Sunday, October 4, 2015

Deep Thoughts on Constructive Criticism

I've been mulling over the progress of my book dummy and trying to sort out different pieces of constructive criticism. Which is a little painful, actually. I was trying to keep from being depressed and moody. I was basically in the land of Deep Thoughts.

Which brought up a funny association! If you are an old fart like me you might remember Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey on Saturday Night Live. They were some old-school memes, video style. I went fishing for them online and found this great one from 1995. It's sort of relevant to my own personal deep thoughts. It's best with the video and sound, so click on the link. But here's the text, too:

I remember how my great-uncle Jerry would sit on the porch and whittle all day long. Once he whittled me a toy boat out of a larger toy boat I had. It was almost as good as the first one, except now it had bumpy whittle marks all over it. And no paint, because he had whittled off the paint.

Ha! Anyone used to working on a long-term creative project can surely relate to this feeling! I've been whittling at my picture book forever now. But is it getting better? Or just smaller and bumpy with no paint?

Here's proof that I'm still working on my dummy- the newest thumbnails.

Us earnest folks try so hard to do things right and pour all of ourselves into our work. But we have no objectivity about it. So constructive criticism from other people is essential to make progress. But how much? And who should we listen to?

You can definitely get too many opinions. Because all those opinions will conflict with each other. And the most forceful one isn't necessarily the one you should listen to. Ask for criticism carefully and selectively. If you have a critique group that you trust, they are the best! If not, seek out one of your peers who is serious about their work. And always offer to repay them with a critique or any way that you can be helpful.

Find a way to get a critique from the professionals also. I've been doing this through SCBWI conferences for years. You can sign up for portfolio reviews and manuscript critiques. You will either get a publishing professional like an editor, art director, or agent, or you'll get a respected published author or illustrator. I've also gotten a couple critiques from artists that I admire just by emailing them and asking. People are generally so nice and helpful!

Now that you have a pile of opinions from people that you trust, what do you do with them? Even when they are carefully considered and come from a place of experience, they will still conflict or be confusing.

Here are some of the comments I've heard lately about my art style:
It's too beautiful.
Too clean.
I'm too focused on technique.
My illustrations are distracting from the text.
My carvings should be messier with more cut marks showing in the print.
I need more pattern.
More black.
Less black.
Make my shapes simpler, with less detail.
Make it more magical.
People aren't your strength. (From just about everyone.)

And the worst thing to sort out:
It needs to be unique, eye-catching, and original.
Could you make it look more like… (insert the name of famous illustrators.)

That's enough to make anyone moody. It helps that I take a lot of notes during or right after a critique. And going back to read those helps because sometimes the emotion you feel can overwhelm what the person was actually trying to say. Rereading your notes can help you get to the kernel of truth you need to hear.

Give it time. Sometimes a couple days or weeks of setting the project aside and letting it percolate will help an idea form. Time allows you to figure out what is important and what doesn't fit with your vision. It's ok to disregard an opinion from a famous and experienced person. Just be sure you've carefully considered why they offered that opinion. Maybe there's a different solution that they didn't think of that will also solve the problem. But if they suggested a change, it's likely a problem area that needs your attention.

Also, listen to the core of the critique but realize that the speaker might not have used the clearest language. For example- one person said my linocuts need more black and the other person said that they need less black. These people were looking at different prints and that explains the conflict on the surface. But really they were both trying to tell me the same thing. I need to find the right balance between black and white in my carvings and rely less on the watercolor at the end. I need more pattern and texture in the carving. That will give the image more movement and shading without relying on watercolor. That's my takeaway after a bit of thinking anyway.

And remember, this is YOUR art! Don't let someone whittle it down to a small bumpy boat with no paint. Just use the criticism that helps you and your art grow. If a comment feels wrong or mean, ignore it! Listen to the people who are really trying to help you. And take their advice in ways that empower you and are in line with your larger vision. Go create!!


  1. Now that sounds like wisdom! Great summary of what to do with all the feedback. Yes, heed those comments that align with your vision. And then press on! And, hahaha, I remember those skits.. this boat one is perfect! :)

    1. Thanks, Dow! I never watched much Saturday Night Live- I wasn't good at staying up late, but it certainly made an impression when I did! And whenever I've had Deep Thoughts about anything in life it's brought back those silly memes and helped put things in perspective. :)
      Thanks for being such a great critique partner!