The Creative Critique: Susan Brandeis
Starting and Maintaining a Critique Group
by Susan Brandeis
A critique group, well chosen and organized, can provide the members with invaluable exposure to fresh insights and new ways of looking at and growing in their work over a period of time. In a critique group, artists present their work for comparison to a standard of excellence that is either chosen by the group or aspired to by individuals in the group. Works are not just shown to be admired; comments made are both positive and negative and, in the best of situations, delivered in the spirit of constructive advice for improving the work. In a good critique group, each member is met on her or his level; treated seriously; spoken to with respect; given thoughtful responses to the work shown; and encouraged to stretch, grow, and see the work in new ways.
For about seven years, I’ve benefited from being part of a seven-person critique group that meets once a month. Here you’ll find some suggestions on starting and maintaining your own group. Click on the links for each topic.
Membership: Who to invite and how to manage the group as it evolves over time
Group Structure: Leadership, setting, and setup
Running the Critique: Ground rules and discussion guidelines
On Your Own: Follow-up and self-critique
Susan Brandeis is a professor of art and design at the College of Design of North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Her artwork has been exhibited internationally.
MEMBERSHIP return to subject list
If you want to start a critique group, you will need to gather like-minded people who want to discuss their work honestly and are prepared to hear the “bad” with the “good.” These may be people working in the same medium, or there may be a mix of media represented. No matter what kind of group you start, keep a membership list with contact information for each participant, updated and distributed to all members as the group evolves.
Types of Groups
There are essentially three different types of groups:
1. Groups open to artists at all levels of accomplishment in all media
This kind of group provides for an ever-evolving assortment of participants, fresh viewpoints, and cross-medium perspectives. A core group of people will probably attend regularly, providing some level of consistency and familiarity. But there is also likely to be a changing assortment of people, from beginners to professionals, who come only occasionally. This may be either energizing or disconcerting, depending on your comfort level with strangers. It will also mean keeping the rules of discourse clear and repeating them at the beginning of each meeting or distributing them in writing to all who attend. This kind of group will undoubtedly offer the participants the widest variety of perspectives and responses to the work shown.
To start this kind of group, put out a general call to artists, designers, and craftspeople in your area. This could be done through the local newspaper, the local arts council, local arts newsletters, or even by posting a notice on likely bulletin boards (near galleries, arts centers, libraries, art supply stores, camera shops, etc.). Choose the ways you think most appropriate to get the word out in your area. The general call should advertise an organizational meeting at a particular time and place. This may not be where or when you regularly meet, but choose a time and location for the first meeting that will yield the largest number of interested people.
2. Groups open to artists working at a particular level or working in a particular medium
In this kind of group, all members are equally committed to and serious about their work or are all involved with similar issues unique to a medium, but membership is not restricted to a certain number of participants. People may still come and go, and fresh insights will still be provided, but the range of beginners to professionals or cross-media perspectives will not be primary features of the group. Instead, artists with similar challenges and interests may meet to solve problems collectively and speak with considerable immediate understanding.
To start this kind of group, the call to artists, designers, and craftspeople in your area would be more narrowly targeted through the local arts council, local art galleries, or local arts newsletters. The announcement should advertise an organizational meeting at a particular time and place and should also specify the medium that is the focus or the level of artists welcome (i.e., beginners, intermediate, advanced, professional). One way to attract artists of similar levels or in the same medium would be to regularly send notices to artists having shows in local galleries. Be clear about the focus of the group and who is welcome.
3. Groups restricted to invited members
This kind of group, well chosen, can provide an intimate, long-term context for in-depth discussion; foster close relationships with fellow artists; offer a reliable, consistent, supportive environment in which to take risks or explore new directions; and provide valuable commentary as you move through transitions in your work. Such a group is ideal for professional artists who largely work alone or for those who find it difficult to speak in front of large groups of strangers.
Starting this kind of group requires more time, thought, and effort. You will need to identify several artists in your area with whom you feel some rapport. You may already know some artists you can approach; if not, look around for people who have similar levels of commitment; who are genuinely open to criticism; and who are generally kind, constructive, and honest in their interpersonal relationships. Avoid people whom you think may bully the group, who are consistently negative or sharp-tongued, or who have trouble being consistent about commitments. You can discover potential members by attending local gallery openings and gallery talks, taking classes at an art center, visiting local studios, or contacting your local arts council for recommended artists’ names. Contact the people you select and invite them to an organizational meeting. At the meeting, be clear about the intentions and the rules of the group.
All groups evolve. No matter how carefully you choose and nurture members, some will leave. Some move away, take new life directions, or just can’t continue to make the regular commitment. So you will need a plan for accepting new members.
With open groups, you can keep advertising. But it will probably be sufficient to allow the word-of-mouth “grapevine” to operate. Success gets attention. If this approach doesn’t work, the group should decide how to proceed to attract new members.
With restricted groups, stay aware of artists in your local community who would enrich the group. The addition of each new member should be made carefully, and the decision should be unanimous. This consideration greatly increases the probability that a new member will be successfully integrated into a group that has been functioning well for a long time. New “recruits” can be invited to a session as guests (without being told they are “on trial”). This strategy allows the group to assess the “chemistry” of the new interaction. Prior acquaintance with two or more people already in the group ensures new members some level of immediate comfort and faster bonding with the group.
GROUP STRUCTURE return to subject list
At your organizational meeting, you will need to have an open discussion about the way in which the group will work. First, you should decide whether you want to have a “leader” who guides the conversation. Open groups (which are often larger) may need a leader, especially if the people who attend change from meeting to meeting. Restricted groups (often smaller) may want to keep a more democratic relationship or rotate who leads. Some groups will find that leader naturally; some will want to elect the leader or bring in a knowledgeable leader to help them get started. It is important that everyone in the group accepts and respects both the decision to have a leader and the individual chosen.
The leader should be a person who can guide without controlling the conversation, can ask astute questions when conversation lags, can get a conversation back on track when it wanders, can identify when the conversation becomes unnecessarily personal or offensive, can confront unacceptable behavior, can repeat or expand on ideas presented, can interpret poorly worded comments, and can generally ensure that all members get a fair hearing and useful commentary. You need a patient listener with considerable diplomacy and experience in both making and talking about artwork.
At your organizational meeting, you will need to establish meeting dates and times. This may be the single most difficult decision because everyone is so busy and schedules conflict. Keep in mind that what you decide initially is not set in stone. It can change as the group evolves or as schedules change.
It simplifies matters if you can find a regularly repeating day of the month and week (for instance, every third Thursday of the month) and a consistent time of day. This helps all members know immediately when to show up and cuts down on the amount of time spent in trying to contact members to set up meetings.
Most groups meet once a month (or less), which allows members to make progress on new work between meetings. But your group should meet as often as is useful and manageable for the members. It is important that everyone accept this decision.
The meeting place chosen should be within reasonable distance from members’ homes so that attending meetings is not a hardship for anyone. For this reason, many people rotate the meeting place among their members’ homes or studios. This works well for the small, restricted group, but for larger, open groups a consistent institutional or professional studio setting probably works better. Look into rooms available in community centers; art centers; local community colleges, colleges, or universities; churches; or public schools.
If there is a cost involved in using the space, make sure that all members know the cost and can consistently pay their share of it. Make sure that all members have written directions to the location or that the location is widely advertised.
The characteristics of the meeting place you choose will determine how well the work may be displayed when it is being discussed.
The ideal space would be a clean room, painted white, with a neutral-colored floor, with tack walls in white or a neutral color (grey, light beige, or even black). Some neutral-colored tables would be provided for three-dimensional objects. A combination of overhead color-corrected lighting (full-spectrum fluorescent bulbs) and track lighting that can be aimed at objects would combine to show work to best effect. And, of course, there would be comfortable chairs for participants (enough to go around for everyone).
But the ideal is often not possible and not completely necessary. Just try to provide the best possible context for looking at the work that you can: good light, a tack wall that accepts pins or light nails, a table if possible, and a minimum of competing patterns and objects nearby. The goal is to isolate the object in a neutral environment so that the group can see it without visual interference. It is important that all participants have comfortable chairs, especially if the critique is to last several hours. Have pins, tacks, small nails, and a hammer available for quickly putting up work.
RUNNING THE CRITIQUE return to subject list
Generally speaking, participants should arrive on time, wear comfortable clothing, and bring along water (talking is thirsty business!), a notebook, and a pen. Try to limit sessions to no more than three hours, providing short breaks to stretch. If you have a large group and decide on an all-day meeting, take a couple of short breaks mid-morning and mid-afternoon and a longer break at lunch. People can sit still only so long, and more important, the quality of both concentration and conversation deteriorates after a certain amount of time. You can experiment to see what works best for your group.
You will want to establish an accepted procedure for each meeting. This may include some kind of introductory activity—even just bringing the group up to date on art-related activities and opportunities in the area. Then you may wish to establish an order of viewing by rotating, drawing straws, or some other method. (In my group, we usually allow the hostess of the meeting to go first; those struggling with new ideas and urgent questions go next; and the rest bring up the rear. We decide the order at the beginning.)
Consider establishing a maximum length of time to consider each person’s work (and appoint a timekeeper) or a maximum number of an individual’s works to view (probably not more than three) to make sure that everyone gets a fair share of the allotted time. (For instance, my group has seven members. It requires just over two hours to get through all the work if each person shows one to three pieces.)
Decide in advance whether you will review only completed works or also those in progress. My group has found that viewing works in progress can often be more helpful, especially when people are changing and grappling with new challenges. When work in progress is presented, it often comes back to the group in finished form. Each group will need to decide what works best, and all members need to agree.
Determining a Standard of Excellence
The undertaking of a discussion about a standard of excellence signals that the group and the individuals in it take their work and their involvement in its improvement seriously. It means they are willing to look around outside themselves and measure their accomplishments against those of the larger art/craft/design world.
In a restricted critique group, like-minded artists may have a tacit understanding of the benchmarks against which they measure themselves and the goals they have for their artistic growth. Nevertheless, some discussion of these standards and goals would benefit the group and help clarify the focus of the criticism.
An open group may have more people at different levels of accomplishment, with differing aspirations for the work. The group should discuss and agree on particular underlying assumptions so that the criticism helps each participant continue to grow.
Success can seduce any of us into sticking with a formula that "works." The group can help each individual continue to reach beyond current successes to aim for work that measures favorably against ever-rising expectations and levels of accomplishment. Look outside the group--at work in museums, galleries, magazines, and books--to find the standards to which you wish to compare yourself. Identify "mentors" or "heros" among the artists you find, and read to understand their goals and working processes. Find the level of work to which you aspire and keep it as a beacon.
Each person in the group falls into one of the following levels or between one level and the next. The group as a whole may fall into one level and work together to grow into the next one. Growth usually means an upward movement in quality toward the next level of accomplishment. Even at the professional level, growth should be expected and encouraged.
• Professional: Aspiring to make work that is highly professional, i.e., of museum quality and that fares excellently in international exhibitions, competitions, and museum shows.
• Advanced: Aspiring to make work that is competitive in the medium, i.e., fares well in national and international juried exhibitions and merits ongoing gallery representation.
• Intermediate: Aspiring to make work that is competitive in the local art scene, i.e., selected regularly for local shows and sells well in local galleries.
• Beginner to Intermediate: Aspiring to understand the notion of a "coherent body of work" in the medium, i.e., in the process of building a group of works that deal with a larger theme or idea.
• Beginner: Aspiring to learn how to make strong work in the medium, i.e., just starting to create in this medium, needing work on both general art/design vocabulary and visual vocabulary in the medium, making work that will sometimes be included in local juried shows.
Standards of excellence fall into a number of categories, some of which are listed below (and additionally addressed by the list of questions in the section Questions for Consideration below). Each category provides a perspective from which to examine the work and compare it to the benchmarks you have identified as desirable. For each working level listed above, there is a corresponding observable level of accomplishment for each category of standards listed below.
• Technical expertise: Ability to use the techniques inherent in and important to the medium
• Craft: Ability to manipulate the materials of the medium with skill and finesse.
• Innovation/invention: Ability to create new forms, develop new ideas, and "think outside the box"
• Idea development: Ability to generate multiple alternative ways to give form to an idea, and persistence to work beyond obvious solutions to unique interpretations
• Composition: Ability to use compositional elements and principles to achieve expressive goals
• Attention to detail: Ability to focus on and resolve all of the details that "finish" a work and make it presentable for public view
• Experimentation: Ability to play with new ideas and extend one’s visual vocabulary through sampling, doodling, sketching, collage, or other forms of quick responses to the question "what if…?"
• Taking risks with new directions: Ability or willingness to depart from the safety of past successes and try something new
• Creative problem solving: Ability to invent new solutions to technical and conceptual problems as they arise in the process of making the work
• Magic: Ability to address all of the above categories and create work that transcends their consideration. This category is nearly inexpressible but addresses the ultimate goal of us all--to create work that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Ground Rules for Conducting the Critique Session
You will want to agree on a set of ground rules for your group. They can be discussed and adopted at your organizational meeting. It is imperative that all participants adhere to the rules of the group. The underlying rule is the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is an act of faith and courage to put one’s work out for criticism. Being able to trust the goodwill and kindness of those doing the critique is essential to openness and growth.
Here are some more specific suggestions for useful rules; add or subtract them to suit your group. (See also the discussion of ground rules used by other critique leaders in the April/May 2005 issue of Fiberarts.)
• When you present your work to the group, be prepared to speak about your intent and to pose any questions you have about the work. Be brief and concise; the less you talk, the more time you will have to hear others’ responses.
• When you respond to others’ work, be clear, concise, honest, and direct, without being mean.
• Be specific about criticisms, suggestions, and observations. Vague or abstract conversation is not useful to the maker.
• Stay focused on the work, and avoid extraneous or competing conversations.
• Remember that you are commenting on the work, not on the maker. Avoid personal references by avoiding use of the word “you.” Talk about “it,” the object.
• Consider the work in several contexts:
1. the maker’s intent (most important)
2. other work being done by comparable makers
3. other current work in the greater world of which you are aware
4. historical artifacts or exemplars.
• Avoid using words that are vague or almost meaningless--“nice,” “I like….,” “good,” or “bad”--unless you can follow the word with a very specific and convincing supporting statement or explanation.
• Be constructive. Give the kind of information you would value receiving on your own work, i.e., commentary that helps the maker see the work in a new light, provides specific ways to improve it, and contributes to creative growth.
Questions for Consideration
Approach each work with respect and enthusiasm for the person’s efforts. Some questions to consider:
• Is the object complete? If not, what changes can still occur?
• What is the maker’s intent: What was the idea?
• How does the complete object compare to the maker’s stated goal?
• In what specific ways does it meet or fall short of the goal?
• How thorough was the process of generating alternative ideas before choosing one to refine and develop? Before beginning to make, did the artist push ideas past the first solution that came to mind? (Consider sketches, writings, background research, samples, and studies to test materials and techniques.)
• Do the materials and techniques seem appropriate to the idea?
• List specific strengths of the work. These might be conceptual, technical, material, formal, or the interaction of any of these.
• List specific weaknesses of the work, things that could be improved to make the work stronger or more powerful. Again, these might be conceptual, technical, material, formal, or the interaction of any of these.
• What is the emotional or psychological impact of the work? As a viewer, how does it make you feel?
• Is the composition strong? Consider the work in comparison to a checklist of fundamental compositional design elements (color, line, shape, form, space) and principles (balance, harmony, variety, emphasis, rhythm). Do these all support and strengthen the idea or intent?
• Has the work been carefully finished? This question refers to the details that make the work’s presentation seem professional and might include hems, fringes, joins, mountings, context, framing, armatures, supporting devices, and stands, among other items specific to the work itself.
• Has there been careful attention to detail?
• Is the work well crafted, especially in relation to the type of image and idea?
• Does the work meet the standard of excellence to which the artist is aspiring? Does it compare favorably to other work being done in the medium by others at the level with which the artist would identify himself or herself?
When Conversation Lags
Good criticism depends, in part, on the participants having some experience in looking at a wide variety of artwork and being able to understand what makes good work strong. As a form of ongoing preparation, I’d suggest that participants continually expose themselves to current work being done, by visiting museums and galleries, listening to well-known artists and art historians talk about artwork, and reading art, craft, and design magazines.
But no matter how much you have seen and understand, there will come a time when a work will be presented for critique that is confusing to “dissect” or “digest.” (This is often true when an artist’s work is changing.) In this case, no one may know what to say first or where to start the discussion. Awkward silences may last longer than is comfortable. In this situation, conversation can easily start with a simple question: “What do you see?”
1. Ask participants to describe what they see: images (what kind?), colors (what kind of palette?), composition (what kind?), materials (what is used?).
2. Next, ask participants to analyze the things they see in light of the maker’s intent: What is the emotional effect of the work? How does it make you feel? What associations does it evoke? These can be compared to what the maker intended you to feel.
3. Ask the participants to think about how the formal issues in #1 interact to achieve the effects in #2. This analysis provides a forum for making suggestions that help the maker see how changes in the formal issues can change the viewer’s reading of the work.
4. If you are still having trouble getting people to talk out loud, conduct a written critique, using the same questions suggested in the previous section. If participants write down their responses, the maker can carry them away to ponder.
Maintaining a Positive Atmosphere
An atmosphere of trust is essential to a good critique group. This makes careful selection of members, clarity about ground rules, and commitment to the constructive spirit of the group crucial. If a person is negative, condescending, insulting, derogatory, aggressive, or outright mean, the group trust can be destroyed, and considerable, sometimes irreparable damage can result.
Devise a plan for dealing with such individuals at your organizational meeting. In cases in which there is a group leader, much of this job will fall to her or him. If there is not a leader, perhaps appoint a “bouncer” or a “rule keeper.” When an unacceptable comment is made, it needs to be pointed out right away. If there is a consistent problem, the offending person may be asked not to attend until he or she can adhere to the group’s ground rules. If an argument erupts, those fighting should be asked to leave until they can cool off and resolve the disagreement. I recommend immediate and clear confrontation of those whose comments or actions are out of bounds; an ongoing adversarial atmosphere can cause a critique group to quickly self-destruct.
In addition, sometimes criticism sparks strong feelings. Don’t allow anyone to leave a critique-group meeting agitated or unduly distressed about what has transpired. Spend whatever time it takes to talk it through with kindness and constructive advice.
When your work is being discussed by the critique group, it is helpful if you, or someone else you designate, record some simple notes of the suggestions made. Inevitably, you will lose a lot of what is said, especially if a lot is being said. Take the notes home for review and reflection when you have more time alone to think about their validity and helpfulness.
You may want to decide on a way to close critique sessions--formal closing comments, recapping important points made, or simple milling around and chatting informally. You may come to this ending method naturally, but with large groups you may want to treat it more formally to signal the end of the session.
One important message at the end of the meeting is the announcement of the date, time, and place of the next meeting. My group has lunch afterwards to discuss professional and personal topics of interest.
ON YOUR OWN return to subject list
Only after reflection about the responses to your work, or perhaps further experimentation, can you begin to decide for yourself what is useful and what you can discard. Ultimately, the work is yours, and the decisions about its direction are yours. The critique is a device to help you see new possibilities and to help you divorce your ego from the process of making (which is difficult) and see the work more objectively.
The notes you take about your work may lead you to ask follow-up questions of one or more members of the group. Don’t hesitate to ask them. The clarification works best when the thoughts are fresh. If you feel confused, touch base with members between meetings to clarify or continue conversations. If you try a suggestion and it works, contact the person who made it to express thanks or continue the discussion. Some pieces take longer to resolve, so you may bring them back to the meetings more than once. Jot down your follow-up questions to bring back to the group with the piece next time. Bring the completed piece for last words.
Use the critique group to improve your own skills in self-criticism. As you listen to what others say in response to your own work, compare their comments to your own evaluations to see how you can gain better insight into your process and creative problem-solving skills.
If you cannot assemble or locate a group to help you, use the questions listed above to set up your own critique session for yourself, writing answers to the questions in response to each piece you make. This evaluation may need to happen several times while making a piece as a progress check. No matter how you orchestrate the time and place to consider the success and direction of your work, nor how many people are present, the honesty and reflection are an important part of your creative growth. Enjoy it.
Many thanks to my university students, my workshop students, and especially the members of my monthly critique group who have given me so much and who have provided the “living experiment” that made these comments possible: Peg Gignoux, Jacqueline Nouveau, Carol Owen (who cofounded the group with me), Vita Plume, Jan Ru Wan, and Christine Zoller.—S.B.
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Susan Brandeis offers suggestions on how to start and maintain a critique group.
Steve Aimone describes the artist contract he uses with workshop participants.
Helen Davis shares a handout of trigger words she uses for stimulating discussion in her critiques.
Tom Lundberg offers a suggested reading list related to evaluating art.