How To Set Up A Critique Group (For Visual Artists)
These are some guidelines based on the way that instructors of university art classes
generally conduct student group critiques of an individual’s imagery.
I. The basics
A. The parameters
One of the first things the group should do is agree on its function. Usually a critique group’s goal is to help an artist recognize the visual strengths and weaknesses of their imagery and improve the visual presentation of their intent. The secondary function is to teach all participants how to critically assess art so that they may apply it individually to their own work while in the creative process.
It is helpful to have a standard language for the group as a frame of reference. (The first choice is often whether to call this activity a “critique”, or not. Other choices: evaluation, assessment, commentary, education, art composition panel. “Crit” group is common.)
I recommend distributing a comprehensive list of the compositional elements and principles of design, as well as ensuring that the members of your group are familiar with the techniques and mediums being used, and the basic process of creative conceptualization. Most art and art quilt books include this design information, and also a list of critique questions that can be addressed, such as: Is it clear what the artist is trying to say?
3. Participation: artists
Advanced artists presenting their imagery for critique should pick one work that is finished, although sometimes they may need to present an entire series. Student work is often presented for critique while still in process. (Warning: if the student alters the imagery in any way following the critique, it is no longer their individual work. First, that means it is ineligible for exhibition in most shows, and second, it may compromise the student’s creative choice-making by intents and styles that may not be her own. My recommendation is to critique finished work only, and take that learning experience to the next piece to be created. The exception would be an artist who needs assistance with something specific that they cannot resolve on their own.)
4. Participation: critique group
Generally, all members of the group participate in the assessment of the imagery and offering suggestions for changes. This is a valuable self-education tool. If the group is large, you may want to limit the critique group to 5-8 members at one time, with the rest as an audience. I suggest rotating frequently so everyone gets a turn.
B. The process
1. The progression should be as follows:
a. The artist should display the work to be reviewed where everyone can see it.
b. The artist speaks first. (see II)
c. The crit group responds. (see III)
2. Set a definite time limit for each individual critique. I suggest 7-10 minutes.
II. The artist
A. Deciding on the critique focus.
Prior to the critique, the artist should decide what type of feedback will most benefit them. If specific feedback is wanted, the artist should pose the issue for the crit group. (Is the imagery unified, balanced, and harmonious? Does the composition work? Do the materials, colors, textures, and stitching support my main idea?) The artist may ask for general feedback instead.
B. The progression should be as follows:
1. Identify oneself, and one’s work. “My name is Cathy, and this is part of my series on universal forms.”
2. Specify the problem. “I want the forms to look 3-dimensional. Do they, or is something interfering?” or “I would like any feedback.”
3. Set limitations if needed. “I use only commercial fabrics, so I am not interested in solutions requiring surface design.” or “I want feedback on the weaknesses of this image, rather than on its strengths.”
C. Be very concise and clear. Your 2 or 3 sentences count toward the total critique time allotted.
D. Accepting criticism
The second most often statement heard in critique education: “Only the image is being critiqued, not the artist.” Do not take negative criticism of the work as a reflection of yourself as a person. (Also know, if you make creative work, and show it, your ‘baby’ will be subject to the opinions of its viewers. Always. I suggest embracing the concept that art is intended to communicate, and sometimes, like in normal conversation, the message is just not going to be understood, and favorably responded to, by everyone.)
III. The crit group
A. Being objective
1. The most often statement heard in critique education: “Cancel the word ‘like’ from your vocabulary.” The point of critique is to specify what does or does not work, and why. A statement such as “I like that color combination” does not really teach anything. The statement “having browns in opposition to the dominance of blues prevents the image from appearing cold” is more productive.
2. The hardest part about giving criticism is to distance yourself from your own preferences. This is not about what you would do to fix the image; this is about what the artist needs to know in order to make their own choices. “One option is to lighten the background to make the dog’s head more apparent, another option would be to add warm tones to the face itself” is objective.
3. Critique the work, not the artist. (Although it is okay to state that you do not understand what the artist is trying to do, or say, with the image.)
B. Giving feedback
1. Be careful to address the issue as it is presented by the artist. Their 10 minutes is valuable, so do not waste it on side issues, except to state that they exist. Be concise.
2. Be specific. Again, generalizations do not teach anything.
3. One accepted method for critique is to first affirm what is working, then address what is not. This works well if only one person is doing the review as they can provide continuity and balance. When several people critique, I find the time is better used if the artist is specific at the beginning about what they are most concerned with and the crit group concentrates on that. (Knowing your strengths is important as they help define your personal style. Knowing your weaknesses gives you something to resolve in your next endeavor.)
Cathryn Zeleny, ©2013