The Critique

By Carolyn Edlund

You hated them – the dreaded critiques. Showing up for class and waiting your turn to be rated and criticized and hopefully praised in front of others.


They could be brutal. I remember a drawing teacher asking for volunteers to present their work. One student stood up and proudly displayed his still life, at which point the teacher approached him and grabbed the drawing. Ripping it in half, he declared it garbage.

They could be useless. A painting instructor once asked each student in turn to present their portfolios, give a critique of their own work, and declare what grade they should get. The instructor had no input.

We secretly crave critiques, though. We know that to improve, we need the opinion and input from someone we respect, an authority with the ability to help us reset our compass and find our true north. Have we strayed too far into the trite, the derivative, the boring? Tell us the truth.

We don’t want our mothers to tell us how talented we are. We want Simon Cowell.  Someone starkly honest, even if it hurts. Someone to give us an appraisal and tell us like it is. Who doesn’t know us and can see our work objectively, as the market will see it. That’s where our growth can take place.

We also need to have the ability to take from that critique what really works for us and not be crushed or derailed if we don’t get good news. Maturing as an artist means that we have a sense of ourselves, and a confidence in our work. Our inner guide determines our direction. The critique acts as a check and possible course correction, especially valuable if we are unsatisfied and know that we need feedback to adjust.

Has a particular critique been a defining moment for your work? Was it positive or negative?


  1. I miss art school critiques.

    While at RISD, it was remarkably beneficial to have a classroom full of talented and perceptive peers, comment on my work.

    The most helpful critiques were ones in which the person commenting had a good understanding of the premise of the project, and therefore could accurately discern areas of excellence, and areas where the piece “missed the mark”.

    Now, when I critique a work, I pose two questions: 1. What is the artist’s goal? 2. How well did the artist achieve that goal.

  2. No matter how objective people try to be, their own beliefs, likes and dislikes, and experiences shape their comments made on you & your art. Other artists sometimes give advice that encourages you to work in a way that is similar to their approach It’s just that it is familiar to them so why don’t you emulate them? Its plagiarism!

    People only give their opinions, which can be either relevant or irrelevant, even if the person giving advice is a respected artist, or a gallery owner. Their opinion may be more educated than others’ it may seem to be a definitive voice on the matter. But at the end of the day it’s still just only an opinion. Examine all advice you’re given and determine whether or not it relates to your art. Don’t take critique as the gospel truth. You need to weigh any advice proffered and only use what you need to follow. Learning to ignore and reject the rest of it.

    Fellow Artists advise may want you just to imitate them. Others would advise against you trying something for your self. Others would have you enslaved to their career path. Others would advise that you must use their art materials [or not]. Others would advise that a particular medium or colour finish is too difficult and advise against you even trying it.

    File away criticism for later. It’s often difficult to take it all in at once. It’s easier to mull it over when you get the chance, and sift through to find what is useful. Sometimes, the feedback you get may not be relevant now, but it might be relevant later in your career.
    Its not Personal If you have a particularly bad critique, or lots of negative feedback, try not to take it personally. For the most part, people are only trying to be helpful. Sometimes, it can seem like people go out of their way to be mean and nasty. In those cases, you should still try to remember that it’s not about you. More likely it is about those people and their insecurities.. Remember, it’s something all artists’ have to deal with. As an artist you need to develop a thick skin.

    Is it True? This is the point when you need to be really honest with yourself. Don’t brush off every negative comment there might be a grain of truth in it.

    Strange comments?I’ve had many strange responses to my work. Not the bad ones, but ones that made me think what? People seem to like making strange suggestions. That’s what they see, and at the end of the day I’m pleased something in my work moved them enough to think beyond what was in front of them.

  3. i, personally, miss crits. i didn’t study fine art, although i had to take a few art classes for credit requirements. the critiques were fine then. now, being a full time artist, i see the tremendous value.

    what i’ve found really irritating is when i do find myself in an art class or studying something new, this weird repeating pattern. on break, i’ll find the instructor studying what i’m working on, but when i approach they just smile and walk away without ever saying anything. when i ask for critique, still nothing. honestly, i just don’t understand what’s going on there.

    you’re completely right, i don’t want to be placated and hear repeatedly, “oh, it’s lovely”. i’d rather know what someone really thinks and feels, knowing what is behind the work.

    i would love suggestions as to where i might be able to find groups which will critique each other’s work. any info on that would be great!

    • I agree, Natalie. One of the high points of my interview with Threadless was their mention that in groups on that site, there were peer critiques. So much more valuable than the comments while voting. I’m sure there must be online forums, or in-person groups where critiques can be shared. If any other readers know of good groups to join for this purpose, I’d appreciate feedback.

  4. Fantastic post, you have given a very good overview of the benefits and shortfalls of critiques. I remember lots of tears (luckily not mine), especially in the first year of the program I took. Personally, I don’t think people can make it all the way through art school if they don’t learn to make critiques work for them!

    • Thanks for your “critique” of my post. I agree, these evaluations are essential to any artists trying to make it through. But wouldn’t anyone looking to improve themselves want constructive input? It helps us see reality a little more clearly.

  5. I think it depends entirely what ‘branch’ of art you are pursuing whether critiques are valuable or not. In illustration or graphic design, where the project is intended to meet the needs of a person other than the artist, a critique about how well the work in question meets those needs could be invaluable. However, with Fine Art, I do not believe that anyone but the artist can know whether or not a piece ‘works’ and I believe it is vitally important that an artist develops the ability to appraise their own work. Nobody else is really and truly in a position to comment, other than to say whether or not they like the work and the artist shouldn’t look to others for their opinions. I feel quite strongly about this, as you can probably tell!

    • Judy, I love your strong opinions – they make for great conversation! I understand your reasoning, but let me ask you this – what if an artist wanted input from others to get an outside view of their art? That would be a critique from peers or a mentor. I find in working with artists that quite often they can lack confidence in their work and appreciate some guidance or constructive criticism. It can help us view our portfolio in a broader way.

  6. Oh Carolyn, this is a huge subject!

    Of course we all like to know that what we’re ‘saying’ through our art is being ‘heard’ by others. But we need the confidence to know that if one person isn’t connecting to our work, it may be something to do with that person’s ‘ears’ rather than something wrong with our art.

    Once we start depending on ‘guidance’ or ‘constructive criticism’ from others, our work is no longer truly our own and that can stand our ability to appraise our own work. I’ve seen it happen!

    It’s a different matter, of course, if we are looking for guidance on how to make our work more saleable but that can be a slippery slope into ‘commercial’ art.

  7. Judy – I agree with you that it is vitally important that an artist develops the ability to appraise his or her own work, and should not rely on others for direction or inspiration. However, it is also important for an artist to consider how his or her work is perceived. If you categorically disregard all critiques, you miss out. Even though are the author of a work of art, others may have insight that you didn’t see (which is actually quite remarkable if you think about it).

    Carolyn – perhaps you should occasionally post an image on you blog expressly for the purpose of inviting reviews and comments (i.e. a critique).

  8. i have to say, i completely agree with BMcElhaney.

    fortunately or unfortunately, critiquing is a part of our lives in the form of reviews. what happens if someone who is guided by others, gets a negative review of an exhibition? you have to develop that strength and self-awareness or i think you’re too vulnerable.

    i did develop pretty much completely independently. the few times i did have critiques, the instructor was able to review more completely those areas in which i felt dissatisfied, and do so in ways i hadn’t thought about or been aware of.

    i think a large part of the value is also how good the instructor or the person giving the critique is. although i didn’t study art (much) in college, i still had critiques and i took away from the instructors and other students what i chose to accept. if i disagreed, i disregarded. if i felt they had a point, i took a closer look. but ultimately, i made the decisions what my work was all about. i had teachers, one in particular, who felt that things had to be done “his way”. i told him he was wrong, and transferred out of his class. i also had another woman look at my work at a professional portfolio review and her only comment was “oh, my! it looks like coral!” (i’m going to try attaching a photo for reference, but the piece is a bit dark.) because it wasn’t the kind of work she dealt with.

    as an artist, and as being an individual, i feel we must have the strength of self-awareness and understanding not to be overwhelmed or to completely bow to the direction of others. either in how you live your life or how you make your art.

    teachers, or those who critique, can and should only guide you. ultimately, you have to make your own decisions and be true to yourself.[img][/img]

  9. It looks like we shall have to agree to differ 🙂

    I suppose it depends what, for you, art is about.

  10. I have always gained a lot from critiques. Not just of my art but critiques of others too. My crit giver was always pointing out, what’s strong/great about the painting first….and then to consider/think about her suggestions for taking the piece to the next level. She was extremely well versed in elements and principles of design and even demonstrated how to fix her own “turkey” paintings, (usually with clear mylar over laid, so the improvement could be removed, as it is difficult to erase mistakes in watercolor!) As there is no “wrong” art and there is often more than one way to “fix” a painting, it is then up to the artist whether to make any changes or not to his/her artwork. But a good critique, should help you to grow as an artist, to see things from a different perspective, to make you think “How can I do this better next time-and not be afraid to try!

    • Sally, You were very fortunate to have such an instructor! I believe that many times we get opinions from others which are not constructive simply because they don’t have the types of skills your instructor had.

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