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Panel Discussion: The Insightful Critique

How do you critique a painting? What can you do to get more from critiques? How can you critique your own work? On February 21, 2004 at the Los Altos Library, SCVWS sponsored a panel discussion featuring four local artists who are oftened called on for critiques and show juries. The discussion was moderated by SCVWS President Cindy Blain. Since SCVWS members have been showing increased interest in forming critique groups, the discussion is summarized below.

SCVWS would like to thank our distinguished panelists for their invaluable advice: Barbara Abbott, Mike Bailey, Millie Bishop and Charlotte Britton.

Ground rules and diplomacy: How do you approach a critique? What is the goal?

  • Wait to be asked. A critique is only helpful if the artist actually wants the information. Be helpful and encouraging. Think in terms of feedback, not criticism.
  • Limit suggestions to one or two at a time. Always begin and end your comments with a positive statement, even if it is a recognition of effort or enthusiasm.
  • Knowing the artist's goals will help you address the right issues. Barbara distinguished between critique as a general evaluation and troubleshooting, which addresses a specific question or problem.
  • Tailor suggestions to the individual. Even in classrooms, not everyone is at the same level and ready to benefit from the same information.
  • Avoid matters of taste and make it clear that the comments are just a piece of an overall possibility.
  • The value of a critique is that it can be objective. A critique can offer a fresh pair of eyes and see weaknesses and possible solutions that are hard to see in our own work.

What attitude should the artist being critiqued bring to the critique?

  • The artist should actually want the critique. If you don't want the feedback or are not ready for it, don't feel that you must participate. Be receptive.
  • Speak up if they are on the wrong track.
  • Critique can also be useful for a body of work; the critiquer can respond with general areas for extra effort or study. The 1-2 comments on a particular painting may be atypical and so be less helpful.
  • Don't be upset by comments or take them personally. Try to separate yourself from the painting.
  • Be aware of what the person knows and whether they are a good choice for you. Choose someone whose work you admire or whose opinions you appreciate.
  • Critiques can be subjective. The artist should listen to what is offered and use what they want. Or you may want to make another painting, trying their suggestions

How does one critique a painting when one is at a loss as to what to say or the painter is a very new beginner?

  • Look for something good to say.
  • Don't offer a critique before the artist is ready and the painting is ready for finishing touches.
  • Work with the formal elements; that keeps it from being personal. Remember that good does not equal appealing. You may find a painting appealing and still have critiques.
  • Complement courage, hardwork, etc.
  • Stall by asking what they want to say. Then discuss how they can communicate.

How can one critique friends' artwork (when they ask) and stay friends?

  • Avoid it. Wait to be asked.
  • Troubleshooting is okay. It addresses one specific issue that they ask you to help them with. It involves a discussion and the answer doesn't involve emotional content.

How do you work when judging for a show?

  • One approach is to look at all of the paintings and pick the best first, the ones that are clearly the best. These are award winners. Then remove those and review the others, adding to the list on successive passes until the show is full.
  • Slide jury is better when there is one pass before the judging starts to get a feel for the overall quality and subjects.
  • An alternative is to turn over the poorest and eliminate others until the show is the right size.
  • A third alternative: Walk through first. Then get away and see what you remember. Remove those and do it again.
  • Copying is an increasing problem. Judges learn to watch for the "too good to be true".
  • It is important not to be prejudiced by subject.
  • Focus on formal principles.

Critiquing emotional elements:
Should you critique emotional elements of a painting?
If so, how do you critique formal elements versus emotional elements?
"Authentic" is a word one hears with respect to critiquing: what do you think 'authentic' means and how do you gauge it?

  • You cannot separate emotional elements from the formal elements, because the idea has to be supported by the formal elements.
  • Authentic painting is having a style and not painting in someone else's style.
  • Content is about passion. We need to be drawn to a subject.

If they ask for the truth, what do you do?

  • Give it to them.
  • Give positives and suggestions. Don't be cruel.

How do you critique yourself?

  • Look at paintings done in other media. You will see more looking at someone else's work, but we are too connected to other watercolorists.
  • Walk away for a while. When you come back, the first glimpse will be like a first look. In the studio, have an easel facing the door so you see it as you enter.
  • Use a mirror. Turn it upside down.
  • It depends on the objective. Define well what you are trying to do. You won't need as much critique.
  • Use the formal elements as needed to get to the goal.

What about critique groups?

  • Written comments without names can be taken home for review. The let people be more honest and give the artist time to think about the suggestions. You get more ideas and you can see if there is a pattern of comments.
  • It is important that no one person dominate the group, especially if those are the less capable people.
  • If people are too nice, the group won't work. If the only comments are complimentary, there is no information to help you improve.
  • A structure for critique based on the formal elements can help.
  • A group dissipates the directness and makes it less personal.
  • It is an incentive to work. You can be inspired by what other people see in the painting. It can also be a source of new techniques and ideas.
  • Associate with people at the level you want to be. They will pull you up.

The Panelists

Barbara Abbott

Barbara was a Professor of Art at Louisiana State University & University of Pennsylvania at Edinboro and taught watercolor, 2D design, painting, color theory, sculpture and printmaking.

In Louisiana, she was a Juror for state art grants (individual artists and projects)
As the Gallery manager at LSU, she organized regional juried exhibits, managed selection of, and a national search for, artists to show in the gallery. She has exhibited watercolor paintings for over 30 years in many solo and group exhibitions, winning numerous awards. She's lived in Utah, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and now California.

Besides her painting, Barbara also creates large artwork for Public Art Commissions - her public art pieces have been commissioned by the city of San Jose, Santa Cruz and Shreveport, Louisiana -the latter funded through a National Endowment for the Arts Grant. She has her BFA and MFA…her MFA is in printmaking. Barbara's work is represented at the Winters Gallery in Carmel.

Mike Bailey

While long attracted to art, Mike did the sensible thing and got his BS in Engineering & Business. In 1988, Mike began to paint as a hobby, but then got serious about studying art and began reading a lot of books and taking a lot of workshops. For the past several years, Mike has taught "Watercolor Beyond the Obvious" for the University of California Santa Cruz Extension program and since last year, through the watercolor society. Mike shows his work at festivals, private showings, open studios and galleries occasionally.

Mike is an active and prolific painter, who is in his studio almost daily. As he says to his students, "Even if the muse doesn't show up, you're there". In Mike's words: "I live a life that most people dream of. I travel to Europe to paint, have wonderful artist friends, show and sell my work and have a fabulous home life."

Milly Bishop

Milly is a signature member of the Society of Western Artists. She is also a member of Allied Artists West, a group of professional artists who exhibit together here in the valley. Milly is a past leader of this watercolor society.

Besides teaching and giving critiques, Milly has been a juror for many Bay Area art exhibits by groups like the Los Altos Art Club, the San Carlos Art Group and Society of Western Artists. She has participated in over 50 group exhibits, receiving many awards and had several solo shows as well. Her BA is in Education with a minor in Art, while Milly has continued her art education via lots of workshops. Milly also offers critiques in a one-on-one situation.

Charlotte Britton

Charlotte is a signature member of the American Watercolor Society, the National Watercolor Society and the California Watercolor Society, and has received awards from all three groups.

Charlotte has taught watercolor since 1973, and will return to Italy in 2005 for her 10th session of teaching with LaRomita Workshops and is currently organizing a group painting trip to Holland and Bruges in Belgium this spring. Her painting trip to Spain with a group of fellow painters was featured in the Winter 2002 issue of Watercolor Magazine. Her work has also been featured in earlier issues of Watercolor, Watercolor Magic, and she is included in several books on watercolor. Her paintings are on display at The Painter's Place in Larkspur, the Main Street Gallery in Pleasanton, and Art & Soul in Alameda.