Creative Critiquing


Creativity is a fragile thing. Many people have turned away from creativity because of a bad experience with criticism as a child or adult. The fears of failure,  ridicule or appearing inadequate are very real and often paralyzing when creativity is needed.

So what is the difference between criticizing and critiquing? Criticism comes across as an absolute "This is wrong."  The student is,  by implication, a failure.  A critique, on the other hand, is a personal opinion and not a judgment.  Where trust has been built, it can be as harsh as necessary, but it is still an opinion, nothing more.

Be creative in making comments about another person's work.  Only positive, personal opinion comments are allowed.  Use phrases like these in any evaluation or critiquing session:

"This made me wonder if…"
"I like…"
"This reminds me of…"
"What would happen if you tried…"
"I wish I could see what this would look like with…"
"Could you have…"
"Are you happy with…"
"This is an unusual way of…"
"Was there a reason for…"
"How did you…"

Any teacher will do well to carefully plan for critique and evaluation procedures to make them a time of learning, inspiration and encouragement.  It should be fun rather than something to be dreaded. Be sure to allow sufficient time.  This might prove to be the most effective part of your teaching. The following techniques can be adapted for almost any group.  (Some are more adaptable for online classes than others.)

1.  The Teacher Critique  Display all the items. Teacher makes comments like "I like this for this reason. And this one has some of the same (or opposite) feel. Isn't it strange (wonderful) how the same starting point can have so many different solutions!"
(By grouping your comments when appropriate, you will enhance the positive effect and diminish the negative effects of more or less extensive individual comments.)

2.  Show and Tell  Student displays work and provides commentary--"I like…"; "I don't like…"; "I tried to…"; "I wish I had…"; "The next time I would try…"  Encourage an exploration of what happened during the decision making process.  This is a good time to point out the usefulness of a project journal.  Each time the student reaches a "fork" in her work, she should write down the road not taken.

3.  Docent  Students imagine that they are a docent leading a Gallery Tour. Each will chose a work to comment on. This commentary can be a personal reaction, an analysis of technique, or an analysis of the artist's intent as the docent perceives it--you may want to allow time for an artist's rebuttal!

(If necessary, remove an item from consideration when it has had two comments or insist that a new item be chosen. In real time situations, you can always plead lack of time, and do the last few comments yourself if you feel that will be wiser. A student may also be allowed to introduce the "Curator" (you) for additional comments. Unless this is a serious study group, try to keep the procedure light-hearted or even occasionally silly.)

4.  In the Spotlight  Allow one or more featured students to display other work as well. (Works best in a long-running class).  Have both them and the class discuss the body of work - are there trends, do we see growth, are the works recognizably the work of one person?

5.  The Silent Treatment  Work is displayed and an individual sheet of paper made available with each one. Students will write a comment or note to the artists they choose. Online, this would be much the same as other conversations since all are written.  However, if it is a class in which this would be appropriate, the students could send private emails.

6.  Quilt Store  Students view all the items and then choose the two they would most like to own.  They then write a note to each artist telling why they would choose that one.

7.  Grouping  Display items on a table or floor where they can be easily rearranged. The first student picks two items that are related in some way and explains why they were chosen. These two are then placed side by side.  A second student picks another and either adds it to the first group or starts a new grouping.  The next student selects one (either from a group or a new one) to add to or start a new category.  When only one or two items are left ungrouped, discuss what makes them unique.   At home, students can save the photos of the work and paste them into their own graphics program to view side by side if they feel this is needed.

(This can be a very intensive learning process so allow enough time.  As teacher, you may wish to suggest possible categories if needed: kind of line or shape or color scheme, mood, use of movement, rhythm, pattern, focus or direction. You may also need to help some students clarify why they think two items should be grouped together.)

8.   The "What if" game Prepare a list of changes on slips of paper, such as

  • All blue areas become red
  • Wave your magic wand and make a line change to a curve
  • Add another border
  • Remove one thing.

A student draws one slip and tries to visualize what would happen to his own work or another  student's if that change were applied.  How would it affect the results?  In classes where the work is diagrams and all students share a software such as EQ, they may actually be able to see these changes.  Or you can have them perform the change on their own work at home, uploading the changed diagram.

This article was written by Lily Kerns

Another Opinion

Tristan Blakeman, whose work takes him into both the theatre and the quilting worlds, gives his take on critiquing.  

QUESTIONS are the way to start any critique.

  • What did you WANT me to see?
  • How did you think you achieved that?
  • Is this a piece in progress or a finished work? (a REALLY important question!)
  • When working on  aspect, did you think about ??? or try ???
  • Do you think that this idea works as well as (whatever you think is a viable alternative)?

Any adjudication/critique is a learning experience and we learn best from a dialogue, not through lecturing.  It also allows the person being critiqued to feel that THEY have come up with the answers themselves, which is truly a learning experience, and is a good way to remain friends and not hurt somebody's feelings! 

There are also certain words/phrases that should never be used during a critique/adjudication. "I liked" or "I didn't like" is the biggest. Truthfully, nobody really cares whether you like something.  You should be questioning the effectiveness of a piece. 

Other words to avoid: wrong, right, attractive, pretty, ugly, lovely, hideous, boring.  These are words that neither help nor teach, but rather are subjective opinions based on the person's taste.  Taste and style should never be judged.  What is important is that the artist is conveying what they are attempting to convey.

Also, no matter how strongly one feels about a piece being viewed, it is good to remember that it is EASY to Monday morning quarterback!  If you don't have a viable solution or idea to a problem, I would not  venture an opinion on it.

You can visit Tristan's Web site and see the work he does:

Written by Carol Miller for Quilt U

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