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:
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.