Art Critique 101

cave aurochs 2 On Saturday I and a group of around 30 others paid a fee to see three fine painters critique a group of mostly-amateur paintings. Paintings were lined up along the walls. The group– Marc Perlman, Chester Arnold and Frances McCormack-– selected paintings to bring on stage. The audience eavesdropped on their three-way conversation about each piece. It was an interesting, unusual event that I had never seen outside an art class.

My painting was not chosen. I offer some random takeaways from the event, and a few impressions.

  • Framing counts.  Never use garage sale frames.  Never ever, even if they “fit.” If you respect your piece, either hang it unframed or design a new frame for it.
  • Just because you have an emotional connection to a surface doesn’t mean it helps the painting.  One good pop art work was painted on a piece of wood from a crate.  True, the crate had come from France and the Louvre, but the nail holes weren’t doing the painting any good.  Your emotional attachment does not make a difference to the viewer.
  • Composition, color, design, content, meaning and drawing were discussed, but much of the time they talked materials.  Inferior materials can sink a painting.  Buy the best you can.
  • One really cannot defend a less-successful work if you bring it out in public, because the public decides on its success.  Give your paintings a chance by using good materials.
  • One good painting was still wet.  The wetness dominated the critique of the painting, smearing black paint all over Mark Perlman’s hands.  One element out of place can keep the viewer from appreciating your work.
  • One painting was an exact copy of a Cezanne.  The critics’ consensus seemed to be that if you wish to learn through copying, copy a hundred paintings , not just one.  Really do it and allow yourself to learn.
  • If you are  doing a genre painting, such as a sort of linear, geometric, Mondrian-type abstraction, it helps to imitate the absolutely flat and smooth surface generally found in such paintings.  Heavy impasto and imprecise lines don’t belong to that type of painting.  Lobsters are good, so are strawberries, but you don’t want to mash them together.

I would add, however awkward, stand by your paintings, like Tammy Wynette singing “Stand by your Man.”  Criticism has a place.  My mentor always said that he painted for other painters.  Never, ever paint because you think you might know what someone might like or approve of.  Stand by your paintings, but you don’t necessarily have to show, or keep, every one.  It’s only one point in an endless timeline of process.

I so appreciated the kind yet keen remarks of the commentors.  Never did they deride a work of art or cross the line into condescension.

Aspen, Suzanne Edminster

Aspen, Suzanne Edminster

My own painting I had to criticize myself.  It’s not the one at the top of the post, or the one at the side here,  but one in a series in gold metal leaf that is quite similar.  I didn’t get a good enough photo of it to post, as the gold metal leaf makes it difficult to photograph. Anyway, the negatives:  careless, poorly conceived, not enough surface field depth or variety of line– too superficial.  The positives:  use of an interesting material, strong sense of gesture and movement, and good composition with interesting colors.

I am primarily self-taught and thus self-critiqued.  I’m not sure I could have lived through four years of this in art school.  What are your responses to critique and criticism?

Stand by your art.

Afternote: Satri Pencak kindly cited my blog.  She has a fine curatorial website.   I appreciate her discerning take on events and artists in Sonoma County.

17 comments

  1. Not only do I stand by my art, flaws and all, several people came up to me afterwards and disagreed with the panel. I am quite happy with what they said, positive and negative, but can take it with a grain of salt. (Macrame’!) I feel I know and see more than I did before, and I definitely like it when people take my work seriously. I would like to have a few more.

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    1. The panel’s opinion is only worth what you give it. They were very articulate, and obviously practiced in assessing strengths/weaknesses. But if you have a vision of something strong enough to counter what they say, go with your own heART. Just make sure you are communicating that vision.

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  2. I went the week before, and found it very interesting, even when they were talking about painting technique (not on point to this printmaker). I think people who do that for a living, like teachers, have a particular style or language they use. Like Mark talked about the “volume” of different elements. Having heard a million crits with the teacher I work with, Kevin Fletcher, it was enlightening to hear a different perspective. I would love to have a casual group that did this once a month. Any takers?
    (And it was awesome to have Kurt Kemp tell me my work was technically excellent! Rode that high for a few days!)

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  3. A monthly critique group sounds interesting to me. Actually–any activity that would more often bring local artists together would be welcome. It’s far too easy to become isolated.

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  4. “Stand by your man” is by Tammy Wynette. Patsy Cline was way too talented and dead when that song came out. Correct metaphors, especially metaphors used to punctuate a key point, like good framing, need to be correct.

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  5. Interesting to read this post after listening to this just last night: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8-JXOnFOXQk
    It’s Brene Brown talking about receiving criticism. What you experienced would be considered legitimate according to her points, as the critics are painters and are “also in the arena,” putting their work out into the world.

    In general, I like to hear people’s responses to my work, and have developed a thick skin. In fact, in a recent show I actually posted papers below several of the pieces, with leading questions aimed at getting people involved in the viewing, thinking about, and responding to the artwork. I especially like to hear children’s responses, because they’re so open and truthful.

    I feel really mixed in my response to the critique you witnessed, and your list of takeaways. Especially the “nevers.” This could be because I’m a reuse artist primarily, and have enjoyed and participated in shows where artists choose a thrift store painting (not even just the frame!) and alter it. The results can be incredibly clever. I think it’s dangerous to turn over ideas of what’s right and wrong to do in art to a group of “experts.” And yet there’s incredible value in learning from those who are more experienced, obviously. Hence the mixed feelings!

    Thanks for sharing. Very thought-provoking!

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    1. I appreciate your thoughtful comment. Yes, I think is is always important to consider the context of the criticism and the critics. The three critics were all 1)academics 2) that rare breed, the professional full time painter and 3) widely exhibited in fine arts galleries. Their advice for framing comes from the context of display in professional fine arts galleries…. not studios, not trade fairs, not booths, and not for the increasing number of online art sales. I think altered paintings are totally fun and interesting. So you have to consider what audience the critics are addressing–I would say fine arts academic students and those who want to appear in fine arts galleries. There are so many other situations for art to be made and appreciated these days. I confess that I have seen an average work of art raised to attractively sale-worthy by the right frame, and also the reverse. Thanks for mentioning Brene Brown on criticism. I really respect her. I think everyone has mixed feelings about criticism… that is why it is not called approval! Suzanne

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  6. I am glad that “handygal” spoke up about re-use: it may be harder to frame your work with used materials or paint a good painting on a piece of a crate, but there is a market for “creative re-use” and, sometimes, older materials, including frames, are better-made than new things. I do agree that it is important to attend to all of the details of presentation.

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