A new way to give a critique

I recently came across an old and famous internet news story about the great artist and animator Alex Toth giving the great Steve Rude a harsh critique regarding some of Steve Rude’s Johnny Quest pages he had penciled earlier in his career. If you Google “Alex Toth and Steve Rude”, you’ll get plenty of links concerning Alex’s assessment of Steve’s pencils. For this article though, I have chosen to include the one on the Marshall Art Studio site. Here is the link:

http://www.illdave.com/comicbooks/history/toth-critiques-rude.htm

The reason I bring this up is it shows how I think a lot of people thing critiques should be given when asked to give one. I know there are lots of famous stories about big time comic book artists having certain reputations for giving out cruel and harsh critiques like the one Alex gave to Steve Rude. But I liked the article above because it includes some of Steve’s thoughts on the matter and how he came to realize sometimes there’s just no pleasing some people – even when you politely point out their mistakes in assuming why you drew something the way you did.

So I want to propose maybe something a little radical…

I want to propose a new way of giving a critique…

A few years ago before I started Capes & Babes, I used to teach a cartooning night class for adults and teenagers. The class consisted of a few hours twice a week for eight weeks. As part of this class, I had to create an eight week lesson plan and in one of the lesson plans, I had an entire class on how to give and receive criticism.

That was usually very near the end and I would always tell the students I added that class in to the curriculum because, as an artist, it is always very helpful to learn how to give meaningful criticism and how to accept and learn from the criticism of others. I also tried to explain to them that there were different methods and techniques when it came to critiquing art works. Some people tend to be a “tough love” type of critic – only pointing out all the weaknesses they perceive in a piece.

That never worked for me though. Positive encouragement always worked best for me so I tried to instill that same philosophy in all the people I have taught (or coached).

It’s way too easy to be negative…

As I would tell my adult and teenager students, I could easily stand up and look at all of their pieces and tell them everything that was “wrong” with them… whether their line weight was too thin or not varied enough. Maybe their anatomy stunk. Maybe their design or composition wasn’t all that great. That’s real easy to do – to be negative – because people have this misconception that, in order to give a “proper” critique, you have to be just that. Critical.

Let’s get radical, radical… let me hear your positivity…

But with this article, I challenge each and every one of you to try and take a different approach. This is especially true if you’re deciding to go to get a table at a convention. If you do, it will not be uncommon for total strangers to approach you and ask you for a critique of their work. If that happens, I hope you remember this article and try to approach the critique in a slightly different way. If you’re up for the challenge, this is what I want you to do:

First, instead of immediately picking out all the negative things an artist has done, I want you to study their piece and pick out FIVE things you feel they do really well FIRST. Those five things may not be the things YOU like but rather something you think the artist has done well. I want you to list those five things and explain why you chose them and why you feel they are the artists’ strengths.

The important thing to stress here is these “strengths” have to be genuine. You can’t just make them up so you can make an artist feel good about themselves. That’s not the point of this exercise The point isn’t to shower the artist with lavish and empty praise – that doesn’t help an artist either. Instead, it’s to try and understand that even though we all have areas where we need to improve on, it doesn’t mean that EVERYTHING we’ve created sucks, is terrible or that we should never pick up another pencil ever again.

Be honest and positive but don’t be fake…

The five positives have to be honest and genuine because, again, I firmly believe that an artist has to not only know what his or her weaknesses are, but they also have to know what their strengths are too – and that’s a valuable point many critics forget.

You see, too many people find the negative in someone’s art first before they ever see any positives. Online criticism is proof of that. Instead, by forcing you to look at an artist’s work and find five positive things in someone’s art FIRST, that forces you to take a much harder and closer inspection of someone piece.

There’s also another benefit to looking at critiques this way as well… how many times have you heard someone simply say “Yeah, I like that…” or “Ugh, that really sucks”? If you have been creating art as long as I have, you have long ago quit counting how many times people have said such meaningless things like my example. Simple giving something a thumbs up or a thumbs down can be very frustrating for an artist and it doesn’t do them any good to be so simplistic in your response to their art. BUT… if you start trying to find the five positive things you like about their art, they will help you give them a more meaningful critique. For example, you could say something along the lines of “I really like the way you’re using lines and cross-hatching in this particular panel. I think it gives this panel a lot of depth and character”. That’s a lot better than simply saying something along the lines of  “I like your inking. Keep at it.”.

It’s human nature to judge things in a negative way – whether it’s music, movies, TV shows or art. For whatever reason, it just seems that it’s so much easier to Negative Nancy than it is to be a Positive Pete. Alex Toth’s reaction to Steve Rude’s pencils are a perfect example.

Now, some might read this article and think I’m saying you should ONLY be positive in a critique but if they did that, they would be wrong. I’m not saying that at all. I’m simply saying that when people hear “critique”, they immediately think they need to be critical and that “critical” somehow equates “negative”. Instead, I’m simply saying I believe when someone asks you to judge their artwork, you should be fair and balanced but above all, you should also be encouraging. Encouraging in a positive way – not in a negative, almost vicious kind of way. I truly believe it’s possible to be honest in your assessment of someone’s art while also giving that same artist encouragement and positive reinforcement as well.

Be a Randy. Not a Simon.

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18 Comments

  1. Great points, Chris! One of the first things we learned in Comics Experience was the importance of giving balanced critiques. First, as workshop members, we didn’t think we were qualified to judge each other’s work since we were on a playing field of novices to experts. Then, we came to realize that if we don’t understand someone’s script or unlettered panel, there’s a chance that the final reader wouldn’t either. Everyone’s style is not going to suit you personally in your fulfillment as a reader. I try to make that distinction. I can say, “this wasn’t my cup of tea but Writer clearly evolves the characters in a way that fans of this genre would appreciate and the artwork helps take you on that journey.” Something like that. I put the negative first in that example but you get my meaning. There’s also a difference in a critique and a “review” which seems to be akin to a book report, maybe highlighting quality but more along the fan tropes of describing the issue with only a couple remarks about the meat of it.

  2. In a number of art classes I had, the professor would have each person in the class give one comment regarding a mistake/thing to improve/questionable/etc and then one positive/this was done right/I like this comment. The ‘negative’ comment was always first.

    He said he felt it help us learn what we had to improve, but without discouraging us from continually trying. I always liked that approach.

    • Good point Jon. My graphic design professor did something very, very similar – and it was this “Critique day” practice that was the inspiration for this article.
      I’m not really sure if the order of “positive vs. negative” is really important – just that you include both when giving a critique.

      We old time baseball players (and coaches) have a saying:
      You’re never as good as you think you are and you’re never as BAD as you think you are. you are always somewhere in between or fluctuating between the two. 🙂

    • Paul, that’s why I think if you people start giving critiques in a more positive light, it actually becomes easier RECEIVING criticism.

      I should maybe do a follow-up on this article on taking criticism too because that can be tough. Especially when an artist has to weigh WHO is giving the criticism as well. I think that was the example in Steve Rude’s case as well. As much as he admired Alex Toth, I think he eventually came to realize Alex was never going to give in or re-think his initial assessment of Steve’s pencils. When you’re faced with that kind of critic, sometimes you just have to throw your hands up and walk away because you’re never going to please them.

      And ultimately, the ONE person you have to please first and foremost when creating any kind of art – whether it’s music, film, design, illustration or whatever – is YOU.

      The rest of us? We’re just monkeys flying around trees throwing poop at each other. 🙂

    • Ahhh Karl, I’ve given my share of critical comments about Rob’s anatomy (or lack thereof) in the past but here’s what I WILL say now…

      Even though I STILL think Rob should take some life drawing classes ANYWHERE (I’m sure he could afford it, right), I still do like his dynamic layouts. In fact, I would say everywhere he lacks in drawing skills he makes up for in storytelling – and maybe that’s why he’s stuck around in the comics industry as long as he has…

      Anyway, that’s my way of being critical and positive of Rob’s work. 🙂

  3. There’s Critique and then there is Trolling.

    More children and teens would get into drawing if they were told what was good about their drawing instead of being told by peers and teachers that “that’s not how [I want you] to draw.”

    Parents are also sometimes no help as well. If neither the parent or the teacher is encouraging then that just tells the student that drawing is a waste of time, don’t learn it. If you’re not from a family with a background in the style you like, you’re unlikely to have a direct line to someone who can offer advice on that style.

    People are free not to like things. We all have our own subjectively unique tastes. So if someone, for example likes to draw in a “Manga” style, but they’re in a art class where the teacher isn’t familiar with it, the teacher may wrongly put in the students mind that what they’re doing is wrong, instead of emphasizing the best aspects of what they can already draw.

    The internet however is another animal entirely. There are entire forums dedicated just to hating on specific people, let alone artists. If you’re the unfortunate target of one of them, then what you end up with is a lot of people wanting you to stop drawing entirely unless you draw the way “they want” but nothing will please everyone. Ultimately, you shouldn’t try to please the trolls, because they will just dissect your work just to find something they feel is still wrong with it. Don’t take unsolicited advice from the internet, unless the source of that advice is someone you care about receiving it from.

  4. Very good article it is true most people just understand critique as meaning ‘find all the bad.’ I got taught at University how to Critique CONSTRUCTIVELY which is to say criticise in a way that is ACTUALLY USEFUL! This means pointing out the GOOD and the BAD, but as said in this article the good is often the bits that get missed, or people are not specific enough.

    “Okay so you don’t like it, what SPECIFICALLY don’t you like. Tell me then I can improve!” Knowing how to give criticism is also a good way to know how to receive it well. There are people out there who will just troll you and be negative because they want to upset you. If someone can’t be specific about what they don’t like they probably weren’t really looking, so dismiss them and move on.

  5. Hey everyone… those are some really terrific comments. Really glad to know a lot of people got something out of my own little critique article.
    A few follow-up thoughts I had as I have been reading these responses:

    1. Much of what I said was greatly inspired by my Radford University graphic design professor, Dr. Ed LeShock. We had to do pretty much what Jon’s professor made him do too. If memory serves, i think that first year in the first quarter, Dr. LeShock also graded as on how well we gave critiques too.

    2. As you progress in your art studies, you will quickly come to realize some art professors tend to grade on a style curve… meaning, they have a particular style and if you have the ability and can ape their own style, you will generally do much better in their class then other students who are doing what they should do and going by the beat of their own drummer (personal style). It’s not fair but that’s how it is sometimes.

    3. the movie “Art School Confidential” (Dawn has a video clip of it here in one of her articles) is a DOCUMENTARY. Don’t be fooled. All those scenes in the school where they are giving critiques IS REAL LIFE! That was my life for an entire year when I went to art school before transferring to Radford! 🙂

    • Sadly, Ed LeShock passed away on September 1. 2013. He was an excellent teacher and good friend. I’m glad he inspired you to write this article. He would appreciate you passing on this information.

      • Patty,
        Thanks SO much for letting me know this. I’m so very sorry to hear Dr. LeShock has passed away. As you can tell by this article, a lot of the stuff he taught me while at Radford has stayed with me so in that regard, he still lives on in some small way.

        • He would be happy to know that. Keep up the good work of passing his thoughts along to others who did not have the chance to know him.
          The memorial service is at St. Judes in Radford Sat., Sept. 6,2013 at 11 am with a gathering afterwards at RU’s Covington bldg, if you happen to be in the area.
          My best to you in all your endevors.

  6. Critique to me was always explained as CONSTRUCTIVE criticism, otherwise there’s no point to it. Positive critique is not a new idea in the fine art world, but it seems to be a radical idea in comics. My thinking is because comics, and cartoons want to cling doggedly to the RULES of how to draw these things. I had huge complaints about my perspective, foreshortening, line quality, and design. The complaints range all over the place from too much all the way to not enough. I put the same things up for “fine artist” to look at, and most try to approach in a more intellectual manner. What are the motivations blah, blah, blah. Comic fans and artist seem to go, “it doesn’t tell a story the way Kirby would, or Carl Barks. It’s crap.” The rules hold us back from creating something truly amazing.

    • Ryan… interesting though I had about your Kirby and Carl Barks line… many of us long time comic book fans have given Rob Liefeld crap about his terrible anatomy skills – including yours truly.

      However, what I have always tried to counter with my critiques of Rob’s anatomy skills is that I always enjoyed his layout and story telling techniques. I always thought he was a dynamic storyteller – just not a great artist when it came to drawing anatomically correct bodies.

      I’ve often said i would love to see what Rob could do strictly as a “layout artist” and have someone with better drawing skills to go over his layouts.

      Just a thought I had while re-reading your comment.

  7. I found that I always had the most positive and helpful critiques when I approached the critique-er with goals in mind. When I was struggling with inking, I went to inkers specifically. I asked them about their process and got a feel for a few different ways before settling on what works best for me. Whenever a critique-er points out problems, ask how they would have solved it. When both sides are involved it’s much less scary for everyone and you get a lot more out of the experience. Even a critique full of negatives isn’t so bad if you can show you are engaged and serious about improving!

    Maybe I’m just crazy, but I prefer the super nit-picky, harsh critiques. The more specific they are, it usually means you are pretty close to the mark.

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