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Carousel 006: Judging Criticism

Criticism! The artist's bête noire!

Whether you're a hobbyist or aiming to draw professionally, the criticism your work receives can help you improve. Some artists flatly avoid reviews of their work, worrying that praise or criticism will throw them off track ... but this is like a marksman refusing to look at his target after firing. How will you know your work is nearing the bullseye if you never check? Far from throwing you off, a good critique will help you understand where you are in relation to your goals: how far you've come, and in what direction you need to move to get where you're going.

The difficulty, of course, is in separating good criticism from bad. Many of the reactions people have to your work will be wrong-headed, and if you listen to all of them, your work will be pulled around like taffy, making you miserable. To sort fruitfully through the crits I receive, I find it useful to divide them into three categories:

1."Correctness" criticisms are the most common kind you'll receive, and are poison. The last time a criticism of your work left you with a sinking, hopeless feeling, it was probably a "correctness" crit. These criticisms point out flaws in your work that are largely irrelevant to the point you were trying to make. Consider this (fictional) example: "Gary Larson's Far Side drawings fail miserably to capture the glamour of the '80s. He's a poor substitute for my favorite artist, Patrick Nagel." This critique correctly perceives a lack of glamour in Larson's cartoons, but it misses the point that glamour was never his goal.

What's especially insidious about this sort of criticism is that it often identifies shortcomings that are genuine and worth addressing, but it blows them out of proportion, as though they've ruined your work, rather than merely hampering it. The fact is that ANY work of art, by any artist, no matter how good, can be criticized for failing in some small way or another. The question we must ask ourselves of a work isn't, "Is it perfect?," but rather, "Is it EFFECTIVE?"

2. "Potency" criticisms are much harder to come by, and are golden. These criticisms recognize the apparent goals of your work, and point out where you're missing those goals, sometimes suggesting ways to meet them more effectively. We're often already aware when our work isn't succeeding as well as it should; a potency criticism just acknowledges that fact, and points us toward a solution. Your response to such criticisms will probably resemble your response to having a thorn out: initial pain, followed by increasing relief and optimism. "Ahh ... I KNEW Lady Moonchild's hair should be bigger! She'll FINALLY look like the queen of elf metal!" This sort of criticism will actually be a source of encouragement when you next sit down to your work, because you'll feel that it's helping you meet your goals.

3. "Truckloads of Crack" criticisms are those which suggest the critic has been smoking truckloads of crack. These criticisms don't merely miss the point, but appear wildly at odds with reality. Consider, for example, these actual reactions to some of the best-drawn comics of all time:

"The art in this comic is just plain horrible .... I can only think the guy was a first-year art student." ~of Jorge Zaffino's Punisher: Kingdom Gone

"The short part drawn by Alex Toth looks pretty bad." ~of Alex Toth's Torpedo

"The biggest letdown, I felt, was the artwork...the graphics seemed very amateurish and sloppy." ~of David Mazzucchelli's Batman: Year One

Lapses of taste aren't the only way crits can fall into this category. Sometimes you'll find a critic complaining that there were too few backgrounds in a comic replete with backgrounds, or that there was too much dialogue in a comic that was virtually silent, or that it was "too this" or "too that" despite objective evidence to the contrary. (I was once criticized for not showing a character often enough, even though she had died in a previous issue.)

It should go without saying that you ought to ignore criticisms that are completely out of touch with your work and its merits. But unfortunately, this does need to be said. There's a strange impulse among artists to let even the silliest criticisms gnaw at our minds. "Maybe they're right?" we're tempted to think. "Maybe including backgrounds in 6 out of 7 panels wasn't enough?" This category is here to help you resist that temptation. Deposit any criticisms that smack of massive crack smokage into the "Truckloads of Crack" category, and forget about them.

There's also an important distinction to recognize between "criticism" and what I call "feedback." Criticism entails thoughtful insights (good or bad!) into the work: a diagnosis of its flaws or merits. Feedback, on the other hand, is less thoughtful or precise—it's more of a vague, gut-level reaction to the work. (Common examples of feedback would be phrases like, "I loved it!" Or, "I hated it!") Both feedback and criticism can be positive or negative, and either can be useful or useless; the difference is that one is vague, the other precise.

I've seen some artists dismiss all "feedback," on the basis that if it isn't explicit and constructive, then it should be ignored. The problem with this approach is that MOST of the responses your work receives will be of the feedback variety. Few readers have sufficient time or perspicacity to give you insightful, constructive criticism. So, if you refuse to consider vague feedback, you'll miss out on the majority of the responses to your work, leaving yourself with a huge blind spot.

The key is to develop an instinct for feedback, the way you do when interpreting the wants of a pet or a baby. Look for trends in the feedback you receive. When does it wax or wan? When does it turn negative or positive? What might have changed in your work to change the kind of feedback you're receiving, or to change the kinds of readers who choose to respond? Sensitivity to the circumstances under which you receive feedback can help you interpret those vague "love-its" and "hate-its." Eventually, you'll develop a ear for your readership's inarticulate voice.

Judging critiques and feedback can be difficult, but if you're thoughtful about it, doing so will help you "Marco/Polo" your way toward the work that says what you want it to say, and with the greatest impact.

Good luck, and see you here next month!

Carousel by Jesse Hamm appears the second Tuesday of each month here on Toucan!