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Criticize VS. Critique: Is There Really A Difference?

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by Jeremy Rowland

If I were to say that your artwork looked like a cat dragged a hot iron across a dog’s face, what would you think? First, you would probably think that was a really stupid insult, and second, you would most likely wonder why I was criticizing you. I don’t even know you, for goodness’ sake!

But what if I said, “I think your overall composition shows great competence, but I feel that you may want to take a second look at your balance of values in the forehead and maybe correct the angle of the left eye.” Would you call me a washed up, good-for-nothing, know-it-all and part ways for good? Or would you recognize my critique for what it is—an opportunity for improvement?

There are two key words used in the above scenarios:  criticize and critique. These two words sound similar, and it seems that many people mistake one for the other. But if the first scenario leaves a person feeling like dirt and the second one allows for potential improvement, isn’t it important to understand the difference?

A conversation I had with artist Brenda Milstein got me thinking about this matter of semantics. Brenda lives in Brisbane, Australia. She was born into an artistic family; in fact, both of her parents were artists. For some reason or another, however, Brenda was always considered the proverbial black sheep. Her work was never considered true art and, in the eyes of her family, she was the child that just “doodled.”

This mentality followed Brenda, and for years she was convinced that she wasn’t capable of anything more than doodles. It wasn’t until after hip and back surgery had forced her to give up her favorite pastime of gardening that she re-evaluated her situation. “Once my children were grown up and it was retirement age, I thought, “Well, right now it’s me time,” says Brenda.

Brenda has spent the last several years honing her art skills, and in that time she has experienced both criticism and critique. At first, both were received in the same manner—coldly. The thought of someone telling her that something was wrong with the portrait she had spent so much time and energy on was hard for Brenda to accept. “I was very sensitive,” she shared, “and I still tend to be very sensitive and defensive. But with my art, I’m determined not to be, because I want to improve all the time.”

This is a common challenge among budding artists, and feelings of resistance to feedback often plague the more experienced artist, as well. The problem is that art is such a personal expression—an extension of who the artist is. From the subject chosen, to the style and techniques applied, the creator is reaching within for all of the necessary elements. For someone to question the result often feels like a direct attack. But can an analysis of your artwork actually be a positive experience?

These days, Brenda believes it most definitely can be. “Most people who tell you something, they tell you because they’ve seen it and want you to improve your work; they don’t want to put you down,” Brenda says. This is a sentiment she has had to learn over the years—one that hasn’t come easily. Now, as she becomes a more confident artist and is learning to differentiate between criticism and critique, she is realizing that others’ fear of seeming critical is actually a hindrance to her learning experience. “Most people will notice, but they don’t say anything because they’re scared to offend—that’s the tragedy of it. They think, ‘oh well, she’s better than me; how can I criticize?’ But it’s not criticizing, it’s critiquing!”

So if many artists can’t welcome a critique because of insecurity or sensitivity, and still others don’t want to offer a critique for fear of seeming critical—how is anyone supposed to improve? The key is in the approach. 

As you saw in my example of a critique above, the conversation started with affirmation. Begin by uplifting the artist and pointing out the good in his or her work. Be sure the artist knows that he or she is making progress of some sort. Then, tactfully point out areas that could use improving. It’s important at this point to use “I feel” statements, such as “I feel that the angle of the left eye is a bit too shallow.” And be specific! Phrases like “I don’t like the face” will only frustrate artists and leave them discouraged.

Now what if you’re on the receiving end of a critique? 

While working on a difficult drawing, Brenda’s 7-year-old granddaughter entered her studio. She looked at Brenda’s drawing and said, “Nana, I love your drawing, but you know that the chicken isn’t right.” Brenda graciously listened as her granddaughter explained, in her own 7-year-old way, that her proportions were off. She could have resented her granddaughter’s uneducated scrutiny, but instead she recognized the validity of her statement. From her point of view, she could see imperfections that Brenda was unable to see being so close to her drawing. By suspending judgment, Brenda capitalized on an opportunity to grow as an artist and to develop her character at the same time.

And maybe that’s the true key? Maybe the words don’t mean so much after all. Besides, a critique can be a criticism in disguise, and a criticism, when accepted as someone’s opinion and not a personal attack, can lead to improvement. If you can train yourself to see every encounter—whether critical or constructive—as an opportunity for growth, you can call it whatever you want.

You can see more of Brenda's work at the 5-Pencil Method Community.

Jeremy Rowland is editor for Senior Artist magazine and Director of Media Development at Happy Brain, Inc. He is a connoisseur of edible foods, an avid daydreamer, and has a hard time passing up an art museum.

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