Make Art Criticism Work For You

Learn from your audience and engage with feedback.

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“I really like it,” says your best friend, letting the sentence hang unfinished in the air. You feel it coming, that dreaded, three-letter word of doom. The one that instantly undermines any compliment or positive review you’ve ever received. “But…”

We’ve all been there. The very moment you create something, you open yourself up to it: critique. Whether you ask for it or not, art criticism can be a hard pill to swallow. Training yourself to accept and learn from your harshest critics is one of the most difficult – but most rewarding – skills to develop as an artist.

In this article, we go over two topics: how to respond to negative feedback and how (if at all) to use criticism to improve your art.

Agora Gallery reception, Make negative art criticism work for you

Before we go into it, let’s look at the types of criticism you may receive.

  • Loved Ones: Whether friends or family, these are the people who know you, typically better than they know art. Their opinions are valuable in their own way, as these people may know your personal history and how that translates and impacts your work. They will also be more acquainted with your earlier art and can help judge any overall trends and progress you are making.
  • General Audiences: Visitors to your studio, commenters on social media, and even passersby can provide a unique insight into your work. These people are not professional art lovers, but they may be potential collectors. For the most part, they are ‘laypeople’ and their opinions may reflect more general cultural trends in preferences and popularity. Their feedback shouldn’t weigh too heavily on your mind, but it may help you to gain new perspectives on how your work can be interpreted by the masses.
  • Professionals: There is great value to hear criticism from art professionals. Whether they are artists themselves, gallerists, curators, critics, or professors, these individuals represent a special field of knowledge, and they can shed light on your artwork in the context of art history or the current contemporary art scene. Their perspectives are harder to come by, and for this reason, perhaps more valuable. A professional can introduce you to new techniques, styles, or other artists who can provide a great source of future inspiration. They also may have advice for finding the right audiences for your work.

What to do if somebody gives you negative feedback

You may completely disagree with your critics. They might be uneducated in your field, they might not ‘get’ what you’re going for, or they might just be a mean-spirited bully. Regardless of their background or intentions, you will make no friends or long-term connections by being hostile. Instead, engaging politely with your critics can prove to be one of the most rewarding experiences you’ll have as an artist.

Don’t:

Insult your critic. (“You don’t know anything about art.” “You have bad taste, anyway.”) Even if you feel like you are being insulted by their words, you can alienate your friends and potential collectors by insulting their tastes. What’s more, they’ll never want to look at your future works if they don’t feel safe sharing their opinions.
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Dismiss their words. (“Okay, whatever.” “Well, that’s just your opinion.”) You may feel like you are being ‘kind’ by not arguing with your critic, but acting dismissively can be just as bad as insulting them. You are saying that you do not value their opinion, and you are creating a hostile environment which they will not want to return to in the future.

Over-defend yourself. For the most part, your critics are actually trying to help when they offer their opinions. While it can be a good idea to explain what you were going for, be careful. By explaining yourself, are you actually attacking their interpretation? Make sure you are being receptive to their counter-arguments, because they could be saying valuable things about your work that you miss by being too indignant.

Let it ruin your day. It can be very hard to keep a cool head when someone is criticizing something that you spent days, weeks, or even years to create and just one negative remark can dissolve hundreds of positive ones and ruin your day. Don’t let it! Make a conscious choice to learn from art criticism without letting it take complete control over your emotions.

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Do:

Engage your critic. Ask them questions about why they don’t like your piece. Ask for specific examples. Often, criticism will be vague and unhelpful, like “I don’t like the mood,” or “I don’t get it.” If you talk to your critic about what specifically they are struggling with, you can explain better what you were going for and, together, you may discover where the connection failed.
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Learn their tastes. Find out what artists your critic typically enjoys. If they’re more of a “Pollock” and this piece is more of a “Mondrian” then it’s no surprise that they don’t like it. If you have other work that you think would better align with their tastes, show it to them. Ask for their opinions on those pieces, instead. You can get valuable feedback – or even a sale – that way!

Thank them. Make your critic feel appreciated. Even if you don’t agree with their opinions and have no intention of following their advice, acting receptive and kind to your critics will encourage them to stay in touch, to follow your art career, and to think positively of you in the future.

“Step back” and think. Once you have a moment to yourself, take a step back and take a hard , long look at the work that has received negative feedback. Run through the critic’s remarks in your head and think about each of them. Listen to your inner artistic voice and follow what you think is the right path for you.

Follow up! This is especially a great idea if you end up making some changes to your piece based on their suggestions. Your critic will feel a personal connection to a piece, knowing that their opinion helped shape it. They may even buy the work!

Even if you didn’t alter this specific artwork based on your critic’s advice, you can keep in touch with them by sending new pieces in the future. Ask for their advice on these, or suggest that they may be more interested in these based on their conversation. You can get a sale this way, or at the least, a loyal fan.

Let us know: What kind of criticism have you received in the past? How did it affect you? Discuss it with us in the comments!

 Make Art Criticism Work For You

When you receive feedback, you should always ask yourself, “Does this person feel this way due to personal taste, or is my work lacking in some way?”

If their negative critique is solely based on their preferences, then you may simply want to thank them for their opinion and direct them to artwork they may prefer. However, if their critique is more than just a matter of opinion, then you may be facing a great opportunity to improve your artwork.

There are two steps to determine this:

1) Learn more about your critic. We went over this when we discussed how to respond to feedback; by learning more about your critic, you can determine their expertise in the subject and their personal tastes. Ask about their background, other artists they enjoy, and what specifically they would change about your work. This way, you’ll learn if they really understand your vision and if their criticisms can help you express it better.

2) Seek out more opinions. Businesses do this all the time to improve the quality of their services and products. By reaching out to multiple people who you trust, you can learn if this one critic’s opinions are an outlier or if multiple people think this.

When sourcing feedback from multiple people, you should know specifically what it is you want to find out. Unless prompted with specific questions, most feedback will be as simple and vague as, “Beautiful!” or “I don’t get it.” Use the original negative feedback as a guide for what to ask. Some good questions are:

  • What do you think the theme/message of this piece is?
  • What feelings does this piece evoke in you?
  • What, if anything, does this piece remind you of?
  • Do you think that the figures are realistic? If not, what stands out as unrealistic?
  • If you had to change one thing about this work, what would you change?

For the most part, you may not even need too many people to affirm or reject the original feedback. Try to get a varied sample from established fans and new viewers, art ‘experts’ and casual art enjoyers, artists, and non-artists. Remember when we suggested keeping in touch with your critics? This is a great opportunity to get in touch with those old connections, engage with them, and use them as valuable resources for growing your art.

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Note: While it is easiest to ask friends and family, they may not always be the most honest critics of your work. Friends and family are great at being supportive, but their emotional connection with you may blind them from your flaws![/pullquote]

Your Most Important Critic.  There is one person who you should always consult when critiquing your artwork, someone who will always know what you’re trying to say with your artwork, and who will know your process and artistic ‘voice’ best – yourself.

When collecting feedback on your work, don’t forget to give yourself feedback. Take at least one week before revisiting the work with a fresh eye. With this new perspective, you’ll almost always see something you didn’t see the first time around.

Growing From Feedback

If, after a small poll and deep contemplation, you’ve decided that your original critic was right about whatever fault he or she identified in your painting, do not despair. This does not mean you are a bad artist – it just means that you are about to become a better artist.

Your next action will greatly vary depending on what the original criticism was. Were your colors off? Were your figure’s hands too small? Does the painting say “happy” when you were going for “nihilistic-ennui”? Obviously, each of these problems will warrant different action on the painting. However, these few steps will help you get on the right track:

1. Plan carefully. Whether you are editing the work on the same canvas or starting from fresh, you should know exactly what it is you want to change and why. Changing the mood or theme of a painting is a major project and shouldn’t be improvised; especially when you are responding to specific criticisms.

2. Draft. Think – what is it that was ‘off’ about the original artwork? If it’s the colors, test the new colors on a scrap of canvas before applying them to the work. If your figures weren’t as accurately proportioned as you wanted, then do more drawn studies before tackling them again.

3. Share. If you respect the opinions of those who gave you the original advice, show them your drafts or edits. Find out if they think you’re going in the right direction.

4. Stop Sharing. Some advice can go a long way, not just in growing as an artist but also in gaining a loyal following with your audience. But, don’t forget – these people are your critics, but they aren’t the artists of the piece. You can value their opinions without becoming enslaved by them! At some point, you’re going to have to decide for yourself if a piece is ready.

5. Review your older pieces. Could this criticism be applied to your earlier works? For some, it may be too late to edit them: if they’ve been varnished over, if the work was a glass or clay sculpture. However, you may want to create a new, updated version of the piece by starting from fresh. There is no harm in revisiting an old theme with a fresh eye.

Receiving art criticism doesn’t need to be a scary experience. It is a good opportunity to re-examine what it is that you are trying to say with your artwork, and what it is that people are reading from your artwork. No artwork will please all audiences, but learning about your audience, engaging with feedback, and having an open mind will guarantee you not only grow as an artist, but as a person.

 

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