The 4 Types of Critiques

At the Meet & Greet over the weekend, the subject of critiques came up.  I had been wanting to write on critiques for quite some time, because as a model, you have to be able to handle a critique quite well, or you risk burnout and ego destruction.  However, I’ve been struggling with exactly how to write that blog.  But then a few of us had a conversation on being constructive when critiquing, and I figured that would be a good topic to write on first, especially because it’s something all members of the modeling world deal with, no matter what facet of the industry you’re in.

As I see it, there are 4 different types of critiques: the Unhelpful, the Unicorns & Rainbows, the I’ll Do Your Job For You, and the Constructive.  As someone who makes their living as a creative, as well as being a hobbyist model, I’ve been at the receiving end of all 4 of these kinds of critiques before, and have been from the time I was a kid taking art classes after school.  I’ve also been on the delivering end of most of them as well.

The Unhelpful Critique
This kind of critique is when the criticizer simply tells the artist “I don’t like this” or “this sucks”, without giving a reason or a suggestion as to what can be improved.  Generally speaking, it’s a rather harmful critique as all it really does is damage the criticized party’s ego, without guiding them on improving their work.

That said, it’s not always a critique that’s given with bad intentions.  Sometimes, the critic might honestly not know how to improve a piece–either they don’t have the knowledge to express what needs to be changed, or they might honestly be at a loss for words.  In the latter case, this may mean scrapping the project and starting again, because that’s what needs to be done.

As someone who’s being critiqued, this type of critique is often very frustrating to receive.  Knowing something isn’t good, but not knowing what it is you need to do to improve it is a huge challenge.  Sometimes, it means just stepping back and looking at your art and asking questions.  Largely, the best question to ask is, “what is the ultimate goal of this piece?” because knowing what it is you want the viewer to take away, and making sure you’ve succeeded in that, is helpful.  It may also help to take a break from that piece of art, and work on something completely different for a bit, and then come back to it.  Taking a step away from something, and then revisiting it, might help you see it in a new light.

As a critic, this can be a hard critique to give as well.  Sometimes, you know something isn’t right, but you’re not quite sure what it is about it that’s off.  Of course, saying that instead of just saying “this blows” is helpful in itself, to some degree, but yea.  It can be hard to articulate, especially at first look, what’s wrong with a piece.  I find that thinking out loud can help both the critic and the artist.

The Unicorns & Rainbows Critique
The Unicorns & Rainbows critique is the opposite of the Unhelpful in the sense that the critic raves about how wonderful the piece is, and can’t find anything in it that needs to be changed or improved.  This one could also be called the Mom Critique, because many mothers are notorious for thinking their kids produce the best work out there 😉

It’s rare that a finished piece is entirely perfect, and sometimes, the artist needs to know what it is that’s not right about it (especially if they’re having second thoughts about it, or it is something different from what they normally produce).  Getting a Unicorns & Rainbows critique can be frustrating if you’re serious about hearing what it is about your work that needs to be improved upon.  If you just want to hear how great you are, or can’t handle being told you and your work aren’t perfect, then this is the critique for you!

The I’ll Do Your Job For You Critique
This is, largely, a harmful critique as well.  In an I’ll Do Your Job For You critique, the critic literally tells the creator what they need to do to improve their piece, and in media where it’s doable, the critic may even pick up a brush (or pencil, tablet pen, whatever) and literally do the work.

When discussing critiques, I recalled a painting I’d done when I was a kid (7 years old, I believe).  It was a beautiful still life of a vase of flowers, and my parents framed it and hung it in their house.  And yet, instead of being proud of it, all I could do was look at it with disdain, because it wasn’t wholly my work, and I felt like a fake having it framed and having my parents be proud of me for painting it.  Why?  Because at one point, I was struggling with shading one flower, and when I finally decided to ask for the art instructor’s help, she came over.  But instead of saying “hey, you can try shading that pale yellow with other colors, instead of just trying purple like the color wheel says you should”, she picked up my brush, mixed a few colors, and shaded my flower for me.  She did my job, instead of guiding me by giving me an idea, and thus the tool to do it myself.

An I’ll Do Your Job For You critique is essentially the same thing.  Telling someone exactly what they need to do to fix their work not only robs them of the tool they would learn by figuring it out themselves, but it also takes away their creativity by turning their vision into someone else’s.

The Constructive Critique
This is the most helpful kind of critique.  In a Constructive critique, the critic not only says, “I don’t like this” but tells the artist what he or she doesn’t like about it.  In a photograph, it might be, “the lighting is a little off” or “the pose isn’t that strong” or “the colors are a little washed out”.   Note that the help doesn’t come in the form of actually outlining what needs to be done to fix the shot, but instead simply states what the critic finds wrong with the shot.  This gives the artist a chance to analyze how to fix the issue, which helps them grow as an artist, which is really what a critique should do.

Sometimes, there can be a fine line between a Constructive and an I’ll Do Your Job For You critique.  Telling a new photographer, for example, that they need to use a reflector to lessen the harsh shadows on a model’s face is cutting out some of the guesswork when it comes to lightening the shadows, but it also still leaves them room to figure out where to place the reflector, how to hold it, and otherwise troubleshoot the problem.  That’s a good thing.  If you were on the shoot, however, and you just grabbed a reflector and said, “use this” and then placed and held the reflector for them, then you’ve just done the thinking for them, and the work needed to fix the problem.  That’s bad.  As a critic, it falls on you to know where the line lies, and make sure you don’t cross it.

Best way to serve a critique? The Critique Sandwich
In addition to these 4 types of critiques, there’s also what some call the Critique Sandwich.  This is when someone gives a critique in a format that’s generally “something positive, something negative (or sometimes, a few negative things), something positive”.  Usually, teachers use it so as not to totally bruise the egos of their students, because it starts and ends with a complement of their work.  Often, it’s a good way to give an overall critique.

So there you have it.
My thoughts on critiques 🙂

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4 Responses to “The 4 Types of Critiques”

  1. I am very glad to have read this. Although I am a professional photographer, I also conduct aviation education workshops for teachers around the country. Many times during my workshops, I have to assist the attendees in using charts, flight planning, etc. I have been sometimes guilty of using the “I’ll do your job for you critique.” I can rationalize my way out of it by saying that time during the workshops is short so I have to pitch in. But that does not make it right.

    Most of the time, I use your “Constructive technique”. That approach seems to have evolved for me over the 35 years of classroom experience I have.

    You have so beautifully explained criticism from your point of view. Believe me when I say you made a real impression upon me and I truly hope to avoid the critiques that are not helpful, but hold people back.

    Thanks for the time you spent on this article!

  2. Thanks for the feedback, Richard! I’m glad you liked the article 🙂

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