Continuing on from my previous post, I thought I’d talk about how to get useful feedback on one’s art. Unlike prose, visual media is something we passively ingest every waking moment of our life. I think developing a critical eye around art is a challenge because of the commodification of the form; our eyes gloss across reams of visual information as we scroll social media, and much without actually engaging with it, to say nothing of how algorithms then tailor what we Like to show us more of the same, shaping our visual tastes without our consent. This is all to say, I find people’s knowledge and critical thinking around the visual mediums I’m involved with (illustration and, especially, comics) to be lacking. So, if you’re not going to art school or have access to formal means of critique, how can you get useful feedback on your art?
Experience: To echo some previous points, let’s start with orienting critic and artist again. Understanding your critic’s experience level re: giving critique, their taste in art, and setting up expectations before the reading begins is an important step. They may have knowledge around a certain style of art, a particular medium, and frame their feedback according to their knowledge base instead of what would be helpful to you. Helping them understand your experience is also key to recieve beneficial critique.
So how do you orient yourselves towards each other? Give the critic specifics: locate where you think there are strengths/weaknesses in the piece. Tell them if this is your first attempt at something or a skill you’ve been practicing for a long time. Tell them what type of feedback you want eg. nitpicky, blunt, a light touch. Let the critic know; again, it’s okay to protect your ego or the esteem of your work. If the critic has no experience and isn’t particularly knowledgeable around art terminology, maybe they can provide a more gut-level type of feedback. The simplest subjective questions (eg. What do you like/dislike? What does it make you feel?) can be helpful to some degree.
Medium: What’s your critic’s familiarity with the medium and style you’re working? Will they understand the traditions and tropes you’re working with? Will they be able to call you out on cliches? If they work in a different medium, what are the benefits of the genre that you’d like to draw into your own work? Can you give this critic a questionnaire that interrogates that aspect of their experience more specifically? EG. maybe you’re trying to become an animator but your critic specializes in realist paintings. Maybe you can have them focus on overall composition or establishing a visual hierarchy. Honing in on what your critic is most likely to notice will help you get more specific, beneficial feedback.
Intent: Again, cold read critique can be useful. But aiming your critic’s eye is a great way to get useful critique. Otherwise a critic may spend time on 1) things you already know need to be fixed 2) things that don’t need to be fixed. It’s at this point you can establish goals or intent for your work—style, mood, visual touchstones, and where you want the trajectory of your work to go. With these goalposts in mind, the critic can then measure their experience against what you intended and share whether your piece hit the mark for them or missed. You can also share with your critic the amount of work you’re willing to do to improve the piece: will you overhaul the entire thing or simply be fixing up tinier mistakes? Perhaps you’re open to abandoning it completely. Knowing this, a critic may choose to focus in on certain elements to critique or provide a more comprehensive amount of feedback.
Patterns: Part of art is muscle memory; that is, your body records procedural physical movements from how you move your implement to how you hold it, with what grip and pressure. Part of developing your work is breaking muscle memory to introduce new ways to move your implement; when you don’t consciously ‘break’ how you draw on a physical level, it reinforces the pattern you see in your mind. The mark and the movement becomes entangled and sometimes invisible to the artist. How does this feed into getting useful critique? Providing a critic with multiple examples of your work, a whole portfolio or simply the same subject drawn many times, will give them the opportunity to notice patterns in our work that we can’t see ourselves. On a broader level, this can also reveal other patterns beyond technical flaws like repetitive color palettes or repetitive compositions.
To end this post, I thought of this quote from Sontag’s Against Interpretation: “Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content, violates art. It makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories.”
Part of processing any critique you get is deciding where your specific sensory truth ends and another’s begins and deciding, between the two, whose you want to follow.