A new angle


September 13, 2013


Dear Rodney,


Workshoppers seem to want critiques, and some instructors insist on them. I've always wondered about the value of crits.


There are several kinds. One is where the instructor crits every work one at a time, either one-on-one or with the group. Another is where the instructor selects particular works that need help and explains how to fix things. Another is to get the students to crit each other's works. Yet another is where only better work is critted in front of the group, the idea being that students learn more from seeing and talking about better work.


Recently I tried something new. I asked a group to crit one of my own half-baked demos. When giving demos, many instructors notice students marvelling at the prowess of the so called "master." Most of us agree this is misguided and not to the point. My group was surprised to get the invitation, especially when I told them the words, "love," "like," "nice," and "good" were forbidden.


Some were too shy to get down and dirty; others were all over it like kids on a broken gumball machine. FYI, we've put my painting at the top of the current clickback. Go ahead, drop me a line.


A lesson for the event was the variety of opinion. One student wanted the foreground completely reorganized; another took issue with the sky. Agreement was widespread. Even though I'd given two full minutes in advance so they could gather their individual thoughts, I still wondered if they were picking up some of the unanimity from one another.


Some students, either beginners or those who did relatively poor work, were quite verbal and often gave interesting and valuable input. I've noticed this before--something to do with the innocence and purity that comes naturally to some novices. Other, more advanced painters had little or nothing to say. Picking up on the vibe in the room, I realized these better painters wanted to get the crit stopped and simply get back to their work.


So I cut everyone off. I'm sure they thought I just couldn't stand it any longer. Fact is, I was marvelling at the input and wanted it to go on. At the same time I haven't yet done anything about what anyone said, and the unsigned painting you see now is the painting they saw. Go ahead, make my day.


Best regards,




PS: "If criticism had any power to harm, the skunk would be extinct by now." (Fred Allen)


Esoterica: If the object of crits is to hone our critical abilities, then we're winning. If it's to give arbitrary, personalized opinions, then it's not so hot. The wisdom of crits may be simply to build the faculty of "authority." It's the "this is wrong and this is how to fix it" faculty. This sort of authority, when carried around by the artist himself, is a deadly app. Not everyone seems to be able to download this app, and "dependent on others" apps may be the norm for some lifetimes. When working with students, my passionate quest is to help those "dependent on others" to press "delete."