So. The critique. An artist's best friend, their worst enemy, or an indifferent passerby.
When I think about critique, I think back to my time at MICA, when some classes had us put our pieces up and we'd individually receive feedback from the whole class. I didn't particularly like critique time. It was boring. I didn't often have much of worth to say about others' pieces, which left me struggling to find anything to say at all. None of the students really ever had a whole lot to say that ever stuck out to me, either. I mean, they'd say things, sure. But more often than not, their comments missed the mark on whatever I was going for, or were just "oh it's pretty" or the like.
That about sums my experience. A lot of students just kind of saying things because they were supposed to, and mixing up personal preference with critique. That was when I learned that a lot of people are really bad at offering useful commentary. But you know who wasn't bad at it? (And I'd certainly hope not, given the price tag...)
It was the teachers. I actually liked all of my teachers. They had a lot to say about things I made, even when I wasn't sure what I was doing. They had some of the most cutting advice! And I always, always knew when I heard something true. A remark, an observation that made sense to me. Those kinds of remarks stick out as "correct".
So, why? What made most of the students pretty bad at useful commentary, and the teachers much better at it? I mean, okay, that's kind of obvious. The answer is experience. Our teachers were specifically trained to think about art, to talk about thinking about art, and it was all fueled by them being very active artists in their fields. So, of course they're going to have a lot more to say. They're going to be able to understand a person's intent much, much easier than a less experienced artist in whatever field. That's how it goes!
It's been on my mind a lot, lately. What's useful critique? When is it valid to offer? When is it appropriate to give it? How do you deal with a person rejecting it? I mean, there are a lot of facets to this. I had no idea what proper procedure for critiques was for a hell of a long time.
Case in point: I remember being... 12, on a Pokemon forum as an art mod, and offering "critique" on someone's drawings. I thought it was a nice thing to do! I left a lot of nice comments and suggested things they could do. I had the mindset of "I want to say a lot of things because this art is cool", and that was how I felt about it. That was also my first real experience with finding out how much people really, really do not like unwarranted, unrequested suggestions or advice. (I'm that kind of person too, so there was some irony present I think.)
It gets tricky. Good advice is invaluable, but when do you ask for it? When do you give it out? What constitutes good advice? I think about this often. There's not a good and clean answer - it depends on the circumstance, on the people involved, the project involved, the advice involved.
Not all advice is equal, and not all advice applies equally to every person. Intent is important. Depending on what the art is for, your advice may be utterly amazing or amazingly useless. This is where experience and skill come in; a person who understands what you're trying to do (and preferably, who knows how to do it) is going to be a huge asset in moving the art towards whatever goal you have in mind. Not every person is capable of giving specialized advice. I try not to give any advice unless it's requested of me.
I guess what's worse than that is when people confuse useful criticism with a personal preference, like my 12-year old self was almost certainly doing way back when. Can personal preference and useful criticism overlap? Absolutely. But is every single opinion going to be useful to a creator? No, probably not. If you look at a black and white personal piece and offer critique in the form of how much you hate black and white work and how much better something vibrant and colorful would be, that's probably not useful at all. However, if you change the personal piece to a drawing of a mascot for a children's toy, it becomes more pertinent to at least offer forward that children are drawn to colorful things. It's even more relevant if you're trying to market it. Context matters! (Also, getting people to listen to you is easier when you're not a jerk about it. Talking about how you hate the way someone did something might just get you a block instead of an open ear into how to do better.)
Thinking back to my time at MICA, I always knew when I heard something especially true, because my stomach would sink a little. Mostly in disappointment at myself for not having caught it sooner. I was always, always glad to have heard whatever it was--I certainly appreciated things being called to my attention that I hadn't yet figured out myself, but it was always hard. Like, "damn! I wish I'd noticed that!" Better late than never.
I remember my favorite way teachers would suggest things -- which was just by going, "if you do something like that, you can achieve this look/feeling." And they'd give examples or help mix a color or whatever. I loved that! Letting the students kind of figure out what they felt like doing, trying to help them work towards learning how to achieve whatever goal they had…
I like that approach a lot. I like when people (who understand an artist's intent) help an artist fulfil that intent. But I mean, the whole point of art school is to get in the mentality of being able to do that, yourself. It's to train you to be able to step back and go, "What needs fixing? Do I know how to fix it? Do I know someone who can help?" without recoiling. And that's it! It's to help you understand how to reach whatever your intent is and carry it out most effectively.
I like to bumble around in learning new things and ask for help when I think I need it. When I first started out with music, I needed a lot of help. I should probably post some of my early songs sometime and talk about that process a little, since I still do remember things that went through my head, and I'd love to talk about advice I received that helped me expand the way I thought about music composition and composing in general.
But even then? Even when I wanted to hear it? It sucked! Because it's that feeling of "man, how did I not realize this sooner?" again. I was happy to make baby steps with music, and I definitely wanted to know how to do what I was doing better, but it still can be frustrating to hear how many things you didn't take into consideration. It's good to learn from, but frustrating.
I was pretty lucky in that I even had a friend who knew what they were doing though, and I still consider myself lucky in that way. It's valuable to be able to ask for advice without hearing something utterly useless like "this sucks". A lot of my music is kind of unconventional, and despite that, my friend still was able to show me helpful stuff relevant to the way I like working with sound! And that was the best! There was no "that's weird and bad", there was no "what are you doing, that's the wrong way to do it," there was just "here are a lot of tools you can use and how to use them, and based on hearing your songs, keep this other advice in mind." So, again, it comes down to showing someone the tools they can use to achieve their vision, and not about telling them how to work. My favorite kind of commentary!
It's hard to get the kind of critique I want, artwise and storywise. That's in part because I generally have no desire for most outside art critique. Not anymore. That's definitely not to say that I feel I'm the best I'll ever be at everything -- the opposite is true. I'm always trying to learn more.
In every new story arc or piece or set of comics pages or anything, I have some sort of unspoken goal I'm working at. I'm acting as my own teacher, my own source of criticism. I'm the only person who knows what is important to me and what I'm trying to do, so I'm the person best suited to judge my own progress. And that's how I prefer it. I love treating every piece as a personal piece, and as an extension of my soul, in art form. That's really not something anyone else can even begin to have an idea on how to gauge. So, it's hard and challenging, but I love it. I do!
Again, it can be tricky. While I'm drawing the art and telling the story because it's important to me to express these things, I also do want to get certain ideas across to an outside reader. I'm always thinking about better and more compelling ways to merge art and story into one fluid experience. Always, always. It's so difficult sometimes to not know how something will come across, but to have to just cross your fingers and hope your wild vision will play out as you imagine it. Sometimes, you gotta take risks to have a big impact.
And you need to listen to your instincts and hunches! I was stressed and down and ignored this creeping feeling that came over me when Marl and I were working on an aborted story arc, of which we released one video that we ended up removing later. The feeling was "this is the wrong story, we didn't figure out the rest, there are a lot of problems with this script, this isn't where we should be," and it had come after a lot of other failed drafts. Oh, so many. So, so many. I was frustrated and annoyed and really wanted to get the next arc started since it had been months since the last video, and that got in the way of waiting for the right story, the right idea.
And man, I learned a lot from that. I suddenly had insight into what all my creeping thoughts meant, and I learned not to ignore them, because I learned what they even felt like to begin with! I'm going to have to devote a whole series of posts to what even goes into writing the stories and planning all that, but. Yeah. That was one of those occasions where I actually did receive a polite comment or two that went "hey, about this story arc…" and I had agreed with them. It wasn't at all the kind of story I wanted to go for, and I felt it was totally off. For a lot of reasons, some of which others picked up on. So, we scrapped it.
We scrap a lot more things a lot earlier now. Marl and I get into like, heated pseudo-arguments about stories and arcs and stuff. Well, it's not really an argument so much as me kind of yelling into the void as Marl stares off into space and thinks a lot. We're getting better all the time at dissecting each other's ideas and helping the other's work be the best it can be. It's been really fun to learn about storytelling with him in the past 3-4 years, and I look forward to seeing what we can achieve in the next few decades.
We're so frank with each other when we don't like an idea. Sometimes that frankness comes in the form of basically no comment until the other figures out what they're thinking. That's always a sign the idea wasn't quite right, or something was off… and then it's a long journey into figuring out what, exactly, was wrong. Seriously, if you could just see the 100+ pages of writing he's scrapped since December, you'd start to get an idea of how much work goes into this.
But I really like that! I like being able to work with a partner who is fine telling me "that's not going to work, that doesn't make sense, that's too complicated" and also being able to do the same. I like being able to go "this is too shallow, this doesn't connect, this doesn't flow" and he gets it and we both try to puzzle out the answer. We have such a different way of working, but it's such a unique experience to grow along with another person in trying to make better work together.
I just wanted to talk about all of that, I guess. Critique means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but context is important. My favorite advice and feedback is from people who get me, who get my work, who get what I want to achieve. This post ended up being a little less about how to critique, and a little more about what even constitutes something useful. Oh well! That's fine by me.