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Peer Critique – A critical skill

During the course of your career as a digital artist, whether in visual effects, feature animation or games, you are going to be asked many times to offer critique on the work of others. Sometimes it will be another team member asking for an opinion. Sometimes it will be a supervisor or client. And once you start to take leadership positions it will be members of your team seeking mentorship. How the other person receives the critique is equally as important as how you offer it. If both the giver and receiver are in the right frame of mind, the critique will achieve maximum effect with minimum bruised egos.

Rule #1: If you are giving a critique you need to be honest and respectful. If you are giving a peer critique, it means you are offering your thoughts to someone who is on the same level as you, maybe even a friend of yours. What do you say if you have been asked to critique something and it is really just awful? It’s a tricky situation. You don’t want to insult your friend or hurt her feelings. So you hedge a little and offer a bland, general opinion, perhaps pointing out one or two things that could be improved.

You: “Oh, yeah. That’s…not bad. I like the way you’ve used colour in your textures. Maybe you could tone down the magenta slightly.” When what you probably were thinking was “Really? Magenta? That really ruins the intention of the composition and totally distracts from the subject. And what’s with the chartreuse and orange? How about a major desaturation across the board?”

Your uncommitted critique might nudge the artist in the right direction, but then again, it might not. She might think you have one little issue with the shot, so she may send it for review hoping the supervisor doesn’t share your opinion. You have really not helped her. Your intention to save her feelings is commendable, but how do you think she’s going to feel when her shot gets ripped to shreds in front of the supervisor in a room filled with her peers?
Rule #2: If you are receiving a critique, you need to understand that the person is giving you honest, respectful critique intended to help you grow. It may not be what you want to hear, but it is what you need to hear. If you are truly committed to your skill growth, you desire honest critique. “No pain, no gain” as they say.

When I teach my lighting and shading classes, I teach peer critique as a core skill. The first time we review an assignment on the big screen in front of the class, someone usually misses the mark and I ask the class what they think of that student’s work. Invariably, the students hedge, often offering encouragement and making positive noises. They don’t say what they are thinking because they want to be positive and encouraging. It’s a natural response, but it makes for an uncomfortable situation. So I ask the class “How many people here want to be great artists?” Naturally everybody puts up their hand. Then I ask “How many people here want their classmates to become great artists?” Again, everybody puts up their hands. And finally, I ask “How many think this artist can improve if we tell them that this is good work?” Of course nobody puts up their hand. It sounds a little harsh, especially toward the artist whose picture is up on the screen. But I follow up this way; I say “This artist is in this class because she knows she has weaknesses and she wants to strengthen them. We want to help her strengthen them. If we do not show her where the weakness lies, she will never try to improve. She wants that critique. And think of it this way; every honest critique you give this artist is a gift. It is an opportunity for her to examine her choices and understand where she went wrong. She can then make different choices that she thinks will improve the shot, and most times it will.”

Now we get to “respectful critique”. If you are giving a critique, nothing requires you to say something like “Are you kidding?” or “That looks like shit, dude.” When that artist comes to you for a critique she is saying that she respects your opinion, and you should respond with respect for the effort that she has put into the shot, regardless of the quality. An artist who offers a demeaning critique is usually one who is not certain about his own skills and wishes to show through a harsh critique that he is better or more knowledgeable. Really all he is showing is what a jerk he can be. All he is accomplishing is the loss of respect from his peers.

When you are asked to critique and you first examine the shot, if you find it unacceptable, try to understand what she was thinking when she made her choices. You could even specifically ask “Why did you choose to do this here and that there?” And once you understand how she came to this conclusion you can help her understand where her choices went off the rail. Here’s an example:

One of the first lighting assignments I give my lighting and shading class is creating sunny day lighting. It is quite simple, however unless you have carefully studies the nature of sunny day lighting, it can really kick your ass. Usually nobody nails it the first time. Most people have similar misperceptions of the nature of sunny day lighting and it shows in their first assignment. So we look at a photo of sunny day and examine the three main properties that identify lighting as “sunny day”. We then go back to the assignments one by one and look for those three properties. Once we get through three or four, the class quickly becomes expert at identifying the strengths and weaknesses of any particular image. It becomes a game and everybody notices a pattern in the errors. There’s nothing disrespectful in the remarks. And while artists come out of that class wondering how they could have done their first assignment so badly, I think of that as a huge victory. Artists begin to doubt their own perceptions and begin looking more closely at the world to try to make sense of it. This is the BIG takeaway. As Obi-wan once said, they have “just taken their first step into a larger world”.

Some believe that the reviewer should always be sure to say something nice about a work while critiquing it so as not to hurt the artist’s feelings. Some believe one should always be sure to keep the positive and negative balanced. The net result is that the reviewer either a) manufactures nice things to say or b) avoids discussion some of the issues to keep it balanced. Either way the review is not honest. But shouldn’t we be sensitive about the feelings of the artist? Of course we should, and we do that by being respectful. And that means we have enough respect for the artist to give them an honest critique and trust that they won’t have a tantrum. This is a professional environment, not a kindergarten class. Artists need to grow a hide thick enough to take some cutting critique. Not everybody is skilled in providing respectful, honest critique. I know if I was an artist who found out that my peers or leaders were not giving me completely honest critique, I’d be pissed. It is not always (ok never) pleasant to hear someone say of your work “This or that could be a lot better. You completely missed the mark.” But I can tell you that my own growth as an artist was the fastest in environments where my peers and supervisors didn’t pull any punches, however painful that might have been at the time. I am grateful for that (sometimes brutal) honesty and I would not take any of it back if I could.

So the next time a friend asks you for a critique say something like this;

“Are you sure you want an honest critique from me? OK then, but I want you to understand that if I tell you something you don’t want to hear it is because I want to help you grow and I hope you will not take offense. Are you sure you still want that critique?” If they are a serious artist, they will not hesitate to say “YES!”