Who would Paul Gaugin have been without Vincent Vincent van Gogh, Lucian Freud without Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollock without Willem de Kooning? Many artists spend a great deal of their time alone in the studio, but sometimes, they’re defined by the moments they spend together. Take a look through the annals of history, and you’re bound to find these pairs of artists who, through support or criticism, challenged each other to be better.
Feedback is an essential--if overlooked--part of being a creative person. No artist exists in a vacuum. But giving or receiving feedback is often an art form in and of itself. It requires care, tact, and understanding. We asked a dozen artists from around the world to share their best tips for giving and receiving notes. Read on to learn how to make the most of your next critique.
“I lean heavily on questions versus statements when talking through someone’s work,” multidisciplinary artist Andrea Farina tells us. “This helps me to understand what led them to where they are and the type of feedback that they are looking for (composition, color, etc.). I also think it’s important to know what makes a person’s work uniquely their own and use that as a guide.”
Stay curious and open. This one was by far the most-mentioned tip amongst the artists we interviewed.
Take yourself out of the equation.
When you’re giving feedback on someone else’s work, the conversation isn’t about your work or how you’d do things differently. It’s essential to be objective and open to ideas that diverge from your own. “Leave your own artistic view behind, and listen,” Danish artist Dan Stockholm suggests. “Look at the project you are being presented with.”
Start with the positive.
“I do the ‘critique sandwich’ with my students, artist and educator Shana Levenson explains. “I always start with positive. I look at everything as a whole and find the things that are working. Then I give feedback on what’s not working, how to fix it, and goals to set. I love giving examples of other artists to look at that might help them visualize it better. Then I finish off with positive feedback and tell them to keep going.”
Take your time.
“We live in a world where we're shown thousands of things a day and conditioned to form an opinion on the spot, even if we don't have all the information,” self-taught artist Sage Barnes admits. “Sometimes it's hard to break away from that habit but it's necessary with art because there are so many pieces to it. When giving criticism, you need to go in with an open mind and take your time looking.”
“Telling an artist you don’t like his or her artwork makes no sense,” illustrator Anna Xenz explains. “This is neither a piece of advice nor constructive criticism. Instead, focus on what can be changed and how it is achievable.” Good feedback is not a value judgment; it’s specific, actionable information about what works, what doesn’t, and how it can be improved.
It’s always important to highlight the positive, but do so honestly. A compliment doesn’t mean much if it’s not genuine, so always be kind and generous--but don’t lie. “I show no mercy when asked to critique,” multidisciplinary artist George Dawnay admits. “Annoying, I know, but there it is.”
Trust your gut.
When sculptor Brett F Harvey entered the NYC art scene, he was cautious about expressing his opinions candidly--especially in the midst of Chelsea’s art world elite. He worried that might “not be smart enough” to offer helpful feedback. But during one gallery visit, when he heard a respected curator echo the exact sentiments he’d been afraid to voice himself, he learned that there was no reason to silence himself.
“The biggest lesson I learned after moving to New York was that my ideas about art are no less valid than anyone else's,” he explains. “I realized that I needed to trust myself. I also realized that I needed to pursue the things that mattered to me, regardless of what everyone else championed.”
Ask the right people.
Seek feedback from artists, editors, and curators you respect and trust. “Surround yourself with people you admire and who lift you up,” sculptor Emil Alzamora suggests. “Some competition is good, but too much can be toxic. Keep your eyes open for that.”
At the same time, make sure you’re asking people who will challenge you and push you to improve. “I usually first go to a handful of people who understand how I work,” painter Alexis Cortez says. “They are usually the hardest people on me, which truthfully, I need. Most times, I block myself from doing things that I know I should do because I'm scared of the possibility of what might happen. That’s where they come in and call me out.”
Don’t take it personally.
Try to take a step back from your work and put some distance between yourself and the piece you’re working on. “Always be open to feedback, and take it in without involving your emotions,” painter Ali Cavanaugh advises. “Really analyze what the world is saying. Most people are trying to help, and there is usually a nugget of truth somewhere that is constructive and can help in some way.”
Let go of your ego.
“My best tip for receiving feedback as an artist is to be open and learn to own up to your mistakes,” multimedia artist Gil Bruvel says. “In order to receive advice, you have to be honest with yourself. It is important to have perspective on your own artwork. Remember that your ego is not your amigo.”
Learn to separate feedback from negativity.
In the age of Instagram, everyone’s a critic--and that’s not always a good thing. “Only take feedback from people who you respect and who are also doing something in the world,” animator Xaviera López advises. “Random people on the internet with private profiles are the opposite of that.”
Keep an open mind.
While it’s true that internet trolls generally don’t make good art critics, it is possible to find helpful information in unexpected places. “The level of constructiveness of the feedback all depends on how you decide to interpret it,” multi-disciplinary artist Dan ‘Nuge’ Nguyen tells us. “Sometimes people can be nice in sugar-coating their feedback, and other times people who hide behind anonymity on the internet can be very blunt.
“At one point, I received a comment on one of my pictures basically saying, ‘This is boring. You just make the same stuff over and over. Unfollowed.’ It was very jarring for me to read that within a bunch of nice comments that were giving me pats on the back. But, sometimes, the comments that are the most hurtful can also be the most truthful. It took me a little while to process this comment, but I decided to use this opportunity to improve myself. From this one comment, I pivoted my craft and evolved.”