The advice I hear and give out often is to treat the work as if your best friend made it. This works well to tone down the nasty voices that are basically telling you that what you just made sucks. Imagining your friend waiting to hear what you think, helps you look for the positive and use encouraging language.
However, that is not enough for me. I work alone so I need to rely on myself to help me move forward. Being nice to myself is a good practice but it doesn’t help me resolve the issues I’m having with a painting. I need actual feedback to prevent me from painting the whole thing white and starting over or worse, hiding it in a corner and being discouraged and even a bit scarred from what I feel is a failure.
I’ve developed a simple system using the 7 elements of design as a checklist to help me see my work with critical eyes and not mean ones. The 7 elements are line, direction, shape, size, colour, value and texture. Since I know these well, I mentally scan the work and ask myself questions like these:
Do my colours match the mood I’m working with?
What direction should be the most prominent (vertical, horizontal or swirls/curves)?
How will lines support what I’m trying to convey? Do I even need them?
Are the values of my colour palette serving the mood that I’m wanting to express? If not, how can I tweak my colours (tint, shade, tone)?
While I’m answering these questions, I usually can pick out at least a few positive attributes but more importantly, I define what is really bothering me. I get really specific. I often have those “light bulb” moments and I’ll notice that the texture in a piece is overwhelming or the colours are wrong for the feeling I’m striving to convey. This gives me concrete steps forward; smooth out that texture, switch that cool blue to a warmer one. I even write the steps down so I have a reference.
Because while it is necessary to treat myself with more kindness (as if I was talking to a good friend), I also want to challenge myself. This means taking risks and making work that can feel well, really awful. To move out of my comfort zone I need to be able to analyze objectively and not just slam myself and the work in progress for being a bust.
How do you critique your work? I’d love to know what a manager or a builder does. Do you have a set of criteria that you mentally run through to help you when you feel stuck or feel like you are doing a lousy job?
If you are a painter, I’m offering an online course this coming January to get really comfortable with the 7 elements of design and learn the fine art of self critique. If you are curious, click here for the details and the dates.