Can you handle a little constructive criticism? How about a lot? How about so much that all you do is sit in a room and say nothing while everyone else talks about your work? If so, then congratulations, you have successfully mastered the skill of receiving constructive criticism (and would, or have, survived a college-level workshop). If not, then don’t worry. Just like giving constructive criticism is a skill that takes time and practice to learn, so too is receiving it.
If receiving any kind of criticism is hard for you, know you are not alone. We’re all human, and we all want to be good at what we do. The great thing about art is that you’re good at it simply by doing it. The essence of art is in the creation. If you created something, you did good art. Now, of course, art as we understand it also has “rules”. I.E. If you’re writing in Iambic Pentameter, then all your lines should be in Iambic Pentameter. How you react to someone pointing out that a line isn’t in Iambic Pentameter is what’s important, as well how you turn that point out into a positive change in your work.
Hopefully the kind of feedback you get on your work follows the guidelines I set up for giving constructive criticism in my last post. If not, these points can still be helpful, and I hope you’ll use them to find some positive outcomes from negative feedback.
Opinion VS Trend VS Fact: Gather all the fact
When it comes to receiving constructive criticism, the key ingredient is receiving a lot of it. It may sound scary, and that’s fair. It’s a lot easier to imagine being told what doesn’t work about your art from one person you trust than from a bunch of people (trusted or not). But at the end of the day, art is subjective. Even if you’re writing poetry in a specific rhythm, the one line where you don’t follow the rhythm could be a statement, and it could land well with some and not so well with others. The more feedback you receive, the easier a time you’ll have sorting out the difference between opinions, trends, and facts. And thus, the easier a time you’ll have improving your work to something more spectacular.
So, what is the difference between an opinion, a trend, and a fact?
Let’s start with the easy one: fact. A fact is something that relates to those “rules” art has. The one line in your Iambic Pentameter poem that doesn’t fit the rhythm. The horizon that falls above the proper ‘rules of third’ line in a photo. The one brushstroke that goes in the opposite direction of the others in a painting. Breaking these “rules” is a technique in and of itself. But if it’s not something you intended to do, and if it doesn’t add to the work overall, then it’s a fact that needs to be changed. Otherwise, it’s a fact that proves a point.
Now, opinion and trend are sort of the same thing. They’re both subjective. You write a story with a character that hates grapes but loves grape juice. You paint a monochromatic painting with just one object off in a different color. You create an abstract sculpture that curves in weird and unusual ways. You did all of these for a specific reason, none of them breaking any “rules” (or at least breaking them to make a point). You ask that one person you trust what they think about it. They don’t like it. Do you change everything you made because one person doesn’t like it? How do you know if that’s just their opinion or if the oddity is really detracting from the rest of the work?
You gather a lot of data, that’s how.
You should have as many people critique your work as you can get if you’re truly interested in improving it. (Art does not, by nature, need to be improved. If you’re happy with it, you’re happy with it. Only seek critique if you desire it). The more people you get feedback from, the more data you’ll have to sort through, and the more obvious the answers to your questions become.
If only a few people point something out, then they just share that opinion. If more than half of the responders point something out, it’s a trend, and you’ll want to look back at it and consider if it’s worth altering.
It’s important to know the difference between trend and opinion. Everyone who views your work will have a different opinion. And I guarantee you that at least one person somewhere (but most likely more) will not like something about it. But that’s their opinion. And if you changed every little thing, to match every person’s opinion, you’d never be finished, and you’d be going back and forth between options for all of eternity.
It’s not you, it’s your work.
Receiving critique can be especially hard if you also battle with rejection sensitivity. Even if you don’t, it’s still difficult to hear what seems off in something you did. I’m a subscriber to the notion that people want to be good at what they do. So, when something crops up that challenges your work, it’s easy to take it personally.
Not taking something personally is easier said than done, I know.
But if you think about constructive criticism in the right frame of mind, then it’s easier than you’d think.
Hopefully whoever is giving you feedback is well versed in the skill of it. Getting feedback from a quality source is the first step, as the overall set-up for constructive criticism is based around solid ideas that relate to your work, not your person. If not, these tips will still help keep you centered as you prepare to go into the lion’s den.
- Remember you want to get better.
Chances are, you’ve gone seeking constructive criticism for your work. Theoretically, this means you are seeking feedback that will help improve the quality of what you did/made. If your reasoning for asking for constructive criticism was not that (such as simply wanting to share something you made or fishing for compliments) then I suggest you first rephrase your request.
If you are genuinely looking to improve, just keep that in the back of your mind as you read (or hear) what everyone has to say. They are there to help you. They are there to help your work. They are there to make things better.
- Take a hot minute
Never respond to critique right away. Just don’t do it. The brain’s natural first response to a critique is going to be bad, no matter how good you are at receiving it. You will most likely want to argue against some things, or go off on something else. This is okay. This is normal. But this is not what should be used to handle revisions. Because then nothing will change.
Before you respond to feedback or start working on changing things, take a step away, do some deep breathing, distract yourself with something else for a little while. When you do come back to it, your head will be in a better space. You will be removed from your brain’s initial response mode and will be able to see what really does need arguing, and what was rightfully said that your brain just didn’t want to admit at the start. And being in a calmer state of mind will also help keep your conversations with your critiquers civil, thus preserving that relationship.
- Separate the art from the artist
Yes, that means you from your work. Another thing that’s easier said than done. It seems impossible to create a work of art and not put a bit of your heart and soul into it. That’s the point of art. But it’s important to recognize that that little piece of your heart and soul is not you. It’s a tiny, microscopic part of you that broke off and grew into its own being. If it grew a little funky or lopsided, that doesn’t mean the piece of you was wrong, that’s just how it grew.
Another way to look at it is that your art is a reflection of you, but the critique is in the building of the mirror. If the image is distorted, that’s because the glass is off. You aren’t distorted. A critique on your work is about the craft. Not the idea. Not the passion. Not the creativity. But the process. Art is a skill that is always growing. And you can only learn what’s best, by learning what isn’t.
You are never done growing, but you will slow down.
The last piece of wisdom I leave you with is simple. Art is a skill that is always growing, and you will never be done growing. You can make art for 100 years, and read every craft book, and study every classic, and still have something to learn. What’s important to keep in mind, especially for newer artists, is that the learning curve does level off, it just doesn’t stop.
You will learn a lot when you start off. Your constructive criticism could be pages long of all the things that need work. It will be daunting. But you will reach a point where you’ve learned more and practiced more and have become skilled.
And for the veteran artists out there, reality check: There will always be something you don’t know. There will always be a way something could have been done better. Your art will never be perfect. Someone will always have a critique. And with enough practice, you’ll take it like a pro.