Critiquing Art: Look for What is Alive

Critiquing Art: Look for What is Alive by Michael Newberry

Courbet, The Painter's Studio, 1855, oil on canvas, 12 x 20 feet
Courbet, The Painter’s Studio, 1855, oil on canvas, 12 x 20 feet

Representational art students are taught to be critical. During critiques, the stress is on the work’s problems. It is not uncommon to see students turning red with embarrassment or anger. Sometimes one will cry. Aside from a bully or two, most of them will accept the critiques as a necessary evil. “Grow a tough skin” is said to oneself and others. In the art world, only the tough survive, at least that is the idea.

Alone and long after college artists agonize over their work by aggressively focusing on their mistakes. This activity does at least demonstrate that the artist knows what is wrong, but it also serves to crush their spirit. The process doesn’t address the one question that matters most: what makes an artwork alive?

Artists could forget the primitive formal critique, let it go and change their perspective towards an inspiring way. Though this is demanding because one has to focus on solutions, understand what works, keep their eye on the big picture, and remind themselves that they are creating.

Some years ago, when I was teaching life drawing, I changed the format of the critiquing process. The artist introducing his/her work would explain what they did, and what they would add given more time. The critiquing students were required to comment on the successful parts of the drawing. A strange thing happened, the group became more confident, enjoyed the process more, and were much more supportive of one another.

Looking for blemishes in an artwork is the default response, but by focusing on what is alive, we will vitalize the critique process, open doors, and fortify artists’ creativity.

Michael Newberry
Revised, Idyllwild, April ’16

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