Tell me the truth…maybe.

RonnieCheerleader-WebRecently someone in one of the art licensing Facebook groups asked where people go for critique of their work. And occasionally someone will post an image and ask people what they think of it and its viability in the marketplace. I have been known to have my fingers poised over the keyboard to compose a (brilliantly kind) critique from my perspective as a qualified fresh eye. But I stop myself. Why? Well, I don’t know this person and I don’t know if she really wants criticism or does she want someone to say “Good Job! You worked hard on that!” Does she want honest feedback or does she want a cheerleader? Two very different things, and I am not going to second guess that answer with a complete stranger on a public forum. Not my can o’ worms to open.

As many of you know (because I keep talking about it), I have been writing for the past few years and have published a couple of books. What? You didn’t know that? Well, click here to learn more about that! In this process of figuring out how to craft stories out of thin air, I have become more connected to other writers through blogs, books and actual human connection. Critique partners and groups are much more common in the writing world and have helped lots of writers improve their craft by hearing the input of others who are qualified to give it. Or it’s caused a few writers to curl up into a tiny ball of angst after hearing that their dialog is stilted and the plot needs a complete overhaul. It is not for the faint of heart to listen to comments about the work you have wrestled from each fiber of your being and spewed onto a perfectly good sheet of paper. I once made the mistake of reading an early excerpt from a story I was writing that was not the typical subject for my writing group. I will not forget the sting of criticism from someone who clearly had no affinity-or respect- for the genre itself, much less my writing of it. I realized that I was reading up the wrong tree.

So if you are going after the hunt for honest critique of your work (and you should at some point), there are people who are qualified to critique your work as to its viability in the art licensing arena and there are some (ok, most) who are not.

Qualified to critique your portfolio:

  • Seasoned professionals that understand the business like:
  • Most Art Licensing Agents
  • Other artists who have successful licensing careers over a decent chunk of time who are not threatened by other artists
  • Consultants to the industry as long as they are up on current trends and market
  • People you trust and respect.

Not qualified to critique your portfolio:

  • Artists who want to be licensed. As much as we love them, if they haven’t figured it out for themselves, do you want to take advice from them?
  • Artists who have a bad attitude and do not have your best interests at heart
  • Your Mom. (sorry, she fits into another category…or two)

I am a huge advocate for artists supporting each other and I don’t know what I would do without my own posse of fellow creatives who get what this world is like to live in. And although we sometimes give each other honest feedback (when asked) we are really cheerleaders for each other. (“You can do this! I know you can! And if you can or can’t, I don’t care! Now have some wine…”) So who should be in your Cheerleader camp?

  • Artists who are on a similar path to yours and are not threatened by your work.
  • Your friends who just want to see you succeed already!
  • Your significant other
  • Your Mom–See? Here she is!

But if you want to develop an ongoing cast of comrades to act as fellow critique-ers, remember that selecting critique partners or groups is a delicate process. Trust, respect and a healthy sense of humor are essential qualities to set the stage for everyone’s growth. To prevent anyone from feeling hurt, embarrassed or just plain ticked off, snide comments, rolled eyes or anything resembling sarcasm should be left at the door–but they are mandatory while watching The Bachelor with your girlfriends. It will also help to learn the fine art of critique which in writing circles is called the Critique Sandwich. It works like this:

  • Lay down a base of positivity. “Your color palette is incredible; love that you used the aqua and orange-y red as accent colors!”
  • Spread a layer of criticism. “But I’m a little concerned about who your audience is. The sentiment seems like it’s for adult women but the art style feels juvenile to me.”
  • Top it off with a big old dollop of positivity! “Your style is really beginning to emerge and your message is spot on! I think with a few tweaks this will be a great collection!”

There! Now, wasn’t that easy?

Using phrases like these can help your partners come to their own answers:

  • Have you considered_____________?
  • Tell me about why you ___________.
  • Maybe____________might be a stronger approach.

Instead of:

  • What were you thinking?
  • It’ll never sell.
  • Well, that sucks.

And here’s another thing. Remember everybody comes to the table with their own viewpoints and sensibilities. So thank them, don’t argue and consider whether what they said gave you more insight into where you want to go with your work. A good critique will open up more questions, leading you to find the right answer for yourself. And the other kind is just…someone else’s opinion. But you can tell the difference, can’t you?

And when it’s your turn, be kind, be clear and don’t forget the sandwich.

Finally, be very careful when asking anonymous forums for a critique of your work—you can open yourself up for all kinds of grief when faceless, possibly heartless people have a place to voice their opinion. Or worse, all you’ll hear is, “great work!”

I have worked in the illustration biz since Hello Kitty was a wee kitten, including time spent as an art director, illustrator, agent and consultant, so I have a pretty good eye for evaluating an artist’s portfolio’s potential for art licensing. I can usually spot the pieces that rise to the surface and which ones should either be reworked or retired. I love this process and the clarity it can give an artist—I also know the feeling of staring at something for so long you can’t tell of its good, bad or boring. But you see—I’m qualified. And I am also seasoned enough to first ask the question—are you looking for a critique or a cheerleader?

Because I’m pretty good at that too—except for the cartwheels.

12 thoughts on “Tell me the truth…maybe.

  1. Here here. At the end of the day, I have a couple of trusted artist friends when I really need a second pair of eyes. I love that the internet gives us communities and resources, but it can be a very tricky environment for productive critiques as you have so gracefully pointed out.

  2. Sage advice as always Ronnie. You definitely know how to put things in perspective. So glad you decided to throw your hat in the ring and give this advice.

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