Critique Club

Recently I made an illustration that was full of vibrant colour – or so I figured. I was pleased, but just in case I compared it to some professional work that had the rich colours I wanted to achieve. How did it compare … Grey, dull, drab! Almost colourless even. How could I have been so deluded!?

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I’m sure there are some evolutionary reasons that I’m misleading myself. You can’t be at fault if you can’t see your faults? When I was in art school I remember thinking something wasn’t quite right with my artwork, but I couldn't figure out what. I’ve since learned a system to figure it out.

It goes something like this:

How I self critique. (Without Irreparably Killing the Soul!)

1/Drawing in Layers

To control anatomy, proportions, perspective, and such I draw in multiple layers. I start with a pencil and eraser and once I've made enough of a mess with the pencil drawing I go over it with a red pen. When I can’t go any further with the red pen I draw over it with a black pen. 

2/Reverse the Perspective

I use sketchbooks with thin paper so I can trace my drawing on the opposite side. After working a drawing near to death, I flip it over and draw on the other side. It's easier to see problems such as if the eyes are misaligned when the drawing is reversed. Next I trace over the drawing on a new page and repeat the process again and again, until the drawing is as perfect as I can get it in the time I have. When working digitally I flip the layers horizontally on a regular basis. A classic, analog way is to look at the reverse of an image in a mirror.

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3/Out of Sight, Out of Mind

As a drawing progresses, I progressively lose my creative objectivity. Trying to distance myself from the making of a picture can help. Putting it out of sight and mind for as long as possible, and looking at it later with fresher eyes helps me see issues I might not see in the heat of creation. And this can go both ways. Sometimes I think something is utter crap and then look at it later and realize it was perfectly fine!

4/How does it Stack up? (Not to be confused with How do I Stack up?) 

Does it compare favourably to previous work that I consider successful? If not, back to the drawing table! How does it compare to other accomplished professionals? The truth hurts but it’s a super way of clearing the fog in my mind’s eye.

5/It’s just Business. 

Mistakes are part of the process, I'm critiquing the work – not myself. Sometimes I think of it as an angel on one shoulder, and a devil on the other. I need to listen to the good and the bad for perspective, but keep a healthy balance and not give into over confidence … or despair.

6/Go ahead and Back up. 

Growth and progress isn’t necessarily a linear path. Sometimes, often even, an earlier version of a drawing is better. And it’s easy to not notice if I’m only looking forward. I make sure I have my chronological process at hand to refer back too. Of course accepting the evidence even when it is right in front of me is another challenge.

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7/Listen to the Voice in my Head.

I’ve been trying to pay attention when I have a feeling something is off. It’s easy to disregard an uneasy feeling, but if my intuition is telling me something is wrong it's probably because something is. 

8/STOP! 

I have lost count of the amount of times I have decided to add just one last brush stroke  … 

9/Share.

Put it on social media. When I think that others will look critically at my stuff it can help (a bit) in pulling back the veil of my own self deceptions.

10/Show to Art ‘Muggles’. 

Getting a different perspective from an average viewer is great. The purpose of illustration is to communicate, if it doesn't, it's purpose is unfulfilled – no matter how beautiful the picture!

11/Get Professional help.

It’s easier to hold onto my dreams if someone doesn't burst my bubble. Recently I (finally!) sent some work to a publisher - and sure enough they burst that bubble good! But luckily the publisher gave me a superb critique. It’s great to have such a considered and experienced perspective. There were unexpected surprises, things I ought to have known, and other things I maybe knew but wasn’t ready/able to accept. It did take a few moments to recover, but I'm now even more excited to do it again!

12/Crit Club

Asking peers for feedback is a no brainer, so obviously I rarely do it! But I am working up to it …

13/Get a Job

Real experience is the best teacher. When a client shows trust in my creative decisions - or even helps me stay on track if I go astray (and I do) it can be a great learning experience. I remember attending a talk by a successful art director some years back. Afterwards many attendees were disappointed. Her talk was full of “I hired this great photographer”, or “stylist”, or “designer”, or “artist”. So what did she do that was so great if she didn’t make anything? She did her job. She hired people who were good at what they do and let them do it. I want to be hired by people like that, if I'm not, then I need to consider what I am doing, or not doing.

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How to Critique

At the art college we’ve been changing our critique process. Traditionally the class would critique as a group but nowadays we are breaking the class into small groups and the students are critiquing each other. This works incredibly well, the students are much more involved and contribute honestly and equally to the discussion. Later I'll highlight a few key points with the entire group, and get to the nitty gritty through individual critiques.

Some things I try to pack into a critique:

1/Crit Sandwich.

All drawings have potential, I start a critique with suggestions on how to build on the positives. By wrapping the critique in what is working, it makes critical criticism more palatable. 

2/No Substitute.

It’s easy to dismiss someone else’s idea because it’s not working and replace it with my own. But how do I know the substitute is actually better, not better just because it’s my idea? And how is the artist going to get into my head to truly interpret the substitute idea. I find it more productive to try to find a way to help make the artist’s own ideas work. 

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3/More action, less Talk.

This might be controversial, but I find it really effective to draw right over a student’s drawing in photoshop. And they appreciate the direct criticism … I think.

4/It’s all about Me.

When critiquing someones work I find it helps to imagine that the artwork is something I created. What if this was mine, what is working, what isn’t?

5/Pen to Paper.

Taking the the time to write down my suggestions can sometimes be better in gathering my thoughts than trying to verbally critique on the fly.

6/A good Question.

Another artist I know tries to frame their criticism in questions to help the recipient feel more at ease with the critique.

7/Checklist.

Another suggestion I’ve heard recently is to make a checklist, I haven’t tried it but I’ve put together an initial draft below.

How to Receive Criticism

A critique isn’t worth much if I can’t take the criticism and use it productively. It’s okay to be angry at first, but I try not to project it or argue back. Email is great because it lets me clear my head and simmer down. I try to consider a critique seriously and apply the suggestions if they are at all productive. Artists often complain about clients, art directors, and editors. But if I can find good collaborators my work is always better. It’s a necessary evil, or rather, a necessary good!

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Of course this has been all about the process of making a picture, I haven't even touched on the making of an idea. That will be for another discussion.

Critique Checklist: 

Does this artwork have:

Superlative colour? Awesome ideas? Spectacular environment? Amazing character? Cool story? Snazzy line work? Excellent tonal value? Dynamite drawing? Lovely painting? Marvellous composition? Startling concepts? Astonishing action? Thrilling drama? Prodigious originality? Breathtaking design?Phenomenal lighting? Flabbergasting contrast? Sensational hierarchy? Astounding emotion? Bewildering texture? Dazzling pattern? Staggering point of view? Awe-inspiring craft? Stupefying use of space? Shattering costume?

I’ve run out of adjectives!