One of the best ways to improve your craft is by learning how to critique your own work. No one else knows better than you do what your artistic goals are—both overall, and for each piece.
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No one else knows your own short-comings better, either.
Self-crits work best if you develop the habit of assessing every drawing on a regular basis. And they’re most productive if you use the same basic guidelines for each drawing. A standard checklist (or crit sheet) provides such guidelines and helps keep your self-evaluations focused and consistent.
Before I offer suggestions on how to set up your own crit sheet, let me share two basic tips: one that you should do, and one you should always avoid.
NOTE: I’m writing this from the viewpoint of a colored pencil artist, but the system works with any type of art.
First, research artists you respect
Find artists whose work you admire and who are producing the type of work you hope to one day produce. Study their methods and their results. Read about their methods, or if possible, watch videos of their process. Even the time-lapse videos provide valuable insight into such things as how other artists apply color, and the colors they use. Then compare those methods and results to yours.
I know a lot of people say you should never compare yourself to another artist, and in some respects, that advice is sound. But I spent years comparing my work with the work of artists I admired, and I learned a lot.
For one thing, it showed me new possibilities. . . which provided hope and a sense of destination. In the days before the internet, those two things were more valuable than gold. Nowadays, it’s easier than ever to see how other artists work.
Does this mean you have to copy everything someone else does? Not at all. That can be a good way to improve, but it’s not vital. Just try what appeals to you. Keep what works, and ignore what doesn’t.
Second, DON’T allow harsh self-criticism
Try not to be overly critical of yourself. Yes, it’s okay to acknowledge when you fail to meet a goal, or when you try something new and it doesn’t work out – but let those failures be the springboard from which you launch the next artwork, rather than allowing despair or self-doubt to derail your artistic journey.
Negative self-thoughts are counter-productive at the best of times, so be on guard against them. Learn to recognize the signs that you’re getting hyper-critical, and step away from your work for a while. Take a breather.
Or take a walk, then evaluate your work later on with fresh eyes. It’ll benefit you every single time.
OK – ready to create your own crit sheet?
Most of us know there are a number of things we can improve. Just remember that improvement is a journey, not a destination. There will always be something to work on, so you don’t have to work on everything at once.
Your crit sheet will be a simple road map for self-evaluation and improvement. Here are a few steps to get you started with your own crit sheet:
1. Know your strengths
Set out several of your best drawings. Look at them as a collection. What are you doing right overall? Write an honest assessment of those areas.
This list not only serves as a point of comparison for your weaknesses; it helps you keep discouragement at bay when it seems like you can’t do anything right!
2. Assess your weaknesses
Look at that same collection of drawings again. Do you see any areas in which you’re consistently falling short? Is composition good, but rendering is lacking? Do you have good grasp of color theory, but your drawings need work? These are the things you most likely want to give the most attention to.
Write an honest assessment of those areas, and how you might go about improving them. This is the outline for your crit sheet.
3. Identify exactly what you’d like to improve
I recommend targeting a few things, or maybe a single area, that you most want to improve on. You could choose basic drawing skills, for example, or improving your values, or something else. Once you’ve identified a big idea, pinpoint specific things you want to work on within that topic.
For example, I’ve noticed that most of my landscapes look alike. The greens are all about the same. No matter what time of year I draw, they all look like spring.
That’s my basic problem. So once I identified it, I began pinpointing specific things I should be doing but wasn’t, as well as things I shouldn’t be doing but was (and other things to help me draw more natural looking landscapes).
One of the things I pinpointed was color selection. I used the same basic colors on almost every drawing. No wonder they all looked alike! So I started paying more attention to color selection from the beginning of every drawing. Improvement happened immediately.
TIP: It’s generally best to begin with the biggest, most basic problems first. When you’re satisfied with progress, then work on something else.
4. Write your checklist
Once you’ve identified the thing you want to improve, make a checklist of specific questions that you want to ask yourself while you create. For example, my list looks like this:
• Am I choosing the right color for each subject or reaching for the usual color?
• Have I accurately shown distance through color selection and values?
• Am I drawing what I actually see, or drawing what I think should be there?
5. Compare your checklist with every finished piece
Use this checklist on every new artwork you create. Consistency is as important as identifying your weaknesses. The more consistent you are in evaluating your work, the more quickly you’ll improve.
So evaluate each drawing as you draw it and again when you finish it.
After you’ve completed a body of work—say four to six drawings—do another group evaluation. Have you improved overall? Where can you continue to improve?
This evaluation will help you decide whether you need to continue working toward improvement in the same area, or if it’s better to start working on another area (if so, then you’ll create a new crit sheet, or update your existing one).
Obviously, improvement is a life-long endeavor. . . there will always be something to improve. So your crit sheet doesn’t need to be long and complex – mine only has three questions—but it does need to be specific and relevant.
After all, it’s not enough to just want to be a better artist—it takes specific goals to prompt us to take action. And a well-used crit sheet is the best tool I can imagine for that kind of self-improvement.