Critique as a Part of the Artist's Studio Practice

The Need for Constructive Criticism

I initially reached out to Shelley in an attempt to build community, to maybe alleviate some of the burden of trying to figure everything out on my own. I’ve blogged about my current struggle with the process while working alone in my studio. Art making is a delicate balance of listening to your inner voice and knowing when to get additional feedback.

Wall in my studio where I hang images for purposes of self-critique

We did the small talk around catching up, but we quickly fell into easy conversation about bigger ideas and current bodies of work. It felt wonderful to talk through an idea with another artist who applied critical thinking and open language to the problem at hand instead of the easier platitudes of “that looks interesting” or “I like that”.

My coffee date brought to light the real need for critique in my practice.

It’s not always easy for me to reach out and ask for help, or connect on a professional level. I get nervous about taking up other people’s time.

During our coffee conversation she deftly pointed out gaps in my work I needed to fill, and offered suggestions on the direction the work might take if I made x or y decision. I walked out of the coffee shop into the warm late summer morning feeling excited about how to move forward.

In my eagerness to make new work, and in an age where quickly scrolling is endemic to visual culture, I’m pretty sure my critical eye has gotten a bit lazy.

I dismiss what doesn’t please me, or strike me as interesting, and I “heart” that which instantly grabs my attention.

Constructive critique is an important part of any art practice. It helps us move ideas forward, understand the materials we’re trying to manipulate, and places our work in conversation with bigger ideas and communities.

Yet, outside of institutions I find it really difficult to engage in the practice of critique.

Meet Agatha

Agatha is the monster voice that lives in my head, who is always available, but is hardly a reliable source for well thought out opinions.

I named my voice after Agatha Trunchbull in Roald Dahl’s Matilda. She's the mean Head Mistress who never fails to tell the children how horrible and useless they are. My Agatha is reliable to a fault. Always showing up to confirm my insecurities and deliver a gut punch to any attempt at maneuvering around her.

She’s the one who says, “What were you thinking anyway?” And, “Who do you think you are?” And “See, you’ve never been any good.”

True and helpful critique is the ammunition I use to put Agatha in the corner.

When she tries to rejoin the conversation I glare at her the way I glare at my teenager when he’s delivering Seth Rogan-like comedy at the dinner table.

I need actual feedback about the visual elements of a piece and the points of connection in the art world and beyond. Which means I need to buck up, reach out, and put my work and my ideas out into the world with grace and gratitude to those who share their time and energy with me.

Four 6"x6" Photo Encaustic Collage; mounted on birch panel; wax, photography, digital and analog collage, ink, watercolor pencil, acrylic, encaustic

Helpful Questions for Self-Critiques

In an effort to offer my own support to the community I went back to my teaching binders looking for resources that might help facilitate a productive critical conversation between artists.

Terry Barrett, author of Criticizing Photographs and Criticizing Art, among others, are incredibly accessible and helpful at refreshing a critical mindset.

Six of my favorite questions for critique are:

  1. Do I think this image is successful or unsuccessful, and by what standards?

  2. What reasons support a positive, negative, or mixed judgement?

  3. Does it unwittingly or intentionally cause social harm?

  4. How might I help someone else appreciate this photograph?

  5. If I do not think this a good photograph, why might others think it is good?

  6. How does this image compare with similar images in other media?

Do you have favorite go-to questions for critique? How do you incorporate critique into your solo studio practice?  |  919.917.7650 |  Raleigh, NC  |  © 2020 by Elisabeth Effron 

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