Thursday, April 17, 2014

On critiques...

Okay, I'm not a professional artist.  I'm a hobbyist.  I started out to become a pro illustrator, made the mistake of going through a graphic design program focused on typography and magazine page layout, worked in graphic design, did little art jobs locally here and there (art for newspaper ads, covers for some tabloid-sized inserts, spot illustrations for a regional magazine, a couple of t-shirt designs for a band, fringe stuff like that) before packing it in and moving to Japan to teach English for a lot more money than I ever made doing any of that stuff.  These days I chase art for my own purposes and to entertain people online.  I'm always trying to improve because I believe education in any subject is a lifelong pursuit.  I'm too shy and self-aware to push myself on working artists, but I have gotten some advice from time to time from some professionals.

Critiques.  As opposed to criticism, which is another discipline.  Criticism is what Roger Ebert used to do to films.  A critique is what artists do to other artists.  Go to art school and you'll receive critiques.  I did.  Some critiques come from the teachers.  Some come from other students.  Either way, they're meant to be a learning experience.  While it's nice to receive a lot of positive comments in a critique-- which is what happens usually if you've done everything correctly-- on occasion, you're going to get negative comments.  Some people will point out your mistakes and tell you how to fix them.  We call this "constructive criticism."  Sometimes constructive criticism comes soft and sweet.

But not always.

Allow me to give you a sampling of some of the comments I've received during critiques.  And keep in mind, these were almost all in front of my peers, as opposed to one-on-one or privately.  Other people watched and listened while teachers told me these things.  Some of these will be word-for-word, but all of them happened years ago, so I'm going to paraphrase the specifics on the ones I can't remember verbatim.  Even so, I'm going to give you a feel for the tone.

"You faked this.  You thought you could get away with it.  Look at these marks on this rug.  These marks are totally meaningless.  You got lazy, violated the rules of the assignment and you're not fooling anyone."

"You know what your favorite color is?  It's gray."

"Look at these two side-by-side.  This one you rushed is a lot better than the one you spent so much time on.  That's why you didn't finish these assignments.  Poor time management and getting all finicky.  And the results aren't worth it."

"This is a mess.  I don't want you turning in things like this."

"You should have just stopped here.  If you had, then you could say, 'I'm finished,' and be done with it."

"Your imagination has outstripped your drawing ability."

(In a very disapproving tone):  "Hmm."

Those are the ones that stuck with me, even if I can't remember every word exactly.  There were plenty of others, too, that have fallen back into a jumbled mass.

The point is, there is no rule that says critiques have to be polite, or positive.  Or even encouraging.  Sometimes the point is to discourage you from doing shitty work.  Especially if you fuck something up.  Read that first one again.  I did fake that assignment.  It was homework for an advanced studio drawing class and our professor was a working fine arts painter who had been a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War.  Super cool guy.  He had us doing memory drawings, where we were supposed to look at a room for a specified amount of time, then rush to our drawing board and draw gesturally (the teacher was big on gesture drawing and what he called "moves") for another specified amount of time.  I found it tedious and decided to cheat.  The next day we put our assignments on the wall for a group critique and the teacher zeroed right in on mine, no doubt using the same sharp vision he had used while flying under combat conditions during wartime.  He called me out in front of all my classmates and shredded my work.

Shredded my WORK.  Not me.  Although I suppose there was a little of that in there, too, because he was pissed I'd cheated and he knew it and knew I needed some correction.

I could have shriveled from that, but I didn't.  I was left awe-struck.  This guy knew what he was talking about.  It wasn't bullshit.  The light clicked on and from then on, I excelled in his class.  I learned more about drawing from a semester with that guy than I had in the whole of my life up to that point.  The one about gray was right on target, too.  No, gray isn't my favorite color, but I sure used a ton of it in that class for some stupid reason.

Are these critiques, and others like them, the reason I never turned pro?  Not at all.  I may or may not be skilled enough to do professional work, but I made a lot of choices and didn't push myself or sell myself enough because I was too busy expending my energy in epic booze binges.  I was lazy.  I lacked follow-through.  I'm working on my own thing and it's taking forever.  Because I'm some sort of freakish art monk and I do art for the sake of the thing itself and the spiritual benefit of pursuing perfection even though it's an impossible goal.  Japan called and I answered.  There are a lot of reasons and none of them are, "Some teachers tried to help me by pointing out what I was doing wrong and weren't nicey-nice about it."

Shoot, while I prefer everyone love me and gratify me with praise and self-esteem building compliments, and sugar-coat their constructive criticism, I WANT people to kick me in the ass when I need a good ass-kicking.  Sometimes I need harsh words or I won't learn.  Now you can say nice things in a critique, and you can offer constructive criticism and advice in a polite, soft, Nerf-covered way, and that's all well and good.  But as far as there being some set of rules that say you must do it that way?


And if you're so insecure you think a critique has to be some re-affirmation of just how awesome you are, then maybe you're too fragile to be doing art for public consumption in the first place.  Maybe you just don't want to learn and grow as an artist.  Or maybe you do and you're just a little thin-skinned.  That's fine.  You're missing out on a lot of learning opportunities, though.

Whatever it is, just don't tell me there are these definite rules for soft-soaping a critique.  A critique can be as easy or as harsh as it needs to be.  And sometimes, like the ones I'm recalling here, a critique has to be a sharp slap in the face to wake you up when you're sleepwalking through art.

Now go read that infamous Alex Toth take-down of no less than Steve Rude and tell me again just how harsh or unfair Janelle Asselin was about that Teen Titans cover.

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