As an artist, you're under constant critique. It doesn't always feel good, actually, it's mostly hurtful and gives away all the pleasure of creation. The pressure to meet the standards and not to be critiqued negatively is so strong that it may easily stop one from drawing. But... where does this pressure come from? Does every drawing have a value that can be judged? Does everyone have right to judge, or can it be suspended sometimes?
Beware—it's going to be more of a psychological than artistic topic. We're going to discuss the dark side of creating, something people don't usually realize. However, if you understand it, you may gain an artistic freedom you've never dreamed of!
Where is the Value of a Drawing?
one and only one problem with critique, and this little problem lays
inside us. We simply love to cheat ourselves! Logically, it doesn't
makes sense, but it's in human nature that we prefer comfort over truth.
We'll need to dive into psychology to explain and understand this phenomenon. Ready for a journey into human mind?
We are humans, therefore we judge. By judging we define a value of something. Is this berry good? (read: better than other berry or a stone). Is this neighbor nice? Does it feel better than that? Judgment leads us to better future, lets us survive and be happy. It's so important that it actually has taken over our whole lives. We judge every little fact to make sure if everything's all right. We stick labels to objects, situations, people. However, things aren't such and such—they just are.
In a world without
consciousness things just happen. There's no good, no evil, no "better"
and "worse". If lighting strikes a tree and kills it, it just happens.
If a volcano erupts and floods all the surroundings with hot lava, it
just happens. You need to add a conscious being, let's say a human, to
judge the situation, to give it a value. An object doesn't have value by
itself, but when an observer judges it, it may turn out to be:
- Pretty—the brain of the observer creates a pleasant reaction when exposed to this particular visual signal;
- Durable—the object stays in its basic form for a long time, and can be useful for the observer;
- Useful—the object serves a certain purpose of the observer, helps achieve a goal of theirs;
- Heavy—the muscles of the observers get weary when carrying the object;
- Harmful—the observer may get hurt when using the object.
There are two outcomes of the process of judgment: fact and opinion.
- Fact is just a description of observed situation/object. "The fruit is poisonous for humans", "the animal is very aggressive during mating season". Facts are observations confirmed by many people—everyone who doubts them can go and check themselves. The result will be the same (and if not, it was never a fact). A fact exists objectively and it doesn't need to be described to come into existence—deadly nightshade is poisonous for humans no matter if the human is conscious and able to judge;
- Opinion is a fact with a personal value added. "This pizza is delicious", "this is the most beautiful forest ever". The value is created in the mind of the observer and doesn't exist outside it. When many people share the same opinion, it may look and be treated as a fact ("strawberries are tasty", "roses are beautiful").
There's nothing immune to judgment—everything we can interact with can be judged. This way we learn if something is beneficial for our survival or not. Judgment is like our antennae we move all the time to see better. During our lives we gain a set of beliefs based on facts and opinions, and since all the beliefs are stored in the same place, facts and opinions may merge into one.
This leads us to another issue:
Why Does it Hurt so Much to be Judged?
Do you remember the first time someone judged your work positively? That euphoria felt great! And the first negative judgment? Maybe you even stopped drawing for some time (or forever!) after this. No doubt judgment is very powerful, but where does this power come from?
The answer is simple—we are the source of it. An unconscious being doesn't care about judgment, simply because it's not able to care at all. When you care, you let something into your mind. When you post a drawing, you care a lot! You've spent a lot of time on it, you love it, and you want others to feel the same, so you open your mind to their opinions—ready to receive positive energy from them. Unfortunately, negative opinions use exactly the same channel, bringing negative energy. One negative comment may overcome ten positive ones because it's so unwelcome!
Alas, you can't draw energy from positive comments and ignore negative ones. As I said, they use the same channel, and you can either open or close it. You may say "but that's just your philosophy, I don't need to agree with it". I'm sure the next paragraphs will clarify it.
They Know Better
We cheat ourselves a lot. In drawing it manifests by a dangerous belief "an opinion becomes a fact once it's said aloud". Of course, it's not true, but this kind of thinking opens the channel to draw a lot of energy from every positive comments. They mean so much because with every positive opinion the picture becomes—in fact—more and more beautiful!
Few people draw for themselves, some draw for money, but the vast majority draws for praises. It feels so good when others appreciate our work! Unfortunately, the better it feels, the worse it gets when a negative comment comes to play. A positive opinion gets you high for a few minutes, but a negative one wrecks your day and undermines your self-confidence.
That's how we reached the important conclusion. The less confident, the more prone you are to treat opinions as facts. It's because a person with low self-esteem values opinions of others higher than theirs. You like your picture, someone comes and tells it's ugly, and suddenly you feel bad—the person destroyed your satisfaction of the picture with a simple opinion said aloud! And that trembling when you post a picture and don't know how others will take it? It's as if it was kind of voting and the value of the picture was at stake!
Opinions are pieces you use to build your self-confidence from. However, it's not very solid construction. If you take everything from others to build it, sometimes you'll be fetched a log, and sometimes—a burning torch instead. When you believe everyone but you is right, you can't choose the material—you take what they give you, because they know better. One torch given instead of expected timber will easily destroy everything you've built so far.
When Praises Become a Fuel
"So what, am I supposed not to listen to them at all? Praises are what drives me to draw!". This approach is very dangerous, too. When you draw for praises, your goal isn't to be better—only more appreciated. It may go hand in hand, indeed, but there's a risk you'll take the path of least resistance and copy/trace, draw fan arts only, or stick to one, well-tested style. Because development is a path of trail and error, and errors are something that you, praise-junkie, can't stand. You'd rather draw another pony for your fans and get a lot of positive feedback than post an experimental piece—maybe better in technical sense —and receive a faint reaction.
Yes, praises are addictive and drawing for them only is an addiction. Imagine that someone, a complete stranger, tells you something like this:
"Seriously, you're one of the best... no, THE best artist I've ever seen. Your style is totally unique, not so boring like others'. I can't stop looking at your works, you put so much effort in them and all of them say something about you. I don't know how to explain it, but I can see your personality in them. I can't wait to see more!"
What do you feel? Adrenaline, euphoria, a sudden boost of motivation? Do you feel more alive than a few seconds ago? Is your heart beating faster? It feels good, doesn't it? The better it feels, the more likely you'll fight to get a chance to feel it once again. That's how psychological addiction works—the praise becomes a drug for your brain!
There are many "brain drugs". Without them we wouldn't do anything at all! All the actions beneficial for survival are pleasant to induce us to repeat them, but not all the pleasant actions are beneficial for survival. Drawing for praises may, in some cases, make a great artist out of you. After all, we all start with this! However, there must be a point when you realize what's going on with you—you must set a new goal and forget about what your fans expect from you.
There's no future for a praise-junkies. They will always crave for attention, for positive comments, more views, more signs of admiration. And at the same time, one negative comment is enough to ruin their day. They'll defend themselves from them, trying to convince you your opinion is invalid—"it's my style, you can't judge it!", "what do you know, you can't even draw!", "yeah, because you know how dragons look"...
"But if I stop listening to them, why would I draw?". To be a better artist. To find a job that will make you fulfilled. To feel satisfaction of your own self-development. To have a purpose in life. To value your art yourself, and not to depend on others to make it valuable. After all, comments have only as much power as you let them. It doesn't mean you should stop listening to everyone who tells something about your art. Listen to them and pick the meaning you need—an advice how to be better. That's how we reached the main point of this article:
What is Critique and What isn't?
There are many less or more formal definitions of critique, but let's create one based on what we've been talking about. Critique is an opinion based on logical facts. There are also opinions looking like a critique, but in reality they're based on very unstable beliefs. When you decide to abandon praise-addiction and use comments for your own development, you need to learn how to distinguish them.
There's a base behind everything we say. We aren't robots, we've got emotions, what makes the transfer of information complicated, and the actual meaning—ambiguous. To understand what someone really told us, we need to take a deep breath and move emotions aside. It may not be possible in the heat of the moment, so if the comment is really "hot" to you, take a break and come back later. It's easy when the comment was written, but with a spoken one you need to relax at the same moment. Don't be defensive, nobody can hurt you with words unless you let them.
Dismantled Opinion Loses its Fangs
That's what we need to do—dig, and dig, and dig, until we get to the very base of the opinion. We need to find the fact and see if it's worth paying attention to. Let's make an example:
|Opinion||Translation||Subject||What Can I Do About It?|
|"It's so ugly I can't look at this"||"The picture doesn't meet my standards of beauty"||The viewer's beauty standards||Nothing!|
|"The colors are so chaotic"||"The colors on this picture don't make sense to me—I don't understand them"||The uncertain meaning of color scheme||If this effect wasn't intentional, learn more about colors|
|"You call it a dragon?"||"The creature on your work isn't compatible with my definition of dragon"||The viewer's definition of dragon||Nothing!|
|"I can't look at these childish ponies anymore"||"I've seen so many drawing of ponies that they look boring to me. I think only children should draw ponies. I don't want people to post ponies"||The viewer's beliefs ||Nothing!|
|"The wings look somehow unnatural"||"I don't think the wings of this drawn creature look like real wings"||The anatomy of wings||Make sure you understand how wings work|
|"You don't know how a horse looks, do you?"||"The drawn horse doesn't look like a real horse. I suppose you didn't try to learn about horses before drawing it"||The lack of knowledge about drawn topic||Learn more about the topic before drawing it|
In short, every opinion where the subject starts with "the viewer" can be thrown away. Since it's about the viewer, what can you really do? It's not like they paid you for pleasing them visually or confirming their beliefs!
Critiques aren't only negative opinions, but it's the easiest to learn from those. However, positive critique may make us sure about something we doubted. They're not as helpful, in technical sense, but they help us prepare for negative ones. We're humans—for most of us it's not possible to get rid of the need for praises and acceptance. Critique will always hurt at least a bit—but only for a moment. You'll survive and take heed!
It's crucial to understand that all the power of judgment lays inside
us. The self-doubting mind interprets every opinion as a rebuke, while
for presuming one everything will be a praise. Notice how the imagined "fault" is transferred from the viewer (positive) to the artist (negative).
|Opinion||Positive Translation||Negative Translation|
|"You can't draw!"||"I'm jealous and I want you to feel bad, so that I can feel better"||"You're talentless and pitiful"|
|"I don't think it's what dog legs look like..."||"I don't know much about drawing dogs"||"Your dog anatomy sucks"|
|"Another sexy chick in impractical armor, I'm sick of it"||"I'm jealous and I don't understand the trends"||"You offend women by drawing like this and your picture has no real value"|
I like what you draw, but I don't like your drawings
There's a problem with positive comments—an artwork isn't one consistent piece. It's made of a topic, technique, medium, style, genre and many other things you didn't even think about when creating it. All these aspects can be critiqued! That's why fan arts are so popular, even when they're drawn with a poor technique—people see the topic they like, so they like the picture too. Or the concept itself is very appealing, but the rendering leaves much to be desired. The we get comments like these:
- "I love kittens!";
- "I always wanted to see [character A] and [character B] together! You're my god!";
- "Just what I wanted, thank you so much for this!";
- "You're a genius! I'd never think about it";
- "Fantastic idea";
- [put any fandom reference here]
These are definitely positive comments, so what's wrong with them? They tell nothing about the art itself! You can have a lot of fans and get dozens of positive comments everyday without a single bit of critique. It's very dangerous for your development—people love your drawings, so you're a good artist, right?
It may be cool for you, but only for a time. You get appreciation of others only by meeting their needs (drawing their favorite characters, situations they like, in a way they like) and you're stuck here—because when you do something different, they most likely won't like it at all. And why would you draw anything, if you can't get appreciation for it?
By sticking to fan art, you're creating a cage for yourself. Let's say you've been drawing Lion King characters all your life, and now you wanted to draw a knight fighting a dragon. Suddenly people are either silent, or they start to point out things they've never paid attention to before. You feel disappointed—why don't they comment on your amazing idea, as always? You only changed the topic, but it's still your drawing! Why don't they like it? The answer is they never did. They liked your interpretation of Lion King, not your drawings.
Positive Critique is Still Critique
We tend to think that positive comments are default, then there's a critique that's not so nice to hear. However, there's no difference between good and bad comments—they're all made by judgment. When you say "that's just a practice sketch, please don't judge it", and then respond with "thank you so much!" to every positive comment, you're cheating. It's like you said you don't want any guests that day, and then honestly welcomed those who came. There's a twisted reasoning behind it!
Why wouldn't you want positive comments? Because when you wait for comments to validate a value of your art, even lack of them is some kind of feedback. It's something between "not bad" and "not good". If usually you get a lot of nice comments under every picture, and suddenly the viewers stay quiet, there must be a reason behind it—probably they have nothing nice to say, so they don't!
When you say "no critique please" and because of that get only positive comments, you may start to believe your work is flawless. It works on unconscious level, so you can't fight it. It's because lack of negative comments usually means there's nothing negative to say about it. It's what's hidden behind "don't judge me"—"don't say it's wrong". "No critique" can't be a shield not to hear negative things about your art!
Judge-positively-only attitude is clearly visible in nude art photography. "She's so hot" is a good comment, but "She's too fat" is met with an defensive response. Why is first opinion right and the other wrong? They're both about judging the body of the model instead of the photo. There's no difference between them—and no need to say "thank you" after any of them.
One more thing: negative comments are usually played down by suggesting that the commenter doesn't have the knowledge to judge the art. Surprisingly, no knowledge is required to comment positively! How is it possible? Now you should know the answer.
How to Receive Critique
You won't always understand what the viewer was trying to say, but if your self-esteem is low, you'll be prone to think they're trying to hurt you. You may feel hurt after every negative comment, because for you it confirms you're a bad artist. Again—a commenter isn't able to make you feel bad. It's all in your head. When you open your mind with "tell me it's good so that I can feel good", it will also work with "if you tell me it's bad, I'll feel bad".
Critique isn't an Attack
You need to analyze the comment without a negative filter. Maybe they're trying to hurt you, but why would you let them? You can use a positive filter instead and make a benefit of everything they say.
|Opinion||Negative Filter ("they're trying to hurt me")||Neutral Translation|
|"Your horse anatomy sucks"|
When you're using a negative filter, you hear things that the commenter never meant to say. "Draw a better horse, if you can!" is a defensive response to imagined "I'd draw it better". But they never said this!
A defensive stance put after hearing a comment it a clear indicator you took it as an attack. Immediately, you want to say "no, it's not like this, you're wrong, because...". A popular response to "your horse anatomy sucks" would be "it's cartoon style, it's supposed to look like this!". But, as you can see above, the fact hidden in the comment was "your horses don't look realistic". Yeah, they don't, you know it. They're cartoon, right? So your discussion, objectively, may look like this:
-"Your horses aren't drawn in realistic style"
-"You're wrong! They're drawn in cartoon style!"
So if you both agree, where does your anger come from? It's because you hear something other than this simple fact. You hear "a real artist knows how to draw realistically". They didn't say it, but you created it with your own complexes. Deep inside you may be ashamed that you can't draw realistically (you think it's a higher form of art and you feel inferior because of your lack of skill), and when someone notices it, you feel threatened. It's as if someone had exposed all your secret fears—and you need to defend to save your dignity!
Remember—critique is about value of art, not your value. Even when you are told "you can't draw", it doesn't mean you should feel wrong. You can either disagree ("I can draw, I don't know what they're talking about", or agree ("Indeed, my drawings suck"). In both cases there are no emotions involved. Emotions appear when a nerve has been hit. If you really, really want to be good at drawing, you may deny the fact that you aren't. You try to pretend you can draw, find fans that will praise you no matter what, and when someone states the fact... well, they're breaking the illusion! By saying you can't draw, they make it true. No wonder why you're so mad at them!
Remember one thing: when your drawing is bad, it doesn't mean you're bad. Flaws of your art aren't something you need to hide to create a better image of yourself. You can't draw horses? That's a fact, not an insult. Accept it, believe it's nothing to be ashamed of. Be honest to yourself and to others, and their comments, not matter how mean, won't sting anymore. "You suck at drawing!"—"Yes, I do. So what?".
If It Is an Attack, It's Not Critique
Of course, from time to
time a hater may visit your gallery and say something like "my 2-year
old nephew draws better than you". If it's as simple as that, you may just accept it without unnecessary emotions (what can you do about their genius nephew..?). Sometimes it may be necessary to dig a bit deeper to find the hidden fact "I want you to feel inferior".
Haters are powerless when a person is confident. Their only power is to touch an issue that is hurtful for you and to let you hurt yourself with dozens of secret, negative meanings. "You call it a dragon?" will be hurtful only for a person who isn't sure about it, but want it to be true. A confident person that doesn't use make-believe approach will reply with simple "yes".
Haters and trolls draw their energy from a vision of you getting mad and losing control. Don't let them, don't try to explain yourself, don't engage in this fight. Look at the comment, find the fact and, again, ask yourself: "what can I do about it? And do I want to?".
Open Your Ears
Wouldn't it be better not to listen to anyone and to do you your thing? Yes, but only if you're drawing for yourself and you don't care about anything they say, but in this case you're already doing it! In the other cases it would more like "LALALA I can't hear you! [because you don't tell me things I want to hear]".
They say every child is beautiful for its mother, therefore a mother isn't objective when it comes to its beauty. You, as a creator, have an emotional attitude to your art too. Just after finishing a new work you're euphoric—you can't wait to post it online and see all the other people confirm its extraordinary value. And when they don't, your euphoria is being killed. You can't believe they don't see what you do! But when the days pass by, your own attachment to the artwork fades away. Weeks later you're finally able to see it with the eyes of others and you may even be embarrassed you had posted it.
The emotional attitude turns your logical thinking off. People stating their opinions are suddenly a threat to your art, your baby. If there was an identical artwork that wasn't created by you, a critique towards it wouldn't make you feel anything. Thus, it's not about artwork—it's about you! Whether they comment on some random piece or a work of yours, it's exactly the same. It's only your attitude that changes. Don't shut them off only because you don't feel they're right at the moment—you're infatuated with your artwork and you're not sober!
Even when you're consciously trying to see the artwork from distance, you may never see some flaws until others point them out. Let them—assume they can be right. Listen what they say and try to believe it at least for a moment, no matter how much you don't want it to be true. You can cheat yourself, but others won't be that favorable to your mistakes. Don't be mad at them because of it—only they can help you in your moment of blindness.
Your Opinion Isn't Threatened by Opinions of Others
Believe it or not, but that's the fact. We have right to have opinions—it means, no more, no less, we have right to think what we want. There are two aspects of it:
- Nobody can tell you what to think;
- You can't tell nobody what to think.
When you change your opinion when hearing an opinion of someone else, it's you who changes your mind—not that other person. No matter how many opinions you'll hear, they have nothing to do with you. You can, if you're willing to, inspect them and find some useful fact that you'll use to update your own opinions—but you don't have to.
When you hear someone talking about their opinion, they're not talking about you. Let's say you like drawing your dragons with wolf paws. While reading an artistic forum you stumble upon an opinion like this:
"Some people completely ignore basic rules of anatomy. Dragons have scales on hard skin and lay eggs—they're reptiles! And yesterday I saw a dragon with paws like dog, that was ridiculous"
Suddenly you think about your dragons, and how "ridiculous" they may look to others. It wasn't a critique pointed at your art, but you're finding it here anyway. If you believe you have a good reason to draw your dragons like this, you should smile and go on. But if you're in doubt, you'll likely use this disobliging opinion to validate your own. But it's never the "fault" of the person saying the opinion aloud!
Move Emotions Aside
Even if you're generally a confident
person, you never know when someone hits your nerve. If you want to use a
critique to become a better artist, you need to detach emotionally from
your artwork. Try to forget it was created by you. It works the best
when you merge it with another method, "a friendly commenter".
you hear a critique on your artwork, imagine what you'd feel if the comment was made by someone
close to you. Someone who'd never want to hurt you. Then, assume the
artwork wasn't created by you, that you both talk about a random piece
in some gallery. Thanks to this you'll turn off the negative filter
("they'd never say it!") and gain a bit of distance. It's so much easier to find flaws in someone else's work!
Critique and Working With Clients
All this advice referred mostly to hobby drawing. What if you're creating an art for someone?
It's time to forget about emotions completely. Your likes and preferences don't matter here—it's not you who should like the artwork. If the client says "the legs are too long", but you know they aren't, you make them shorter. You may not be glad of the outcome, but this time you do it for a financial gratification instead of satisfaction.
You can ignore critique of commenters on your hobby drawings, because you're not obligated to please them. You're allowed to draw ugly, unrealistic things, and they're allowed not to like them. However, relation between you and the client is different—you're job is to create an artwork that meets their requirements. Their critique isn't a suggestion—it's an order.
How to Give Critique?
We've been talking about receiving critique only. Now let's wonder how we can formulate our opinions to help others.
When we visit a virtual gallery, we're under impression it's all for us—we came here to be pleased visually and we want to get what we deserve. When among beautiful art you stumble upon something that doesn't meet your standards, you may want to shout: "what the...?". If you're feeling like this, you may even find some time to go and tell the artist how much they disappointed you.
This is the process that leads to an arrogant critique where the commenter claims the right to be pleased by your art. "Seriously, that's supposed to be a wolf? Learn some anatomy dude". While this opinion has an advice inside ("the anatomy of this creature doesn't meet the standards of a wolf—learn about it to draw wolves better"), it's totally uncalled for. This is a tone of a client, not a guest of your gallery! It comes from a false assumption the commenter is somehow superior to you, because without them you would have no reason to draw—so you're obligated to obey them!
Don't be like that. The two rules of commenting are very simple:
- Got something nice to say? Say it!
- Got nothing nice to say? Stay quiet!
There's an exception for this. If you care about artistic development of the artist, you may need to engage a bit more. Sometimes it's because it's someone close to you, sometimes you may want to involve in creation of a new great artist who needs a little help to get to next level. Anyway, you should wish the best for them—a critique born of disdain, even if accurate, has little chance to be received positively (if you don't care about them, why would they care about what you think?).
There's a simple recipe for a proper critique that's easy to digest:
- "That's why it caught my attention"—start with positive things. What do you like about the picture? What do you admire about it? Maybe you're jealous about something, or maybe a certain effect was particularly amazing for you?
- "There's a fly in the ointment"—"if you don't mind, I'd like to suggest...". Tell about things that don't seem right to you. Try to explain what's the cause and suggest a solution. Be friendly—that's an advice, not a lesson;
- "Again, you're awesome!"—finish with something positive to remind the artist that you're actually glad of their work. Even if you had problems with declaring positive aspects in the first part, try to add something encouraging here ("It's great to see you're still practicing to be better").
Stick to facts. Emotions are great for praises, but when you want to help, they may actually darken your communicate. To soften your tone, you can use expressions like "I think", "for me", "if I were you", "maybe I'm wrong, but", "it seems to me", "I'm not sure about", and so on. They put a stress on the fact that it's not an order but rather a friendly suggestion.
Name the specific skills involved in the creation and rate them. "I can see you've spent a lot of time practicing shading", "your use of perspective isn't very believable to me". These points will help the artist understand what they should learn to be better. They may sting, because they're so direct, but they're much better for development than "I don't like [part of the object], it looks weird".
If the person asked for critique, you may not need to be carefully friendly—they know what's your intention and likely won't confuse your definite tone with arrogance. In other cases try to keep a friendly tone especially in the middle, negative part of critique. No matter how helpful it is, our love to the artwork makes receiving the critique quite unpleasant.
We judge and we're being judged. The more confident we are, the easier it is to distinguish helpful critique from a bitter complaint—and the less prone we are to cheat ourselves to feel better. To be a good artist you need to learn a lot of things that weren't so obvious when you started, and being open-minded is one of them.
Opinions of others shouldn't hurt you. You can use them as a lesson, but you don't have to. And most certainly you shouldn't base your mood on them! Nobody is obligated to like your art, and whey they manifest it, don't treat them as if the broke a kind of contract. In this article I've explained a lot of things about critique, but the final lesson for you should be to never treat the commenter as an enemy. Just say "thank you for your opinion, I appreciate it". If they wanted to help, they will be relieved; if they wanted to hurt you, you'll shut them off with it.
And remember: you're allowed to draw ugly, unrealistically, messily—allowed to not meet requirements of others. At the same time, they're allowed to tell you they don't like it. But it never means you should change to please them! Again, if you don't want to use the advice, say "thank you" and do your thing. Art is about freedom, not about pressure. And if you want to be better, you are the only person who can force you to do it. Good luck!