Hi! I had a question about critiques. The program I'm in (fine art) focuses mostly on personal expression & not so much on technique/formal elements. Critiques tend to meander between personal associations ("reminds me of my cat") & questions about idea behind work, instead of analyzing the piece itself. Fellow students aren't very aware of how pictures are constructed or the "why's" of their own decisions. Any tips on getting/giving useful info or rejuvenating critique in these discussions?
It’s funny because I’m now back in the classroom, on the other (student) side of things, and I was thinking about this very topic when we were looking at sketches for one of the first projects last week. The class was fixated on a suggestive pose in one of the sketches, and an argument was breaking out on whether it was appropriate or not.
I chimed in that we hadn’t heard the intent behind that particular piece yet, and that we first had to know that before we could offer opinions on whether or not the sketch (or “blueprint”) supported that intent with its subject matter and formal elements.
Here’s the bottom line: critique will always have a degree of subjectivity to it. It is, as a format, a gathering of people offering their opinions about things.
What you should do is treat crit as a “sounding board” (as Marshall puts it). Have a specific plan for what you want out of critique, and steer the discussions appropriately. In illustration, you are usually trying to pointedly convey your intent using a variety of visual vocabulary tools. Ask first what the intent was, and then break down how the image supports (or disputes) that intent.
For example, when I was teaching, I would try to avoid this:
"So. What do we think about this?" "I kind of like it." "Yeah it reminds me of like, cats I would draw when I was a kid." "Or like, cats on the internet!" "Totally. Have you seen this cat thing on the internet?" <30 minutes of conversation about cats on the internet.>
And instead, try for something like this:
"Whose cat is this? This is a funny cat." "It’s mine!" "What was your intent for this cat drawing?" "Well, I was trying to do an elegant Chinese-inspired line drawing of a cat stretching and I haven’t ever used a cintiq, so I was also trying that out." "OK. Well, the line quality could be more elegant— it’s kind of jittery, it’s uniform throughout, and the drawing, while simple, isn’t as simple as it could be, especially when compared to the ink drawings you were referring to. I’ve seen your drawings before though, so you can definitely use this to build on…" <30 minutes of specific feedback using the drawing as evidence on: artists to look at for spare line drawings, specific tips on how to set up software/hardware, discussions about the technical aspects of drawing clean lines, the importance of observation/using reference, etc.>
The discussions on “why” is the most important driving force in critique. The artists need to know why they are trying to get feedback, and the participants should be able to articulate why a piece makes them respond a certain way. Challenge your classmates— be that kid who is always asking “why?” If they can’t articulate their position in a logical progression, then you should most likely edit their opinion from your notes in crit (and you should always take notes in crit.)
Speaking of notes, here’s a few quick ones:
- Crit should never be a “me vs. them” kind of thing. It doesn’t really benefit anyone to tear someone down in crit for no reason (I only did it when the student was extremely lazy.)
- Intent and ignorance isn’t a shield for morally questionable work.
- No one has all the answers.
- Crit is a structure that is there to learn and benefit from. The more you can add to it and understand how to use it, the more it will help your (and your classmates’) work.
There’s a Howard Pyle maxim that says: “Throw your heart into a picture and jump in after it.” Earlier this week, Marshall Arisman told us that George Bernard Shaw said to “Saturate yourself in the problem. Then wait.”
Yesterday, I was getting dinner by myself after writing a bunch in studio on an editorial assignment. I had been writing for a couple of hours, going through the ideation process, and nothing was really jumping out at me. I ordered a kind of sad little sandwich and salad, and watched a guy shotgun a beer while I waited for my food. I saw two boys walk in with their father, and watched the brothers race each other up and down the length of the restaurant.
I watched the smaller boy run almost headlong into a body builder guy who was leaving, laugh, and bounce off his leg. The body builder did that very New York mildly annoyed glare, and walked out the door.
I envisioned another scenario though, where the body builder got really angry, and was suddenly armor-clad. And then the kid was suddenly like my mom, who used to tell me stories about shooting bats out the sky with a slingshot in the rural Philippines, and the kid felling the giant body builder with a well-placed shot to the forehead.
And then suddenly, halfway through a chicken sandwich, I had a visual for my illustration.
The second year students have officially welcomed the new first years. We toasted to their commitment to their craft and deer-in-headlights expressions at DBA on 1st Ave last Friday. Can you tell who is “old blood” and who is “new blood?”
Thank you to Francisco Galarraga (pictured above eating pizza) for your amazing camera and photo-taking!
Look at all of these illustrators! In a bit of a coincidence, the original dba is a bar on Frenchman that I remember going to in New Orleans a bunch of times and always having a lot of fun. So in honor of that, I drank Abita everything and got to meet all of these wonderful new classmates.
So one of the things that I’m always saying to people on this blog is to write, write, and write some more. Getting thoughts organized and down on paper helps you articulate and understand your own practice, and it also preserves those thoughts for you to refer back to later. I don’t offer a lot of writing specifics because I think everyone has their own way of approaching things, but here’s one format that I’ve picked up:
Hi John, great blog! I was wondering how you get pumped up enough to start new projects. During projects I can work steadily and easily without too much pain, but as it gets to be finished I start to dread it because that means that I will need to start a new project and for some reason, for two or three days before I can get into the work I find myself procrastinating and goofing off. Once I finally make myself sit down and work it is ok, but what do you usually do between projects? Thanks
Man, I uh, pretty much do the same thing. I think it’s not so much starting up on a new project, it’s mostly ramping down after I finish one.
The day after I finish a project, unless there’s another deadline bearing down on me, I don’t do anything illustration related at all. I usually go run, dick around on the net, catch up on other stuff, and then grab a bite/drink with a friend in the evening.
I wish I had more continuity and could flow from project to project more efficiently, but like you said, for some reason I just don’t. This will probably change when I go back to school in the fall, as I won’t have any choice then.
So like, I answer most of these to the best of my ability, and I think the overall picture that’s conveyed is that I’m this illustrator dude who has answers. But, I have things that I struggle with and definite gaps in my process just like everyone. One of the great thing about all these asks is that I have to sit down and put it all down in writing.
"Whatever changes have occurred are merely reflections of society in general. A little more sex and violence; a lot less mom and apple pie. As documented in this Annual, we are in the business of showing the world what it’s about. We all like to believe we are marching to a different drum, when, in point of fact, we just stumble differently."
Tomer Hanuka, 40, talks about the dream of every illustrator, how to tell a story in a picture and what made him decide to return to Israel after 17 years in New York.
“So why this obsession to illustrate? I think it’s because I’m afraid to grow up to be the person I think I was supposed to be. Or at least what the army personnel officer and most of my high-school teachers promised I would be: no one.”
You say that we should express our personal voice rather than focusing on style. How do you feel about experimentation with people's technique/style? I don't want to limit myself to my own comfortable way of working, but at the same time, I wouldn't want to mimic theirs, but I would want to reach the levels of people who are succeeding in the field.
Top- James Montgomery Flagg. Bottom- Charles Dana Gibson
I have no problem with imitating other people’s styles initially. How many of us started drawing in earnest because we wanted to replicate a comic book, or an animated show? I remember some of my very first drawings were trying to redraw the Battle of Endor or Samus Aran’s spaceship. When I first got out of school, I ripped off James Jean on a daily basis.
I’d posit that this manner of investigation is not wholly separate from distinguishing yourself through your voice though. Copying other people’s styles is a great way to get inside their head and figure out not only how they solve problems design-wise, but also how they execute it technically. It’s why art schools around the world assign master copies as homework. It gets you out of your own skin for a bit, and is a good way to get more “tools in your toolbox” technically.
What it will never do though, is give you “success.” I think this quote from Austin Briggs is especially relevant here. Even if you were able to expertly recreate every stroke, every line, every nuance of someone else’s style, you will always be, by definition, a second-rate copy of them. You cannot BE them, and therefore you can never replicate their motivations, ideas, and inspirations. And even worse than that: you are ignoring your own.
James Montgomery Flagg was one of several artists who made a living undercutting Charles Dana Gibson’s distinctive pen and ink style in the early 1900s. He did it for years; as Gibson’s popularity soared, so did his prices, and Flagg filled a lower-tier niche.
Does that in any way affect Gibson’s legacy as one of the most influential American illustrators of the early 20th century? Absolutely not. Would it have affected Flagg’s legacy if that’s all he did with his career? You bet. Lucky for us, and for Flagg, he was talented and driven enough to eventually do his own thing, which resulted in one of the most iconic images in American history.
Learn what you can from others and be happy when they do well. But at the end of the day, you are your own person. Success is an illusion, and it almost never means what you think it means.
Hi John, I love your blog and your candor in answering questions. I was wondering if you could maybe talk a bit about any drawbacks in getting a BFA from a good visual arts program in a liberal arts university. Would you be able to have the opportunities that art schools provide in terms of industry connections or internships? Thanks in advance!
Just as an aside, I noticed that my tone for answering asks changes depending on my mood a lot. If I answer one of these and I’m all “GRAA!! Change the worldddd!!!” just know that it’s seriously me, not you.
One thing that I’m constantly surprised with on tumblr is the amount of good work coming out of what seems like everywhere. I think that’s wonderful, and honestly it’s a bit unexpected. Sometimes I check a blog and the about page is all “I’m a 3rd year at Tralalalaleeday U studying biological basis of behavior and a minor in drawing.” And then I check the work and I’m like, shit they’re better than I am.
So, of course, the work always comes first. Good work will open more doors more than anything else.
That being said, yeahhh sometimes going to a less specialized school can potentially lessen the amount of networking or exposure you get to other artists, industry professionals, etc. I think that’s just the nature of the beast. For example, at SVA, they have over 50 instructors in the illustration department alone, and they’re all practicing professionals in their respective fields. Over 50! At MCA we had 5 if the administration was feeling especially frisky.
For Nathan Fox’s new Visual Narrative MFA program at SVA, they will literally fly folks in to meet you, or vice versa, in order to learn more about any given industry. (I’m using SVA as an example because I know the most about it. I suspect any decent program with substantial institutional support will be comparable.)
That being said, there’s nothing preventing you from going to programs outside of your school like the Illustration Academy (at MCA you could receive studio credit for attending.) You can volunteer at ICON, enter work into the SOI student competition etc. The larger art schools like SVA, Ringling, RISD, all make a good showing at these because the student body is generally more aware of these opportunities, and often participating in them is part of the curriculum.
Also, not to get all Sun Tzu on you, but think about leveraging your program’s perceived weaknesses as a strength. What does your university offer that an art school doesn’t, and how can that help your work? For example, at KCAI, I learned way more about being an artist in my creative writing classes than in any of my studio courses.
Finally, even if you did attend an art school and they were literally dangling an internship in front of your face, it’s still up to you to take it. You still have to network, meet people, show and talk about your work, and “go get it.” No matter where you go to school, it never hurts to “say hi a lot” as my friend Derrick says.
How did you learn how to look critically at your own work and say, "this is the direction I want to go?" When I look at the things I am making, I feel that it is all ok, but I can't pinpoint the one thing that I can really run with so it all ends up feeling mediocre. How did you learn to edit? Thank you for answering these asks and thank you for showing us your awesome artwork.
Hi! Hmm, that’s a good question.
First off, I think looking critically at your own work can be a pretty difficult thing to do. Like, I was constantly surprised by students who would get really defensive in critique over things that weren’t really debatable (“You’re trying to make this appear real, but the perspective is wrong.”) Because our work tends to be so personal, it’s easy to fall into either:
A) Call the Guggenheim. This is freaking awesome, because I did it.
B) This is the worst thing ever in the history of art, because I did it.
It’s most certainly neither of those, I assure you. I think in general though, the more art you look at, and the more you understand how images and stories work, the more articulate your critical eye will be. It’s kind of like how being a voracious reader makes you a better writer.
Now, what you’re dealing with though is a matter of intent, I believe. Most of the time when we look critically at our work, it’s measuring what we’ve done vs. what we were intending to do. Intent can be multifaceted, and range from “is this concept art professional enough for a AAA video game title” to “does this feel like growing up in the 90’s.”
My advice would not edit your work per se, but back off a little bit and do some writing to figure out what your intent is for any given body of work. Give yourself a mark to measure against, if that makes sense.
What you end up doing is compartmentalizing. For example, last summer I would do 2 days a week where my only goal was to experiment with process. Another 2 days, I would dedicate to investigating personal subject matter; either drawing, writing, visiting museums, doing interviews, etc. What eventually happened was that I found a process that kind of made sense for me, and then I applied it to what I was learning in the personal investigations and stories that I was stockpiling.
I’m still going with it, and I don’t think that process really ever ends, but it definitely has led me to a place that makes sense right now. More than I can say for a year ago, at least.
The key is writing though, it really is. Get everything down on the page and just keep going: what you’re interested in, what’s sacred to you, what pisses you off, what stories you can’t let go of. Eventually patterns will emerge, and the signal to noise ratio will increase.
First off, your artwork is amazing! Second, I was referred to you by Sean Dockery and I asked him a question, I am not sure if you have answered this already but what is the best way to get your artwork out there into the world? I am in my final year of undergrad college in drawing wanting to be an illustrator and I was hoping for some trade secrets or tips? Thank you for your time!!
"But I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do -the actual act of writing- turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward."
- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird. Great, great book on writing/making stuff. Substitute “writing” with art, illustration, design, etc.
First off, thanks for the kind words. I think in Sean’s post, he linked to that chart that’s been going around since Spectrum. In terms of the nuts and bolts of getting work, that’s a pretty straightforward, solid way to approach things.
I’ll add this: screw getting your artwork out into the world. Make it a part of the world. Make the world come to you. Make good, honest, work; make it undeniable. And when opportunities arise, like I’ve said many times before: Bruce tells it best.
I know, I know. I know students kind of bristle when people say “focus on the work.” But you’re seriously poisoning the well if you think that promotion, or even getting work and awards, are anywhere close to being the most important thing.
Not sending out a promotional e-mail doesn’t keep me up at night. What keeps me up is: what do I have to say, and how can I say it best?
Hey John! I love your blog. Your work is gorgeous and I really appreciate all of your thoughtful advice. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how illustrators determine how much to charge for a project. What factors should go into that? Are there "standard" rates or does it depend more on experience/demand/etc.? Thanks! You're great!
Thank you! I really appreciate the kind words!
This is actually a pretty complex question, because there are a lot of factors that go into it. I’ll try and talk about it in a general sense from a freelancer’s perspective:
How do you feel about digital versus traditional? I know digital is quicker and I'm more comfortable and better with oils than photoshop. But I know in the future I need to work quicker because I'm too slow in oils. I went to Spectrum and I saw Dos Santos, Manchess, and Giancola and was impressed. But I'm also fascinated by digital artists Sam Spratt and Stanko who are very painterly but quick. Does the medium matter?
After Winslow Homer for Harper’s, “The Army of the Potomac - A Sharp-Shooter On Picket Duty” 1862, wood engraving
Winslow Homer, “The Army of the Potomac - A Sharp-Shooter On Picket Duty” 1862, oil
One of the things that I like about illustration is that it’s really more about what’s being said than what it (the art object) actually is. I think there’s something wonderfully democratic about that idea. Illustrations are meant to tell stories, and stories are disseminated best when told often and widely. The original object then is most important as an image to be reproduced. Its function as an art object is secondary.
To that end, illustration has always embraced technology quickly, especially if that means truer fidelity to the intended image. Above are two versions of one of Winslow Homer’s reportage illustrations during the Civil War. The bottom one is the original illustration, however the top wood engraving is what thousands of people actually saw when it was printed in Harper’s.
Ironically, it was advances in photography which allowed illustrators to have more control over their images. Color separations via photograph, halftone engraving, and offset lithography replaced relief printmaking, and cut the middlemen of engravers completely out of the publishing process.
Digital tools are pretty similar; they allow us to create a huge range of visuals and share them with the entire world instantly, cutting publishers out of the equation. I bet Homer would much prefer painting digitally than handing a piece over to an engraver.
So that’s the “industry” answer. Use what’s best for the job. If you’re working in concept art, vis dev, and other short-turnaround, high volume industries, then you’re expected to work digitally. Most of my finished illustration work is either 100% or mostly digital.
There’s a flip-side of course. I’ve been showing a lot more, and I’ve found that once you cross over into a more fine-arts context (and remember, as an illustrator you’ll exist in all of these worlds simultaneously) then the object becomes important again. For example, this Rockwell cover just sold for $22.5 million. I can convince an audience that my images are no less valid because I used PS to paint them, but I can’t necessarily fight a market that says that the actual print is only worth $50.
Finally, I just like drawing with analog materials more. I like screwing around with stuff, making messes, and stumbling on accidents. If working “traditionally” is a big part of who you are as an illustrator, man more power to you. There are plenty of people doing it and making it work.