lianne williams

Portraits | Creativity | Drawing | Illustration

How to give CONSTRUCTIVE criticism to ARTISTS

Creative LivingLianne Williams
how to give constructive criticism to artists

How to give CONSTRUCTIVE criticism to Artists

We've all been there.

Quietly minding our own business and some fool comes over and says 'Jesus Christ Lianne, why the HELL could you ever possibly think that using RED in a painting was a good idea? Didn't you know? Red NEVER sells, people HATE red, you moron. Why have you done this? Why have you put this scourge of a painting on the Earth? WHHHYYYYY?'.

Okay, maybe it wasn't that dramatic, but it's true, a few years ago someone DID have the gall to come up to me, a perfect stranger, and berate me for using the colour red. To add insult to injury that same individual actually came back to me one week later and said,  'You know that painting? I changed my mind. I couldn't stop thinking about the red and I love it now'. You couldn't make this stuff up.

And I'm 100% sure you all have stories like this or might even be one of these people who just don't know what to say or how to give CONSTRUCTIVE feedback to artists, so today I've decided to lay down what I believe is good constructive criticism techniques. That way we can all play nicely and improve our skills as creatives without being ripped to shreds. Woohoo.

The red artwork in question

The red artwork in question

I LOVE constructive criticism.

Proper critique doesn't feel bad. Critique should enlighten, guide and have that really pleasant feeling of honesty, safety and support. It should NEVER:

  • Humiliate
  • Force someone to explain themselves
  • Intimidate
  • Negate a persons point of view

Let's start with what NOT to do because I need a good rant:

  1. DO NOT EVER, EVER, EVER, EVER give someone critique unless they've asked for it. Even if you have something really valid to say, sometimes your opinion is just NOT wanted. Deal with it. If you're not sure if they want critique or feedback, just ask. Don't wade in and start dissecting their artwork without their consent. Most people who put their artwork in public view have done so because THEY are happy with it and don't want your critique. If they DO want your opinion, they ask for it like this: 'what do you think?', 'I'm not sure about this part', 'feedback welcome' etc. 
  2. Do not critique works-in-progress (WIPs) Honestly, would you think a half baked caked was delicious? No. So just don't. I've genuinely had people 'advise' me I should 'fill in the rest of my drawing' when I was only a few minutes in... seriously? You don't say...
  3. Controversial statement alert! Do NOT do the 'shit sandwich' approach. By that I mean the critique method of giving good feedback, bad feedback, good feedback. Most people know about this 'trick', so see it coming and then sit there thinking you're completely ingenuous, waiting for the bad feedback, ignoring the good feedback, and then wondering if you're probably patronising them too. A natural conversation about the work where useful feedback flows into one stream of thought, regardless of whether it's a flattering point or not, is FAR more constructive and will be respected much more.
  4. Do NOT lecture. Aim to discuss the work as one adult to another and this means listening. How can you possibly give good critique if you haven't a clue what the artist is trying to do? Just because you like a more gestural drawing doesn't mean the artist is trying to achieve that. This artwork isn't about YOU or what YOU want to create. Good critique guides the artist towards achieving their goals better. Not yours. Even if you're an expert. Even if you're an art genius. The simple fact is they might just not want to make art like yours and YOU WILL BE WRONG. And if they don't want to explain their art to you take that as a sign to move on. Nobody has to explain their work to you. You are not entitled to an explanation either.
  5. A given really, but do not troll with junk like 'I hate it', 'My 3 year old could paint better', 'I don't consider this art'. That's not critique. That's abuse. Just go away.

With all that negativity out of the way lets focus on how we can give good critique instead. Yay!

Think about what you're going to say before you say it.

By this I mean really consider the artwork before you discuss it. Look at it. Consider the artists previous work and what type of creative they are. If you don't have a big enough picture of the artist or their work you may not be qualified enough to give critique yet. Find out about them. Get to know them and their work. The themes, aims and reoccurring problems you can see. The time you invest in thinking about the work will be respected as quality critique by the artist and what you have to say will have a better chance of being relevant. 

Critique the artwork exactly as it is

Not what you wish it was or how you would make it better. We are giving feedback on the art, and the artist, in the present moment only. They simply may not have the same skills or intentions as you have, but that doesn't mean their artwork isn't a success on their own terms. That means being conscious and respectful of their artistic maturity. You don't roll your eyes at beginners because they didn't do their underpainting properly. 

Constructive Criticism has to be actionable.

Any artist worth their salt will say that as much as it's nice for people to say 'I love your work', approval isn't as useful as someone you respect giving you actionable criticism that will allow you to improve your work. I love it when someone gives me a tip or trick and then my work evolves a little. It's amazing. If you take anything away from this post: if you give critique always explain HOW that person can put your guidance into action. If you can't tell them how to do that, because you don't know how, don't give critique

It is not You versus Them. 

Make the artist feel like you're on their side and you're both evaluating the work together as equals and as a TEAM. This means asking them questions and listening to their critique of the work too. I'm always suspicious of people who give critique from lofty heights but never actually engage me in the discussion. Are they trying to help me or get a power trip? (Top tip: it's always a power trip). It also helps to show them your problems or successes as examples on how we all make mistakes and that's how we improve.

Good ways to phrase your constructive criticism 

First of all don't jump straight in throwing advice around. You'll probably step on someones toes. We aren't stupid. Half the time we know what's wrong with our artwork anyway. This is all about good manners and RESPECT.

Your goal is to help the artist and they might just not want your help. So we need to assess the situation first and allow the artist time to warm up to our style of critique and encourage them to feel safe listening to our thoughts, and to share theirs in return.

I recommend asking them questions about their work first to establish 3 things:

  1. Why they made it.
  2. What they enjoyed or found successful.
  3. What they want to improve on next time.

I do this because most of the time the best critique can come from the artist themselves. Good constructive criticism is often more about giving an artist permission to talk and be honest about their work, encouraging them to discuss what they want to try next. It rarely boils down to just discussing the work in front of you. Why? Because the work is finished now. It's done. It can't be changed no matter how hard or brutally you critique it. But what can be taken away from the experience are GOALS. Goals on what to try again or things they need to practice or learn.

Once you have an idea about what they're trying to achieve you can probe further:

  • Have you tried.....
  • Ah I see! I didn't realise that! I thought you were trying to [share opinion on artwork]
  • I like how you've done this [include description of the skill you've noticed such as colour choices] it works, because [include TECHNICAL evaluation such as 'it creates good contrast' rather than your opinion 'it looks pretty']
  • This is a really helpful technique I've learnt....
  • I really like using/doing this to achieve that effect....
  • Can I show you how....
  • Do you know about...
  • I thought this might be really helpful to you.... 
  • Have you noticed...

If you don't know how to say something nicely then you may be giving an opinion, not critique

Constructive criticism is normally factual and literal. It's easy to phrase respectfully and kindly because there is no emotion involved. If you start worrying about the artist's feelings in response to what you have to say or you're afraid you're going to sound rude or harsh you may be teetering into giving an opinion rather then saying what you see. Hold off and try rephrasing what you want to say into something more literal and practical.

Here are some examples of how critique may flow... 

Good constructive criticism

This artwork is large, dramatic and full of gestural strokes that capture the movement of a ballet dancer. I can see you've paid attention to creating a sense of balance in the composition by putting the subject elegantly in the centre. I think if you'd framed it differently it wouldn't have worked with that pose so well. My eye is drawn to the detail you've put into the face and that makes me think about her as a person and wonder what this dance is about. It creates a sense of intimacy, I think, which wouldn't be there if you had just used gestural marks throughout. I'd be interested to know if this work was an individual artwork or part of a series now too as I really enjoy the character you've created and would like to see more. I find your signature a little distracting in the corner as its red and the rest of the artwork is monochrome- that might be something you could consider changing to something more subtle in the future. Have you tried watercolour rather than ink? I think you could really enjoy working with it based on this painting.

Poor constructive criticism

I really like this, it's really strong work but I think the size is too big, and I don't know how practical that would be for a home or gallery to exhibit- especially because its figurative art too and I don't know how popular that is right now. I'm not a fan of ballet myself but i really like how you've done the face and made it feel like shes moving. It's really pretty. I just wish it was smaller. I don't like the red signature, that doesn't work. But great job!

Notice how the poor criticism doesn't expand on how, or why, things work, or don't work and there are a lot of assumptions and personal opinions. It doesn't help the artist to move forward. The good criticism on the other hand addresses only the artwork in front of them and does not put personal taste or beliefs as a priority. It expands on why things work or describes in detail what can be done to improve the piece with actionable steps, without imposing those views on the artist. It respects the artists choices and gives them the power to make decisions. Their word on the artwork is final. Not the critic. It also invites further discussion about the work which leads to further refinement and understanding of the work, which means better advice and better goals can be shared. 

How to find good constructive criticism

It's difficult. Not everyone can do it and not everyone wants to hear it. The best thing to do is to buddy up with other artists you trust; who respect you, the way you work and have a vague understanding how you do what you do. Then arrange ground rules and what is okay and not okay to say. Ask questions you want answers to. Tell them if something they've said doesn't make sense or you don't know how to do that. Look for artists who are at a similar artistic maturity and ability to you but above all look for critics who are genuinely interested in your work and what you make.

I also recommend avoiding asking for feedback on work you LOVE. The fact you love it, is feedback enough. Put forward work that you're not comfortable with or can't quite put a finger on what's wrong with it. Work you want to dissect yourself. You may find a fresh pair of eyes can evaluate it better and give you that luscious AH HAAAA moment when you realise what went wrong and how you can fix it next time.

To conclude, How to give Constructive Criticism:

  • Wait until you're asked to give critique
  • Ask questions about the work and the artist to understand it better
  • Listen to the answers and decide if you have anything useful to add
  • Explore the artworks themes and construction together
  • Explain what you think and Expand on what you mean in descriptive detail
  • Suggest Actionable steps based on the artists Goals
How to give constructive criticism to artists