Critique is one of the most difficult and also most essential parts of mastering your craft. To produce good work, you need to evaluate your piece-in-progress to identify what’s working – and what’s not. Then you need to figure out how to strengthen the best points and improve (or eliminate) the weak ones.
So you need to be able to examine your own work critically. This prospect fills many people with nervousness – but it doesn’t have to. These five rules will help you not only survive, but look forward to your critiques.
Rule #1: You are not your work.
Many beginning (and not-so-beginning) crafters are terrified about critiquing their work, or of showing it to others, because they’re afraid of being told their work sucks, that they’re not a “real” artist. They’re afraid of being exposed as frauds without a shred of talent.
This, while understandable, is hogwash. Anyone who creates is an artist, even if the piece is as primitive as a child’s ashtray. And talent, while handy, isn’t what makes a piece good or bad. What produces good work is skill, and skills need to be developed.
In short, your early work will almost certainly be poor, especially compared to your later work (or to the experts who have been doing this for decades). This has nothing to do with talent and nothing to do with being a real artist; it’s just the way life works.
Which brings us to the first rule of critique: You are not your work. That is, don’t look at a poorly designed piece and think, “I suck.” Every artist, including wildly successful and sophisticated ones, started out with work that looked awful, and continues to produce some unsuccessful work.
A piece that doesn’t work is simply a piece that doesn’t work. It means you experimented with something that failed, and you need to understand why it failed so you can improve your next pieces. But it doesn’t mean that you suck, or that you’re not an artist.
If you don’t like your work, then figure out how to improve it! But don’t decide you aren’t an artist, and don’t give up.
Rule #2: It doesn’t have to be perfect.
I have seen artists iterate endlessly on designs, not entirely satisfied with any design, never moving into the actual work. This usually arises from perfectionism, wanting the design to be “just so” before executing it.
The truth is, trying to perfect a design before making it never works. And you don’t need a full design for the piece to evaluate how it’s going—just critique the elements you’ve decided on so far. You’ll fill in the details later.
And unexpected things will happen – maybe you get a brilliant idea halfway through the piece, or maybe one part of the design looks awful when you try to make it. The process of making something is fraught with chaos, and trying to predict the entire finished piece in advance is simply not possible. Things change, and your design will change with it. No design is final until the piece is complete – and sometimes not even then! especially if you are working in series.
The best rule for working with designs is quite simple. Does it feel good enough to explore further? If so, move forward with it. If not, go back and make changes until you have something you can move ahead with.
The bottom line is, it doesn’t have to be good enough to commit to a final piece – just enough to move one step further along in the process. My designs evolve continuously from the first brainstormed thoughts to the final lick of work – they’re never perfect, never finished. Designs don’t have to be perfect to produce good work. They just need to be good enough.
Rule #3: Start with everything you love.
Many people dread critiques because they think “critique” is synonymous with “criticize” – that is, identifying all the things that don’t work and laying them out there for everyone to see. And lots of artists, when asked to critique their work, will do just that – ruthlessly pick out everything that might possibly be wrong.
This is not the way of kindness, either for yourself or your work.
Working with a design is a bit like creating bonsai. You can’t violently chop an adult tree into bits to make a tiny bonsai; you have to work with the tree while it’s young, and patiently shape the tree a little bit at a time. While you might need to prune out some portions – including some large branches – of your work, remember that it’s like a living creature – best coaxed into changing. There’s no need to hack it apart.
Instead, start with what you love about the piece. This isn’t just a matter of being kind to yourself, though it is certainly more fun than tortuously picking out all your mistakes. You don’t achieve excellence by subtracting everything you hate; that results in a hollow shell.
The most important part of the critique is figuring out what you love – what is working – and then deciding how to build on that. After you’ve worked out how to strengthen all the good points, come back and see if any of the negative points are still there. Chances are, after you’ve developed the things you love, many of your piece’s weaknesses will already have been swept away.
Rule #4: Think about your goals and process, as well as your piece.
When judging a project, don’t just examine the work itself. Consider your original goals. Did you want to learn a technique, make a meaningful gift, develop a piece that sells? If you met those goals, you’ve succeeded, even if the piece itself doesn’t match your expectations.
Also think about what you learned. Did you discover something new about design? Develop new construction skills? Find a new source of information about your craft? What you learned is just as important as whether you’re satisfied with the finished piece – perhaps more so, because you can take what you’ve discovered into your future work.
And, finally, contemplate the process that led you to the finished piece. Think about what steps made you frustrated, and which ones gave you joy. Write down both the enjoyable and the not-so-enjoyable steps.
Now, consider how to do more of what you love. If it was a technique, could you bring that technique into your next piece? If it was making something meaningful, perhaps meaning should become part of the next design.
After you’ve built on what you love, think about how to make the exasperating parts less trying. Do you need to develop your design or technical skills? Figure out how to make a repetitious part less boring, or to eliminate it entirely?
Reflecting on your goals, discoveries, and process will enable you to judge the true worth of a project, create your work more enjoyably, and make the most of your time in the studio.
Rule #5: Art is not a competition.
Don’t compare your work to anyone else’s. Art is not a competition, and judging your work against anyone else’s opens up the door to all sorts of insecurities.
Rainer Maria Rilke offered this advice to a young poet:
You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now.
…A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, Stephen Mitchell translation
The core question in assessing a piece isn’t how it compares to someone else’s work. It’s whether that piece is well-designed and well-made. If it does what it’s supposed to do, is aesthetically powerful, and shows good workmanship, it’s a success. If your work falls short in one of those areas, then figure out where it’s lacking, and figure out how to improve it.
But don’t compare it to someone else’s piece, because whether or not your piece is better than another’s is irrelevant to your job as an artisan. Your job is to make the best possible work that you can. That means focusing on your own work and how to improve it, not inflating or collapsing your ego depending on who’s sitting next to you.
(I’m not suggesting that you avoid looking at other artists’ work, by the way. Looking closely at others’ work is a great way to spark ideas, see how other artists have solved similar problems, and get an idea for the amazing things that are possible in your medium. It’s a great way to improve your work. I’m merely suggesting that you not compare yourself, or your own pieces, with others and their work.)
So don’t make the mistake of looking at your work and say, “Dang, my work sucks, because X’s work is so much better than mine.” You are not making X’s art, and X, however capable an artist, cannot make your art.
In the end, the only art you can improve is your own. Get to it.