The Art of Critique - The Critique of Art [Part I- Giving Critique]

April 1, 2007 9:38 pm

I often hear from people who post in the galleries that they wish more people would give "useful critiques". That they're tired of hearing, "Oh wow, that's great!" or "Super job!" when they know their picture needs improvements. Or on the other hand, getting trolling comments like, "This sucks!"

When I asked people in the Poser forum what stops them from giving critiques, I got a variety of answers:
"I'm not sure if the person wants to hear it."
"I tried that once and the artist got really upset."
"I feel intimidated because most artists here are better than me."
"I don't know how to put it into words - I'm afraid I'll offend the artist."
"Someone once told me that they knew someone who had a friend whose brother got banned for giving negative comments."
"When I see all the gushing comments already on a picture, it makes me feel stupid or nasty to point out the flaws."

This article will show you how to give constructive criticism that is helpful to the artist, and how to accept critique on your own works. And the best thing is, you can apply this technique to any kind of feedback or critique - from the Renderosity galleries, through to employee coaching!

Part 1: Giving Critique

The aim of critique should always be to help the artist. When you critique, you are giving the gift of feedback. You should not be critiquing out of a desire to hurt the artist or to show off your own knowledge or skills. The ideal result is that the artist learns something that will help them improve (either on this work, or future images.)

Step 1 - Assess the image

Critique shouldn't be rushed. If you are going to give someone the benefit of your opinion, make sure it's a considered opinion and not just a first impression.

It's sometimes hard to know where to start. Asking yourself these questions may help:

  • What is my first impression of the image?
  • Does that impression change as I look at the image more closely?
  • How does the image make me feel? Sad, warm, happy, frightened?
  • Does the image evoke any other senses? For example, "The grass is so detailed that I can practically smell it," or "I can almost hear the birds singing."
  • What elements of the image stand out for you? Colours, lighting, textures?
  • What is my favourite part of this image? or what do I feel is really done well? The pose, the colour balance, the shadows, the model's expression, etc.
  • What do I feel could be improved? Should the shadows be stronger, the lighting brighter? Are there elements that don't "fit" - perhaps a photo-realistic texture next to something obviously painted?

Step 2 - Compose your critique

First things first - imagine that you are in the artist's shoes. Always compose your critique carefully and consider their feelings.

The generally-accepted format for critique (or any form of coaching or feedback) is called the Praise Sandwich. It's named that way because the idea is to put two positive things (the bread) around a negative aspect (the filling.) This avoids giving a wholly negative critique, which can feel dispiriting for both you and the subject. Here is an example of the praise sandwich method:

"I really like the way you've got the lighting - the shadows falling across the model's face give a very dramatic look. I do think you need to work on the pose - her left arm in particular looks very awkward. Facial expression is just right - she looks as if she's about to burst out laughing!"

Here are some other general guidelines that you can follow when critiquing:

  • Check if the artist has written any comments that may affect your critique - are they looking for comments on something specific? If so, try to concentrate on that aspect.
  • Always be specific. "Lighting doesn't work" is not very useful; "the lighting is too dim for me to see the character clearly - try putting another spotlight in" is much more helpful.
  • Talk about the picture, NOT the artist! "Your modelling skills are non-existent" is a putdown. "The model seems unfinished - has it been uv-mapped? Will you be cleaning up the rough edges?" is both more specific and much more civilised.
  • If you can't see anything that you feel could be improved, comment specifically on the best aspects of the image. Your comments will help the artist learn where their strengths lie and what they got right in this image.
  • If possible, give ideas or advice for improvement. For example, "Try looking through the shadow cams to give you a better preview of where the shadows will fall."
  • Always be honest! If you don't like something, say so. Don't worry about disagreeing with previous comments - this is your review and nobody else's!
  • Don't try to candy-coat your words. "It's just my humble opinion, but..." or "I'm sorry but I think I can see a tiny little problem..." and other such phrases should be expunged from your vocabulary! Phrases like this are a kind of "safety net" - they tend to be used where there is a fear of upsetting the person critiqued. But instead they can read as patronising or false.
  • Consider your audience. This is an international site - is the artist a native English speaker? Write clearly and avoid slang.

And the golden rule...

Always read through your critique before posting it, again putting yourself in the artist's shoes. Will your comments help the artist improve?

In the second part of this article, you will learn how to accept critique and use it to improve and grow as an artist.

Come and join the "Critique Club" [in the Poser Forum]- a group of like-minded artists who have joined together to give and receive honest criticism. This is open to ALL artists.

Karen Janes [karen1573] is an artist, writer, and vendor on Renderosity. She is also Moderator in the Poser and Copyright Laws and Ethical Standards forums, as well as serving as a Senior MarketPlace Tester.

Be sure to visit:
Karen's Renderosity Art Gallery
Karen's Renderosity Store

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Article Comments

Sabra ( posted at 12:00AM Sun, 01 April 2007

This is a really nice article, thanks for posting this. I don't often comment on people's work, simply because I have nothing interesting to say and I do believe that it's better to say nothing at all than to copy and paste the same 'great work xx ^^' all over the place. :) So here's to honesty, cheers! :)

Khai ( posted at 12:00AM Mon, 02 April 2007

tis a sorry state of affairs when we have to give a tutorial on how to critique :(

bracko74 ( posted at 12:00AM Mon, 02 April 2007

Yeah, but it is nice to know if you can improve through other people's comments or suggestions. What's the point of having comments for your upload if no-one will bother to even suggest a better way of compiling an image????

ClawShrimp ( posted at 12:00AM Mon, 02 April 2007

Good stuff. Now all you need to do is write one on how to accept critiques!

pjz99 ( posted at 12:00AM Mon, 02 April 2007

All very sound and helpful advice. Thanks for putting this together.

easyjobrob ( posted at 12:00AM Mon, 02 April 2007

A useful article and would be a good idea to place something like this in the welcome email to new members/users of RO. No bad thing to give guidlines and I like the fact that you have identified that there is a possibility that new memebers may avoid giving critique. I have certainly learnt far more from others positive critisim than from the numerous wows etc.. note that that hurts either ;) Rob

Sivana ( posted at 12:00AM Mon, 02 April 2007

If I never had received a few real good tips, I never would have reached the level of knowledge that I have today. But this real good hints are really not often. For myself I know, that I have done a real critique once and the Lady was hysteric and sent me messages how bad Im to write my oppinion and not how fantastic her image is. I only said something about a very pink lipstick color, which has shot the whole image.... The other thing is, that english isnt the mother tounge of many members here. Like me, we have to use the words we have learned and this often ends with "fantastic, wonderful and beautyful" as we dont know more shades of this meanings. Third probleme, that so many users have begun to write "copy and paste" comments to 300 artists to receive 100 back to get in the art-charts. I really have noticed that this kind of commenting has changed since the new website with new charts is online. Perhaps the Critique Club is a real good idea!

cornelp ( posted at 12:00AM Mon, 02 April 2007

This is quite sad as Khai stated above. Most comments on galleries now are just friendly ones, and tons of it. Critique should be left to improve the artist, not cause its a friend and you have to comment. Your comments should be to improve the artist and its flaws. But one thing we also forget, to mention the good things about a render. You can mention the good parts of the picture, and state what is wrong with the bad areas. I have left comments before that would/should have improved the image, but the artist did take it the wrong way, yet I have not used any hurtful words. Sometimes the artist just wants the comments to make it to the top, VS getting good feedback so that he/she/they can improve. I guess this does fall into the GREY AREA, lol. Nice article, and I hope many will read/understand it properly. Thank You...

buckzero ( posted at 12:00AM Mon, 02 April 2007

Good guidelines for giving a critique.

Ondoval ( posted at 12:00AM Mon, 02 April 2007

This sucks. Just kiding, it' usefull :)

Zarat ( posted at 12:00AM Mon, 02 April 2007

Hmm. Art critique is rather easy but how about critique of written stuff? Most people never learned how to write and all the rules that exist. Often there's not much more to say than if one likes what he/she just'd read or if he don't like it. Besides this, the rules and style are different in Europe, USA, Asia. That makes it really difficult to give any advices. Of course the reader can say the text caused the emotions ... and gave him the impression ... but that does not necessarily help the author to improve. We all have more or less the same way of processing information in pictures but a very different use and understanding of words. Have to add that so far I made no bad experiences if I'm short on words and just point out the most important aspects of an image. (Like "good setup, pose. shadows are to soft/hard/wrong at )

calico1 ( posted at 12:00AM Mon, 02 April 2007

Thanks. We really needed this.

Greywolf Starkiller ( posted at 12:00AM Mon, 02 April 2007

Alas, some 'artists' won't accept critique, no matter how valid or how carefully it is worded. I have seen too many 'lynch' mobs formed by disgrunted 'artists'. I'll keep my critiques to the Critique Group where I know they will be appreciated. Nice article, Karen. Hopefully, most of the popularity seekers will read your next one. The Gallery can only improve if all critique is constructive, AND if everyone can accept it in the spirit it is given. Might as well wish for a cool million while I'm at it, eh? :)

paradigm ( posted at 12:00AM Mon, 02 April 2007

This is a great initiative Karen, I've heard some artists complain that they don't receive enough constructive criticism at Rendo; in fact one artist recently gave that as one of his reasons for leaving.

kathym ( posted at 12:00AM Mon, 02 April 2007

I'd much rather be direct then do the whole "praise sandwich" method. On the same token, I'd much perfer others to be direct insted of dancing around the true point. Tell me the lighting needs work - don't tell me how good the composition is - nine times out of ten - I already know what needs help.

ARADTech ( posted at 12:00AM Mon, 02 April 2007

Awesome idea , well done and long overdue ! Peace and Creativity Chris

BAR-CODE ( posted at 12:00AM Mon, 02 April 2007

Im loved and hated for my crittics .. but 98%of the time i get a thnx for spotting that or this.. So somehow im doing it right.. And about non English ... you absolutly right about this: Write clearly and avoid slang You always avoid SLANG ..SLANG is dutch for SNAKE :} so avoiding them is smart hahaha.. Nice work on the tut karen !! Chris

JHoagland ( posted at 12:00AM Mon, 02 April 2007

It was my friend's brother's cousin's neighbor's uncle's sister's friend who got banned for posting a negative comment. Really it was! :) Seriously, though, this tutorial is an excellent step, but there are two big unresolved issues: 1) Where exactly does this "urban legend" come from? Why does the community believe that they will be banned if they leave a negative-sounding comment on an image? I agree that a comment such as "this sux" doesn't help the artist at all, but will someone really be banned (or get negative feedback on his own image) for leaving a comment such as "The people look like they're floating"? Why do so many artists think constructive criticism like this is "trolling"? 2) Overly-sensitive artists. How many times have we seen people threaten to close their account and never make an image again just because a viewer said that the shadows looked wrong in the image?

Thandaluz ( posted at 12:00AM Mon, 02 April 2007

Hi Karen Janes. I liked the matter, but if it allows me, I will make a small observation: I always say that art is all that that is not done for critics (without any offense). Opinions on any art type is very difficult, we have to take in consideration the culture differences, learning and even of the used tool. Beautiful images that are not commented exist and another that in my opinion nor they should be posted, but as art for me cannot be translated, until a black point in the white paper can be wonderful, and those that only comment works still exist done in the such and such tool, the another are not good, they are amateur, child's toys. I suffered this prejudice recently in another community. Besides, for some, the discomfort of the translation exists. I always accompany the comments of my works, the opinions are extremely important, they help to perfect the technique. The good critics take advantage of and for the bad ones I don't give importance, and in my comments I am always true. Hugs.

drifterlee ( posted at 12:00AM Mon, 02 April 2007

It's helpful if the commentar is familiar with the software. I would not be comfortable commenting on 3DMAX technique, for example, since I do not know it. If I like the image, I would certainly compliment it, though.

Ladonna ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 03 April 2007

I agree whith Sivana. The few times i tried to give constuctive critics was awfull. The artists send me hatemails and i prommised my self never do this again. Now i send IMs when i have a usefull tip. I think whith this all artist can deal.

LillianaSapphire ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 03 April 2007

There's too many artists on this website that gang up on other artists for giving crit. For example, I gave a crit on an image which was a good suggestion as the artist thanked me for it. But i ended up getting nasty IM's from this artists "followers". Sorry but what right do they have to threaten me when the art was not created by them? Sometimes i find its not the artists who cannot take the critacism, its the followers who think the artist they follow is god. It makes me sick, and thats why I hardly comment on peoples work anymore, through the fear of being attacked. Its pathetic!

Rainbowgirl ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 03 April 2007

Though it's sad that a tut like this is needed it is a good thing you wrote it. I agree with your guidelines - with one addition. Being polite is not candy-coating in my eyes. An all too straightforward critic is not considered civil and polite in vast parts of Europe where English is not the common language. Most of the negative critics I got up to now was not very helpful since they didn't offer ways out of the flaw and left me with the impression that one of the great art gurus of this world was telling me off. (Example: 'The shadow cast on the girl's nose and the plastic quality of the rendering take away from the potential of this composition.') On the other hand I'd love to get HELP to overcome the flaws of my poser-play that are only too obvious to me. Kind of a dilemma and I'm not at all sure if there is a way out. Wished there were...

tnekkralc1956 ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 03 April 2007

Articulation seems to be a problem with some of my peers posting responces here... ...AND I still won't allow commentary on my stuff. Here's why: I don't want anyone's opinions running underneath my work---good or bad. My attitude towards movie critiques is very similiar. It's usually someone expanding their own egos---even if it is with all of the decorum of the most well bred and educated, and the intentions of a saint! I'm out the expense of the program and content, the time I had to budget to create and execute the work, the learning curve at that particular juncture, and so on--- and all you have to do is comment? I DON'T GIVE A SH*T unless inspired otherwise! You like it---you look. You like me, you contact me and make it personal. You may have some point great to offer, and I should be a FOOL not to accept it---still, I am not volunteering for being splayed on a spit called "post an opinion" or "our artist's are always interested in your feedback" or even "you opinion is always valuable to us" or any other example of the other 'have a nice day' gobbledy-gook trotted out there. People say those things to control other people in business, politics, religion and otherwise. Your article is great and tender, insightful, deliberate, and well stated, as I perceive it. That shouldn't mean anything to you, stranger. See, how it works?

gagnonrich ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 03 April 2007

Art critique, no matter how well done, is not a science. Providing a critique is providing an opinion. At its best, it's a well-informed opinion that is worth making. At its worst, it's a flatulent noise that isn't worth experiencing. Most of the time, it's somewhere in between. Providing technical advice is worthwhile when one can clearly explain how to readily correct the problem. A portrait, with an unintentional fish-eye lens setting, can be improved by telling the artist how to change that setting. Aesthetics are a trickier thing to criticize because the artist and the critic may not be on the same wavelengths and may have completely contradictory views that may be both right or both wrong. That can happen because there are no absolutes on the message of an image. The message is whatever the viewer walks away with. To give a real example of the fickles of criticism, below are two reviews of the movie, "300". One reviewer loves it. The other hates it. These reviews are coming from people who earn their living doing it. If two critics, who are paid well for their informed opinions, cannot agree on the merits of a movie, then what chance do we amateur critics have of being absolutely right?,WKP-News-hundred09.article At least the site is experimenting with a critical sticky thread to focus critiques on artists that want it. It will be interesting to see if it works out. I think time is the best critic. The passage of time, and practice while improving one's craft, make it easier to see what is wrong with one's older work. Sometimes, we can recognize our faults. Other times, we simply cannot see them even when they are pointed out to us because we're not yet ready to see them.

thip ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 03 April 2007

Excellent checklist for providing useful critique. Crit can be tough, but I'd suggest taking it always in the Bruce Lee spirit : Take what's useful and develop from there. Crit is a gift you can take or leave, but it's a gift when anyone's willing to actually spend some time thinking and tapping the keyboard. The boorish critic must be frightened by the competition you are giving him/her, remember ;o)

JurgenDoe ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 03 April 2007

I agree with cornelp & gagnonrich and I rather would like to have crits to improve my skills as an artist. I'm tired of the same comments over and over again. I only learn if I get crits and not ooooooh aaaaaaaah thats beautiful or whatsoever. Most artists don't like crits and if you write your own opinions you get hatet for this by many other artists. So I mostly stopped writing comments because I figured that most artists just wanna hear great and good things about there images but useful critique isn't allowed.

Denger ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 03 April 2007

Really well done, Karen. This article should be required for members to read prior to posting their very first comment. Bravo!

SQS ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 05 April 2007

Personally I thrive on constructive feedback, how else to learn? There are wonderful and talented artists here, I want to take advantage of their knowledge. It is difficult sometimes to point out something that doesn't quite work when it is a posting from a member of a group you belong to. All other members are saying how wonderful and you are the only one saying, well... Agree with Denger, should be required reading. also agree with thip. take or leave what you need. One of my previous bosses used to say. "Don't just come to me with a problem, come with a suggestion" Thanks a bunch for posting something we should all be reminded of., Susan

Tablesaw ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 05 April 2007

Wow...What a sorry bunch you are when you go into hiding because of a positive critique you have made. What I can't stand are these people who spend most of their time commenting, regardless of the quality the image has you are sure to hear....THIS IS JUST GORGEOUS! Makes me want to vomit on them. I'd name names but then I might have to go into hiding. ;)