that is positive (the top piece of bread of the sandwich you’re making), followed by a statement of straight up blatant negative criticism (the shit part in the middle) and finish off your sando with a positive and encouraging bit of feedback (the bottom bit of bread). It may sound entry-level to be so contrived in how you present feedback, but it really does work to reinforce that two out of three points you’re making are lovely pieces of encouragement. One of the best things I learned during critique sessions at art school is that if other artists are ready and willing to accept criticism then they’re already well on their way to improving. Showing up and making, discussing, and bettering artwork is more than half the battle, so a shit sandwich with nice bread is always a good move.

"Bullfinch bird" Poster by hbitik

3. Always offer an out

Similarly to step 2, this point was passed onto me by an artist mentor of mine. Always offer an “out”, or some kind of gracious solution to negative critique. When you’re giving hard and honest feedback, for example, confronting feedback like telling someone you don’t think they’ve been spending enough hours on one particular skill, giving an out might be empathizing with why they haven’t been spending time on that skill. Volunteering compassionate statements about why the point you’re criticizing may be occurring will create a safe and inclusive space where you can both chat as artists and speak freely.

"going out of my mind" Throw Pillow by Beth Conklin

4. Be in it for the long haul

If someone has come to you and asked for your opinion on their artwork, make sure you have the time to actually do their question and your answer justice. Ensure you don’t have to bail five or ten minutes into a conversation and are set up to look at their portfolio or be in their studio. If you can’t be in it for at least a decent conversation of 20-30 minutes, re-schedule if you can so you can make the proper time for it. Every time I’ve seen a damaging or traumatizing critique being haphazardly dished out at art school was when someone had to rush off and leave the dialogue early. If you can try and form networks with other artists that you will know for years so you can develop together and have an ongoing dialogue of feedback and ideas. This also goes for the infamous blog comment section or social media reply. Put some thought into your feedback. Don’t lash out. Don’t insult. Don’t make it personal. Remember, we’re all human, and we all have feelings.

5. Know the limits

Giving your opinion on artwork can be really challenging, and often it feels like there is a pressure to make the artwork “better” for the artist. If you can both re-frame your thinking to see there’s only so much that can be achieved in a 30 minute chat, you can play around with practical ideas. Suggesting how the artwork might be re-designed or re-crafted to be tried in another way is a great way to start, rather than suggesting your friend look at re-inventing their entire artistic style. Critiquing one artwork at a time and talking about how that particular work relates to other themes or challenges the artist is facing helps too. Starting small and seeing the conversation for what is can be is the ultimate goal. Feedback sessions can be amazing and rewarding, but they should also be pointed and hyper-reflexive about where you’re both leading the conversation.

"Parallel Universe" Pouch by chyworks

Do you have any advice for giving feedback and critique on artwork? What has worked for you when giving or receiving honest advice? Please let us know in the comments.