People generally suck at giving critique, about as much as people suck at taking it. So this journal is here to help.
I'll probably update this entry if I think of anything more to add
Critique vs Review
It's important to note that there is a key difference between a review and a critique. A critique exists in the interest of the creator, while a review exists in the interest of the writer.
A review is how the writer
feels about the work and is persuading others to support / not support it. Reviews are appropriate for things like movies, games, shows, etc. and while they can contain useful bits of feedback for the creator, their primary goal is to express the author's feelings on the work.
A critique by comparison wishes to help the artist improve at least within context of a space like Deviantart or social media
. It doesn't need to be public and it ideally is tailored to the person receiving it. Usually this is written by someone with more technical expertise who instead of focusing solely on how the work makes them feel, they focus on more objective aspects.
A lot of people aren't even aware of the differences, so their critiques are either just reviews strictly made in self-interest, or sometimes are even just vague pieces of feedback that should just stay as a comment. It's not uncommon to see overly simple commentary being passed off as critique, such as "I like A and B but don't like C!" and then the writer calls it a day. Congrats, xXSnuggle_VampireXx, you now have the critical prowess of a 4th grader.
The "Sandwich Method"
Honestly? Fuck the 'sandwich method.' The sandwich method intends to mediate a criticism by sandwiching a negative between two positives.
The problem is most people think vague generic descriptions such as "I like X" and "B is bad" qualify for this and satisfy the requirements for a critique.
Even if you do get more specific and explain "why," it's unnecessary for the formatting. The "Sandwich Method" is largely a recommendation for people who are new to assessing works and don't know how to write a more thorough critique yet, and are probably delivering it to artists who don't know how to read or respond to a critique properly. It also relies very heavily on surface-level observations that anyone can make.
By all means, you can use it if the artist is still very obviously learning to make your advice and feedback more palatable. You can also commend them for what they attempt and breaking out of their comfort zones, even if it didn't succeed.
Scores and Ratings
This is just a personal gripe, but scoring systems generally muddy critiques and are better left to reviews. An overall score is manageable to work with, but when it comes to specific aspects (like what DA does) there's no consistent set of standards. Someone may be scoring you compared to all pieces they see across many levels, based on what they've reviewed before. Some may compare your score to your other works and monitor your progress. It usually is totally subjective and lends itself to the previously mentioned problem of not explaining the 'why' to the ratings.
I hated using scores when I used to give a lot of critiques on this site. As an artist, try not to pay mind to scores and focus on the commentary.
How a critique actually works
The first goal you should have with a critique is identify the intention of the artist. Why did they make the piece, and what is the piece trying to say? Start by identifying this and explaining what you interpret.
This is the most honest first step you can take. If you miss the mark, the artist will realize that they weren't clear enough--or maybe they WANTED it to be vague in that respect, so they'll feel satisfied that you came up with a different meaning.
And you don't need to stop at one message. You can theorize multiple interpretations of a work.
The next step is to identify how the artist accomplishes this message, and what hinders them. If you desperately want to use a sandwich method, this is where you use it, but don't feel bound by that. What about the color choice, the composition and posing, the stylistic choices, camera angle, lighting, etc. make the message stronger? What makes it less clear? How do the technical aspects emphasize all this?
Goals and intents don't need to be grandiose or deep every single time. If it's just a character design, is it for animation, comics, or just for general art? Comment on its silhouette and complexity for repeated drawing, and the appeal / what purpose you feel the character will serve in their work without
reading about them at all.The best critique is focused on the choices the artist makes and what can be done differently, not what can be done more.
(Though, advice on how to optimize / get the same or better impact with less work is also useful, but that's more technical and requires more intimate knowledge of the artist's process.)
Most 'critics' on DA (and in general) focus on the technical aspects. This works great for critiquing more novice artists who are just learning, but becomes less useful at higher levels. (Not completely unheard of, however.) Technical critiques are also much more easy to get objective with, which is why they are heavily prioritized.
This is also why the sandwich method is so popular, as usually a technical criticism is going to be negative--if you notice something on the technical side, chances are is because it's off. Because technical criticisms are so surface level that anyone can notice them, some people get into the false mindset that critiques are inherently negative, so people suggest sandwiching them to avoid this.
Technical critiques comment on anatomy, color balance, line quality, clarity, etc. By contrast they also can point out how an element is done exceptionally well (e.g., maybe you're impressed by how realistic a character's stomach looks.) Feel free to point out what you like on the technical side, it certainly doesn't hurt.
One other thing that can be helpful is acknowledging attempts
. E.g., maybe an artist is trying to do a highly dynamic and difficult pose and camera angle. Commend them on trying this, even if you notice and comment it's off.
You can tie the technical aspects into the message and intentions as well, in fact that's the most useful way to incorporate technical critique. I have two examples here:
On a cartoon I critiqued recently, one big technical criticism I had was the start of the animation had a big section of scrolling text as a prologue. I commented that this was a bit weak and tedious for the start of an animation, but I also commented that it also felt like it was supposed
to feel rambling, as if it was making fun of how "every fantasy setting needs some huge epic and overly long backstory." So, even though it technically was weaker, I stated that I assumed that was the artist's intention, so it served its purpose. If that was their intent and they had the resources to, they could have furthered this message by having it narrated, which might've presented a few opportunities for some additional points of humor (e.g., if this hypothetical narrator started stumbling over words or running out of breath, or getting more and more bored as the text scrolled).
Another simple example, my recent "Boost" animation, I got one comment on Youtube saying "there should have been a camera shake at the end." This is a super short criticism but it embodies everything I'm talking about here. It's a statement that clearly understands what the animation was aiming to do, it's a simple technical change that increases the impact of the work, and it isn't something that would've required a huge amount more from me. The comment wasn't a fully drawn out critique, but that single statement still demonstrates what I'm talking about.
At higher levels, technical critique becomes often more vague because more experienced artists make fewer errors. As such, focusing exclusively on the technical aspects becomes more nitpicky, and becomes more a matter of choices rather than errors, so it's better to tie it back to the intentions and goals of the piece.
Also, a quick note on anatomy versus style, which has been debated to death: the two are distinct. Style is how anatomy is simplified or represented. Styles can still have anatomy errors, but when critiquing anatomy you do still have to account for style. Usually the best way to identify anatomy errors is via consistency and proportion, rather than how close it is to realism. This would require a whole tutorial or other journal to describe so I won't go into it further here.
Acknowledge your subjectivity and shortcomings
Even on some elements you feel are obviously objective, there is going to be a level of subjectivity. This doesn't mean you can't make a statement, but if there's anything you feel even remotely uncertain of, you can temper it with how you say it. For instance, instead of saying "The purpose of this piece is to say X" you can say "I get the feeling with this piece you wanted to say X." Instead of "Do Y to further this," say "I feel Y would help with this."
You don't have to do this every time, but it helps to do it when appropriate.
Additionally, if you're commenting on something that you feel is weak but don't know how to help, acknowledge that. Saying "Something feels a bit off about the leg but I don't know how you would fix it" is more useful than ignoring it or simply going "Leg bad / leg suck"
Get in touch with your FEELINGS, mang
Plus, sometimes you aren't qualified to critique something, and that's okay. A personal example, I do not trust most animation-specific critiques directed at me, because so much goes into animation that it can be very hard to review properly for the average viewer. Elements involved in an animation, such as writing or some technical aspects like pallets or character design or camera angle / composition can still be critiqued reliably most of the time, but for MOST animation-specific critiques I have a clique of friends who are also experienced animators. They are who I trust to give me clear feedback and address problems that either go over the average viewer's head, or are things that the average viewer would struggle to put into words. They also understand my workflow and limitations, so they can offer suggestions that consider that.
Your critique should be as specific as possible. You are critiquing a single piece, and your comments are on the various specific elements and choices within the piece. You're not comparing it to another artist.
Progress is a bit odd in this respect, as you still need to keep the single piece the focus. Commenting on progress may seem like a contradiction, but it is possible to do if you've had multiple interactions with the artist and you better understand their workflow and scope of skill. The entire span of an artists' works prior to the one you critique should show their absolute skill caps at this moment. You can use this to determine what they are capable of and how that fits in to the piece you're currently reviewing, as well as determine how the artist themself values the work. (For example, I hold major prints in a different regard than the cell-shaded quality I use for commission. Trying to compare the two for critique purposes isn't useful.)
While it may be good-intentioned to try and offer advice on an artist's progress overall, it is insanely hard to do so without being super close to the artist. For instance, prior to releasing Override, someone tried to comment on my animation with respect to fight scenes and was offering me a ton of vague, unwarranted, and unwanted suggestions about what to do. The last public animation I released that was of a fight scene was in 2014. They hadn't seen what I was capable of doing, and even when I asked them what they were referring to, they said they were commenting on "Just animations in general."
That is insanely useless. They had barely looked at my work. (Lo and behold they also had no animating experience and their only frame of reference was a bunch of gifs from anime.)It is also important to note it is not your place to tell an artist where they should progress to next. That is their decision.
If they're wandering or have stated they don't know what to do to advance (usually if they're clearly novice), and are specifically asking what they should do to improve, that is when you can suggest what to try, but outright telling them what they should do just makes you look like a dick and removes their agency, especially if they already have their own plans.
Instead, if you want to comment on progress, it should be in reference to specific pieces and how they stack up compared to the most recent or two works in the same tier
by that artist.
It also goes without saying, but your critique should focus on recent works. Trying to critique a 2 year old piece implies the artist hasn't adapted and improved since then and quite frankly is useless to everyone involved, and is more likely just to stroke your own ego than it is to help anyone improve.
Responding to Critique
Artists are free to respond to your critique, and like it or not, they do have the final say. They may point out you missed the purpose of the piece--and maybe after pointing it out it'll feel more obvious to you, or you can respond and adjust your critique that way. In an ideal world, critique is actually an engagement between the artist and the critic, and you both come out of it with a higher level of understanding.
Artists are not required to accept a critique, and hopefully if they do so it's simply because the critique is bad or isn't useful, not because they feel above the critic. And, if they do reject a critique, hopefully they can do so with grace, and the critic can respond in kind. That's why it's very important that you are courteous. (And courteous doesn't mean being exclusively positive. There is a massive difference between saying "The anatomy around the legs is weak" and "The anatomy around the legs sucks." "The finger looks too long" and "What the fuck is wrong with her finger?")
Being a critic does not make you an authority. If you wish to give critique, you need to be prepared to receive it as well. A critique, while designed to further the artist's abilities, is also a test of your artistic understanding. It is possible for you to make mistakes in your analysis, just as much as it's possible for an artist to flub drawing a hand--and I can guarantee this will happen at some point or another. No one is infallible. Temper your statements where appropriate as mentioned above to mitigate this and make you seem less arrogant if you do get something wrong or miss something. This also leaves the door open to discussion, so the artist (and potentially other critics) can more easily clarify their own intentions, or reassure you that you were correct. Hell, don't be afraid to ask questions, even. That's a great way to engage with the artist.
Yes, there are many artists out there who do not know how to take criticism. There are also a lot of critics who don't know how to either. Going to Mr. Anime from above, he got hurt and dejected when I pointed out "Hey, I know you mean well, but unfortunately it isn't really helpful if you can't be specific and recent," and suddenly made the conversation about him. Avoid this by treating critique like a discussion, not a lecture.
Important things to Note
OBVIOUSLY: Don't be a dick. If you feel the need to be insulting, you're a literal child and shouldn't be critiquing anyone as you don't have the competency to do so anyway.
However, also avoid unintentionally being a dick. An example of this is half-assed reassurances. This requires a lot of context,
but it's obvious when you see it in a critique. An example is statements like "Keep going, okay?" phrased in a manner as if they feel they're being harsh on you so they're nervous about you potentially being fragile (which is especially obnoxious if the critique fails as being actual criticism). If you absolutely feel compelled to say comments like that, but you don't want them to feel passive aggressive, try phrasing them differently. "Keep going, okay?" can become "Keep it up!" to drop the shitty, passive-aggressive tone. Overall however, unless there is a clearly understood dynamic between you and the artist that warrants it, avoid using assurances that sound like a teacher talking to a student. It's patronizing.
Comments that also seem to devalue the previous works or skill of the artist are also a big no: remember, a critique is on the artist's skill, not just the piece itself. For instance, saying "Wow, you've improved a lot!" when you're comparing a quick work they made last week to something they spent a whole day on is disingenuous, especially if the week before that you see they made a detailed work of the same caliber. You can totally comment on how an artist has improved and say that, but just make sure you understand the full breadth of their skill. Many artists kinda tier themselves and their works (even subconsciously), so if you can identify this, you can use it to further your feedback and make sure you assess and compare things by an artist that are in the same tier. You also can't really say someone's improved if they're doing something totally new that can't really compare to what they've done before. (In cases like this, maybe comment on specifically what makes you think they've improved instead.)
Make sure your suggestions don't boil down to "make this more complex / spend more time on it" (unless that's what you actually intend to say). Your feedback should generally be what can be done differently,
not what there should have been more of. Saying someone should've animated at a higher framerate (multiplying their workload), colored a drawing meant to be a sketch, added in additional angles, etc. isn't a critique, that's just asking for more content. (Sometimes 'do more' comments are useful, such as "it might've helped to spend more time experimenting with the pose," but that's a clear, targeted comment.)
Be specific with your critique. You're discussing how the piece marks on the artist's path.
If you wish to provide examples for the artist to learn from, make sure they are relevant and that you explain them. Dumping a lot of clips done by fully-staffed studios and vaguely going "animate more like this..." is stupid
and only serves to make you look ridiculous.
You shouldn't critique an artist's old work as if it's still relevant today. I get people still trying to critique an animation I made in 2013. That's just stupid. That's acting as if the artist hasn't made any changes or improvements from that point.
And it goes without saying, you are expected to have a level of competency with what you're critiquing. That doesn't mean you need to be as skilled or even skilled at all, though it helps by a huge measure. It's very important to acknowledge, however, especially if you don't understand an artist's workflow or environment.
You should not compare your critique to other critiques made. This often leads to "oh wow everyone was being so nice to this artist, but I see a mistake so I need to be EXTRA harsh to counterbalance this!" That's just called being a dick and trying to justify it.
A Quick Recap
- A "critique" is an educated assessment and intends to help the artist improve / is artist focused. A "review" is your thoughts on a piece and is focused on your perspective and feelings.
- Good critique immediately tries to identify what the piece is trying to say or accomplish.
- In more novice artists, it also tries to identify how the artist is learning, and focuses more on their advancement than just their results. This becomes much harder to do with more advanced artists.
- The best critique is focused on the choices the artist makes and what can be done differently to satisfy these goals.
- Make sure your critique doesn't boil down to "do more." Spending more time to make a bigger work isn't an improvement, it's just more of an investment.
- Technical aspects can be critiqued are more easily objective, but are much more surface-level.
- Good critique manages to tie in technical choices to the goal of the piece. Higher levels will see fewer technical missteps, so this is especially important then.
- Acknowledge your subjectivity and shortcomings. Don't act like you know everything the artist intended.
- Temper heavy statements that you may not feel 100% positive about by framing them as suggestions or with "I feel." Remember it is possible for you to make mistakes in analysis just as artists do with art.
- Make sure your critique considers that you don't necessarily know the environment or workflow of the artist.
- Be as specific to single pieces as possible. Don't be vague / general.
- In an ideal world, critique is a dialog between artist and critic. Both the artist and critic should be open to discussion, and it shouldn't be like you lecturing the artist.
- Critique can be critiqued.
- Don't be a dick, don't be passive aggressive (even unknowingly so)
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