Let’s be blunt and get it out of the way. Despite my drawing practices, my cows aren’t looking any better, and this one’s head looks more like it belongs on an opossum than a bovine.
There’s so much wrong with this picture, I’d hardly know where to begin if asked to explain. Besides the cow with a face that only a mother cow could love, the foreground is splotchy and overworked, the background is a mish-mash of colors, the rock near the front edge is distracting — that’s that bright, white blob — and the overall execution is poor, indeed.
But, you know what? I’m glad I did this painting. No, I don’t like it. But I like the fact that I was bold enough and adventurous enough to give this a try.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the critique process, and understanding more than ever how important it is for us to look at our paintings with a critical eye. At least, that’s where my thoughts began.
Maybe approaching our art with a critical point of view isn’t really what’s best. Maybe what’s needed is more of an objective look. Yes? That sounds good, doesn’t it? We should be able to honestly say “this is good; this is bad”, and go on from there.
I’m thinking, now, however, that maybe pure objectivity isn’t the best approach, either. I’m beginning to see the value of positive critique — which sounds very much like a contradiction in terms.
We naturally tend to associate critique with criticism and with critical analysis — all of which sound a bit negative. In truth, critique merely implies careful consideration. It’s the act of assessing a work — be it literature, drama, music, dance, or a fine art.
A critique is an opinion.
A critique is also a valuable part of the learning process — but not for the reasons you might think.
First, who is really qualified to critique our work?
If asked for an opinion, our friends and family will likely praise our work, and there’s nothing wrong with that — unless we’re wanting more specific feedback, unless we know the painting doesn’t work and are trying to understand why, unless we’re at a point where we need answers to questions we have about art. Our well-meaning friends and family may not be qualified to give us the sort of critique we really need.
The most valuable critiques, I think, come from art instructors, individuals who understand all those important elements like value, color harmony, perspective, and a host of other art and design principles. Art instructors — and judges — have the knowledge to make a careful assessment of any work put before them. We don’t necessarily have to be a student in their class. We may not always have access to an instructor who can provide a critique, though.
So what of self-critiques? Are we qualified to look at our own work and make judgments about it? Yes, we are, or at least, we should be. The problem, however, is that most of us tend to be overly critical. We focus on all that’s lacking in our art, harshly berating ourselves and our work, all the while thinking we’re doing a proper critique.
Nope. Putting ourselves — or any artist — down over a drawing, painting, or any other work of art, should not be part of the critique process. Good art instructors know this, and we should know it, too. The purpose of a critique should be to help, inform, and encourage the artist. Of these, encouragement is the single most important aspect of the critique process.
I think most of us truly know when our work is lacking. I don’t have to subject my “Possum-faced Cow” to any judge or critic to know that it has a lot wrong with it. I have eyes. I can see for myself that I made many mistakes in this painting.
What I need is not criticism, ridicule, or unnecessary focus on the problems with my painting. I need practical help, ideas on how to improve. I need information on better techniques.
But before I can be open and receptive to suggestions, I need encouragement. At the end of the critique process — of any painting — an artist should be smiling, happy, and excited to rush to the easel and get to work again.
We can find good when we look for it, and in our paintings, that makes all the difference. It is vitally important that we pat ourselves on the back, that we applaud our efforts, that we recognize improvements we’re making. This can happen even with a bad painting. Even with a very bad painting like the one of this sorrowful cow.
I applaud myself for this painting.
Here’s the deal. I am proud of myself for taking on this challenge. I was hesitant about it. But I did it anyway. I approached it as an opportunity to learn, to broaden my artistic horizons, to try something new, something that was maybe a bit beyond my level. Hurray! I deserve a pat on the back for putting this canvas on the easel, tacking up a reference photo with a bunch of cows, and having a go at it.
Now, in my original reference photo, there were a lot of cows. Originally I intended to have another three cows huddled together on the right. Don’t see them? Well, that’s because I waved my magic paintbrush wand and turned them into trees. Hallelujah! What a brilliant decision that was. I faced an artistic problem, and I figured out how to resolve it. Isn’t that a valuable, necessary skill for an artist? More applause, please.
And, let’s be honest here. That bush on the right is a thing of beauty! Definitely deserving of at least a bit of hand-clapping.
Are there things that could be improved? You betcha! But improvement will come in its own time with more practice. Let’s just focus right now on all that’s good about this painting, not about the execution itself, but about what this painting says about me as an artist.
I tried things. I played with colors. I experimented with different brushes and different types of brush strokes. I got a few lights and shadows right — that opossum face at least has the light where it belongs. I pushed myself, and when all is said and done, my cows do look like cows. Ugly cows, yes, but cows all the same.
Now, I’m excited about painting. Now, I’m even willing to find more reference photos and paint more cows. I want to paint sheep, too. Pigs. Goats. I’m eager to explore a whole new world of barnyard animals and wildlife.
Now, I’m ready, too, for helpful information that will enable me to improve my painting, knowledge that will allow me to improve and make my next painting better.
Sure, this cow is laughable, and I’m not sure that even a mother cow could love that face, but this is only one painting, and it’s part of my learning process. Critiques are also an important step as we learn and grow. Critiques can — and should — be positive, informative, and helpful. Critiques are meant to be opportunities for encouragement.
I’m glad I’ve learned that important truth about critiques. It’s fun to look at paintings and find so many, many things I can praise. Critiquing my work from that point of view makes me love my art all the more.
I think I can even love this ugly cow.