Critiques, and growth, can be hard!

I was reminded recently how painful critiques can be!  I was talking with one of our agency artists about the ‘stuck’ feeling she’d been having recently. She was doing JUST the right thing and asking us and other industry professionals for portfolio critiques to help her see more clearly where she WAS now, and how she might get where she WANTS to be.  One does lose perspective and clarity on ones own work. We’re often too close! She has paying work, and a style we obviously enjoy….but she’d like to move more into the illusive ‘trade picture book look.’ There are no easy answers or directions for that non-distinct destination! It’s very individual, and to be honest, only the ARTIST can find the way there.  But then it’s ‘The Industry’ that decides if the artist has ‘made it.’ Remember, it is a moving target...always changing…thankfully.  If it’s not YOUR year, maybe the next will be.

It is possible however to critique and give some thoughtful pointers….things we’ve noticed, directions the market seems to be moving, suggestions about possible changes IF that’s what the artist truly wishes.  I started by sharing with her a couple of stories from other of our now successful trade agency artists. (family is always fair game!)   Many of their stories were and are a zig zag of fortuitous happenings!  NOT a straight line to success. Even those who SEEM to have lucked out with an initial HIT to the top, often then have to regroup and rethink.  That can be harder …having known easier success! It’s the nature of the always changing business! She seemed to enjoy these stories…made the struggle more real, even though the stories weren’t hers.  She believe she took something from each.

After we finished our hour chat, she mentioned that this critique had been painless and helpful.  I DO hope so of course, but I asked her why particularly. (always looking to improve!)  She told me that my critique, as well as the other two she’d recently had, were NOT ‘painful  or discouraging.’  This interested me as I would think ALL critique givers would strive to be encouraging and productive! But I too have had one or two of the ‘painful’ types.  You feel stripped, naked, bruised and left unsure of the will and justification to go on!  The opposite of what most critique givers would want for you.

I think the generalizing of ‘the struggle’ by sharing others specific stories helped her see that it IS a shared journey, not a lonely personal struggle.  Each story is unique and ongoing, but we all follow similar overall paths – growing, learning, discovering, re-learning, experiencing, pushing ourselves, re-learning. Studying trends and other artists we admire (and feel might be of interest in TODAY’S selling market!) is all good for us. Don’t mimic to own, but DO borrow to play! We want to be true to ourselves and our styles at the same time that we stretch. Stir it up with new materials, approaches, colors, methods, but one generally can’t quite help being ‘YOURSELF’.  Thank heavens! That uniqueness is the spice and fun in all art forms, but in children’s book illustration particularly perhaps.  We bring something NO ONE ELSE can bring ultimately.  The sense of PLAY and FUN and experimentation should always be part of our illustrations because they are for CHILDREN, and the ‘child-like’.  This is their life! Play and learning and experimentation as they try to figure out the world around them.

Critiques then can always help an artist SEE freshly.  I truly do not feel they should be painful….though seeing oneself more clearly can often be hard work! I too  have seen portfolios where my first inclination might be to suggest another field altogether!  But the recipient should NEVER feel like they have been ‘slapped in the face’.  They are laying themselves bare, and we CAN help them redirect if need be in a positive, productive manner.  If you are given a ‘slap in the face’… well, I’d suggest standing up and walking away….as fast as possible!  Run! and then take a deep breath and begin ‘playing’ again!! (A slap in the face generally says more about the critic than the critiqued!) 

As I have said so many many times in my 25+ years, (thanks to an art director many years ago) – Three things are essential: Good Drawing, Good Color (and that might be no color!), and Good Composition! These are the basis for any successful outcome. The solid ground for your castle building! Even in abstract work! It ‘works’ or it doesn’t.  Then the artist builds on top of these basics and creates something new!  HAPPY CREATING!!

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Critiques, and growth, can be hard!