Perhaps the single most valuable tool for growing as an artist is good critique. We can all probably recall the comments or advice of a mentor that at some point really impacted and strengthened our work. Without these critiques, formal and informal, I, for one, wouldn’t be much of an artist. I’ve learned much on my own, but the turning points, the epiphanies, the phrases and concepts still repeating in my mind while I work - they all grew out of critique. And I mean GOOD CRITIQUE - given by professional artists and gallery owners with decades of experience. With a lifetime of their own learning and practice; they also had careers of seeing how others - collectors, curators, judges, and other skilled artists - respond to artwork. Yes, there are others who simply ‘get’ your work, and they can give you some of the most intuitive reactions. My wife is my best eye. But reactions are different than critique - which is necessary to teach us how to use the insights received from reactions.
In the end there are some aspects of art that resonate deeply with people. One that is immediate and powerful is composition. Most successful artists I know agree that composing is a top concern. Why? Well, they’re seasoned artists - advanced beyond skills and process development. They know their materials. They also know their ‘voice’ and understand what their work is ‘saying.’ What’s left after this? Composing - ordering and balancing the relationships of visual elements. It’s a puzzle that never ends, with innumerable resolutions. It’s fun.
It’s also challenging. While observing compositional relationships is involuntary, really knowing how to compose can take 15 or 20 years… No exaggeration… Even with guidance. Why? Compositional nuances are among those things that, unless somebody points them out to you, are just hard to put your finger on. It’s also quite easy, even for a pro, to become desensitized or less focused on certain considerations. This is where regular good critique and practice in analysis become vital! Without them, an artist can simply go on, not seeing! Again, this is true at every level. The best artist can miss things - small, subtle things. Sometimes he or she might miss the same thing repeatedly, but what if it’s the only aspect of the work that separates it from that of a great master? Critique is crucial. It is understandable that some artists reach a point where it’s difficult to find someone able to give them valuable critique. Perhaps they even stop asking. But what if…? Think about it this way - what professional writer would publish without an editor? There’s too much at stake. If one small nuance could take your work to the next level?… if you could knock a couple years, or even ten, off your learning curve?… These are real possibilities for many.
I alluded to the first part of my own story. I was lucky to receive really good critique as a young artist and to keep going back for more. I still do. The second part of the story happened when I was an instructor - it was a situation where I was critiquing 55-60 compositions a day and my students had little experience. It forced me to distill and simplify ideas to avoid confusing explanations. The students responded. They got it!…but the repetition of dissecting compositions and distilling concepts was even more beneficial to me! I couldn’t believe how it sharpened my own ability to see relationships and ‘flip lenses’, so to speak, taking each aspect one at a time. Later, when approaching my own paintings, I was amazed at the clarity with which I could see the composition. It’s now been several years, and since then my own work and ability to compose have progressed at an ever-increasing rate. Over the past year I realized that there were times I was “blinking” compositions (Malcolm Gladwell, 2005). I was considering all the compositional relationships simultaneously, without conscious thinking. It was automatic!… Mind blown.
I never thought it could be. 23 years as a painter, over 15 struggling to understand composition… so totally worth it! Automatic hadn’t even been a goal. I didn’t think it was possible.
I should probably clarify something. As a young artist I developed skills and got to where I thought I was “pretty darn good.” Then, when my work was critiqued by real professionals, I realized I didn’t know anything. It wasn’t because my skills weren’t good. It wasn’t because my composition wasn’t good. They actually were. It was because I didn’t even understand what these people were talking about! I couldn’t answer their questions - basic composition questions. You see, I had good instincts, and I was relying on them. But it was a problem. I was basically ignorant, and as soon as I had a little bit of knowledge my mind took over and my instinct went away. That was early in my career, and consciously struggling to learn and command every aspect of composition has been my job ever since. To move past this constant mental effort and into an intuitive mode… it’s like being freed from gravity! Not like instinct was, slow and blind, it’s like …flying.
Do you know the feeling, like fingers on a guitar, moving on their own? When you look at an artwork, do you know confidently and absolutely that it’s good? Do you know how to fix it when it’s not? Can you see it all and put it into words? Most people don’t answer yes to these questions. If you’re reading this article, I can almost assure you that, for you, every one of these is doable. The simplest formula for success: get good critique and analysis, implement in practice, and repeat.
Is critique scary? Yes, if it’s your work. It always is, and it’s always disappointing when what you created isn’t perfect. You can get used to it though, and you can get over your disappointment in about 30 seconds, like a shot in the arm. Seriously. You’re an artist - always improving, always learning. It never stops. You never arrive. This is okay. The value of critique overshadows the minor discomfort.