Wednesday, 17 July 2013

postheadericon There Will Always be Someone who Hates Your Art - A Tutorial on Criticism and How to Deal With It (Part 1)

If you can't handle criticism, don't become an artist.

I've said this more than once in my life, and will likely say it more in the future. A lot of people who delve into this field cannot take a lick of criticism, whether good or bad. In the context of Second Life, I've seen merchants who would rather shut down their businesses and remove themselves from the grid entirely, than taking criticism gracefully and working to improve. Many simply ignore the criticism and do not improve, nor change (and then complain about the fact that they don't sell anything). Others cannot come to grips with the idea that no matter what they do, there will be someone, somewhere, who will dislike their work.

These two particular facts can be spread like Vegemite across all mediums:
  1. There will always be someone who does better work than you.
  2. There will always be someone who hates your art.

The only useful thing "Art School" ever taught me was how to deal with criticism - the good kind, and the bad kind. How to identify meaningful critiques and how to deal with the useless criticisms that make you want to curl up under a rock until the universe comes to an end.

We've all been there. You've worked hard on a project - whether it be a painting, a 3D model, a piece of writing, a business pitch, a store display, or a new shed in your backyard - that you feel nothing but immense pride for. You've been "in the zone" for days now, working as hard as you can, perfecting and tweaking and doing everything you can to make this the best work you've ever done, to the absolute best of your ability. Quite frankly, it's taken you so long that you're surprised you finally finished it. It's been a work-in-progress for such a long time that you thought it might never get done; but, you took your time. You didn't cut corners. You spent precious effort and creativity on something you - perhaps, inadvertently - stuck a piece of your very soul into.

You stand back, admiring your finished work. You absolutely cannot find a single thing wrong with it - we'll come back to this later - and you absolutely cannot wait to show it off to your friends, call over your supervisor or get it up on the market. You're absolutely sure this will be a hit. People will love it. You'll be rich!

And then, it happens. Some person (whoever they think they are) comes up behind you, takes one look at your precious paragon piece of perpetual perfection, and goes:

"Wow. What a piece of crap."

"Looks stupid. Do it over."

"This looks half-assed."


The downward spiral of self-loathing begins. Suddenly, what you were so immensely proud of before becomes little to nothing of importance. It's no longer "perfect", or "good" or even "acceptable". It's bad. You're bad, and you should feel bad.

That little piece of your soul - you know, the one you so carefully placed in your work - has been completely obliterated. Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.

Suddenly, nothing you've ever done is good enough. Your self-esteem has taken a trip over the falls of contention, with no viable way to climb back up. You lick your wounded ego and attempt to put on a brave expression as you face the world as a being of mediocrity. You feel as if you'll never, ever get better.

People might tell you to ignore criticism, if it hurts your feelings. While this might be good advice in some cases and certainly not the case overall, this mere fact still stands: you'll never get better at what you do, if you don't listen to criticism.

That said, before I get into actually identifying and utilizing good criticism, I'm going to address a more immediate, pressing issue. One that's a far more common, knee-jerk reaction - susceptible to abuse far above and beyond any sense of common humility.

Bad Criticism

Bad criticism exists, and it exists everywhere. Everyone has been poorly criticized at least once. Everyone has given poor criticism, at least once. I've seen countless people give droves of poor criticism. From industry professionals, to professors, to students, to everyone in between. It is a shameful, shameful thing for both parties involved. In a perfect world, bad criticism would not exist; unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world, and the key to handling all forms of criticism is hidden away in the depths of dealing with bad criticism.

Traits of Bad Criticism:
  • The critique is flippant, short and emotionally driven.
  • It evaluates your work without giving reason for the evaluation.
  • The statement fails to give a suggestion as to how the work may be fixed, or gives a poor statement on how the work 'should' be fixed.
  • The criticism itself is targeted inappropriately.
All four critical statements given earlier, by themselves, are perfect examples of bad criticism. They are simply reactive statements, with nothing to support their point of view. They do not help that which they are criticizing. They do not point out any actual problem with the work - just that, the work itself is a problem for some ambiguous, omnipresent reason.

1. The critique is flippant, short and emotionally driven.

This is fairly self-explanatory. It's obvious that when a trite, short, negative comment is applied to a critique without adequate, meaningful support - it's often to deface, to harm, and to hurt. These are really the comments that should be ignored the most, not because they may hurt your feelings, but because they are the most useless criticisms. You cannot make any use of these criticisms.

Example: "This is stupid. I hate it."
                  "Because it's stupid and I hate it."

If all an individual can provide is this sort of critique, they should not be taken seriously. Feel free to completely disregard this form of criticism. It's likely the individual who expressed this sort of critique can't articulate why they think your work "sucks", anyway. There is no use asking.

2. It evaluates your work without giving reason for the evaluation.

Example: "This design is so amateur and tasteless."
                  "How is it amateur and tasteless?"
                  "It just is."

A lot of criticism does not make sense without some sort of driving factor for that criticism. Surely, there are plenty of people who may not like your work and they don't know why, but that just makes it another form of useless criticism. Without reasoning behind the criticism, you have no way to gauge how to improve or alter your work in order to make it better. It creates an unstable opinion - you have no grounds on which to support the your work, so that you may view it objectively through the perspective of the viewer.

3. The statement fails to give a suggestion as to how the work may be fixed, or gives a very poor statement on how the work 'should' be fixed.

This sort of critique carries a thin line between what makes it bad and what makes it good.

While not a requirement in terms of good critique, the inappropriate addition or subtraction of certain statements can certainly help with transforming this into bad critique.

Individuals will often encounter this sort of useless criticism while working under a clueless or psychotic employer. An artist will finish a piece to the employer's perceived specifications, hand in the finished work and get it back with a "Trash this and do it over." note attached to it. At first, you'd think this was a perfectly reasonable thing - except they don't give you any information on how they would like it to be fixed. (Unless you're a mind-reader - of course, it's often assumed you have semi-phenomenal, nearly-cosmic powers in the first place.)

You can't really blame a clueless employer for not really knowing what they want and not really knowing how to articulate what they want; however, when you're employed under someone who claims to have been in the business for several decades, a critique like this is a sign that you need to find another job. Fast.

People need to keep in mind that individuals have a limited capacity for creativity. Something may be amiss, and the creator cannot see it, but someone with equal ability or a good eye may be able to pick out a detail that needs fixing. Sometimes an onlooker may just have a good suggestion that could be added to the work that you'd simply never thought of before.

Individuals must handle critiques wherein the criticism exemplifies how the work "should" be fixed - as in, being told a work must be like "this" or like "that" to suit an individual's agenda or personal viewpoints/tastes - very carefully.
There is no "should" when an individual critiques your work to the point of hijacking the final vision of your idea - especially without good reason to.

Here are both Good/Bad examples of this form of critique:

Poor Critique:

You create a work about apples. An individual comes along, and critiques your work, citing that you should have used oranges instead of apples. When asked why you should have used oranges, instead of apples, the answer sounds something like this: "Oranges are better. I like oranges more."

You don't necessarily want to pay attention to the Poor Critique in the instance of your personal work. If someone can't give you a good reason to change the apples to oranges, outside of personal taste, there is no reason to take it seriously.
People who critique in this manner may, once in awhile, be correct as to how to improve your work overall - but don't feel you need to take their word as law. Keep it in mind for next time. Don't feel you need to take this sort of critique if you do not feel right about it. Use your own discretion.

Now, there is an exception to the Poor Critique. This is the sort of critique you want if you're working on a project beneath an employer. This shows they know what they want, and they are giving you feedback on how to fix it - granted, this doesn't mean their design choice is intrinsically correct, or they aren't being unreasonable (bright pink text on a neon green background, anyone?) - it just means that they are giving appropriate feedback. 

Good Critique:

You create a work about apples. An individual comes along, and critiques your work, suggesting that perhaps you add a pear. When asked why you should add a pear to the work, the answer sounds something like this: "I think the pear might create an interesting shape contrast beside the apples."

Always take the Good Critique of this type into consideration. Always. It will help you look at your work in different ways. Many times I've had good critiques of this form that have exceedingly improved my work.

4. The criticism itself is targeted inappropriately.

I can't even count the times I've received poor reviews and feedback that were targeted towards me but focusing on something that was completely beyond my control or disregarding something clearly stated in the advertisement.

Most Second Life merchants can relate to a bad review on a product because the product delivery system did not deliver all pieces of a product - or didn't deliver the product at all. The customer did not contact you about it and decided to leave a seething review, even though you would have gladly assisted them with redelivery. Sometimes products don't work correctly, due to the platform they are running on. Sometimes things do not rez correctly - not because the product is poor, but because an individual is running an outdated computer system or a simulator is so packed nothing loads right.

Obviously, the criticism for these sorts of things is largely misguided. You see this form of criticism a lot in general, in the gaming industry. Many times, half-finished and buggy games are released - not due to the lack of skill on the developer's part, or their inability to create a complete game, but because the publisher does not give them the time to appropriately complete the product before launch.

This sort of criticism is the poorest and most useless of all. Never feel bad about criticism relating to things you cannot directly control.

Now, on to the positive stuff.

Good Criticism

I often find that Good Criticism gets a bad rap due to the reactions of artists that are sheltered and coddled into thinking everything they create is a gift from the apex of some heavenly kingdom. You know exactly the sort of people I'm talking about. You've all met one - and if you haven't, you probably are one - or maybe you're both!

These artists consider any comment directed at their work that is not compliment or praise to be Bad Criticism. It doesn't matter if a fellow, much-more-experienced artist is attempting to explain to them how to properly light their scene, or how to properly draw hair, or how to manage composition - it's bad. Incorrect proportions? No way, that's just their "style"! Can't draw the human form? Not like they'd have to draw people as a professional artist!* Never learned realism? Doesn't matter! They're going to draw manga!**

*I'm looking at you, furry artists.
**It used to be Disney. Now it's manga/anime.

Good Criticism isn't there to harm you. It's there to help you develop your ability as an artist. If you think you don't need to learn anything new, or constructive criticism does not apply to you? You are the individual who needs criticism the most.

So how does one identify Good Criticism?

Traits of Good Criticism:

  • The critique is viable within the boundaries of the work.
  • It is honest, objective or acceptably subjective - it focuses on what can be reasonably fixed.
  • Well-articulated and self-aware.
Any good reader will notice right off the bat that these traits do not indicate any level of positive or negative content to the criticism. Plenty of criticism that sounds like it could be bad, can actually be good - as long as the core of the criticism is constructive. You should be able to use the criticism and apply it to the work. The traits listed above ensure that a piece of criticism is constructive and usable.

1. The critique is viable within the boundaries of the work.

Say you're creating an image of a woman riding a horse. You draw the horse well, and you draw most of the woman well, but you have issues drawing the hands, feet and face. You work on them for hours, and finally come up with a result that you like. You post the image to a website, hoping to get immediate praise and feedback. Here are four critiques you recieve:
  1. "I like the horse, but you need to work on drawing people. She looks kind of deformed. For this picture, you should erase the girl entirely and keep the horse."
  2. "The hands are too big, and the feet are only partially drawn. The foot should be as long as the forearm, and the hand should be about the size of her face. It's no biggie, lots of people have problems with hands and feet. It can get easier if you learn proportions. Let me send you a few tutorials, they really helped me."
  3. "If you can't draw hands and feet cover them up with things. Make it so that her head is turned so you only see her hair. Cover her hands with the horse's mane, and give her a long dress to cover her feet."
  4. "There isn't anything to establish the foreground. Put some bushes or a tree in front."
Now, all of these critiques could 'fix' the work, in some way. Some of these critiques are worse than others, but there is only one critique in this list that is completely appropriate.

Can you guess?

That's right. The second one. It's the only critique that works to improve what is already there, instead of trying to alter the artist's vision of the image overall. It's also providing information on how to change it, and (as a bonus!) gives resources on how to do so. By listening to the 2nd critique, the artist can improve their work and get better at it, instead of giving up, covering up, or giving in.

Certainly, there is a time and place to use techniques expressed in critique 3 & 4, but these should largely be limited to suggestion with a following reason.

Which brings me to the second trait:

2. It is honest, objective or acceptably subjective - it focuses on what can be reasonably fixed.

There is a large difference between a subjective critique, and an objective critique.

In the previous section, critique number four would be considered a subjective critique. The image may or may not need more depth - perhaps the artist did not want to put trees and bushes in the way. Subjective critiques often point out things that are of a personal viewpoint or taste, but may or may not be a bad critique in essence.

Let's make number four a better subjective critique:

"Something that I can suggest, if you want to give the image more depth, is to put something in the foreground. Placing a bush or a tree there can make the image look more three-dimensional."

This is all someone needs in terms of suggestively improving a piece, within reason. It's subjective, but still helpful and reasonable. The only problem with a critique like this, is that it is not a critique that focuses on something solid within the work. It only holds merit

Foremost, the best sort of critique is certainly an objective critique. Let's use critique number 2 again as an example:

"The hands are too big, and the feet are only partially drawn. The foot should be as long as the forearm, and the hand should be about the size of her face."

This specifically talks about a part of the work that needs to be attended to, instead of simply hinting at something that isn't there.

Note that both examples are also within applicable reason. These things can be fixed easily. Even the subjective critique is an easy addition to the image. Suggesting the image be altered so that the horse is a grizzly bear and the woman is a gnome wearing a sock for a hat - while awesome in theory - is not within reason.

3. Well-articulated and self-aware.

A good critique is well-thought-out and well-spoken. It is aware that it is a critique, offers different opinions, and ideally encourages as much as it criticizes. When you criticize someone's work, keep in mind that you're speaking to a human being, and applying personal viewpoints to something that is not your own. When you're being criticized, keep in mind that you are listening to a human being - they can only give so much in the way of applicable criticism.

In other words, the criticism should really know what it's talking about.

Let's use number 3 from the list as an example this time. This is actually a very poor critique, as it suggests the individual themselves is not a very good artist - instead of sticking with, and learning something new to fix the problem (learning how to draw hands/feet), they give stagnant advice: they suggest that parts of the image should be purposefully 'covered up' and 'hidden'.

While this is good advice in some situations, it shouldn't be made into a habit. Here's a much better way to word that critique:

"A trick some artists use when they're just starting out is using parts of the environment, clothes, and hair to strategically cover parts of the image they can't draw well. They have the face turned away from the image, to keep from drawing faces. They cover the feet with cloth and stick hands in pockets. It's a good temporary solution, and you could use it in this image, here, but you really need to practice and learn how to draw hands and feet properly."

(cont. in Part 2)