Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Critiques & Portfolio Reviews

Because I'm asked to review people's work at conventions, I have some thoughts on portfolio reviews and critiques I'd like to share as we head into the 2014 convention season. Giving or receiving critiques can be hard and when I was first attending conventions as a professional, I wasn't prepared when the portfolios started opening and young artists were asking for my opinion. I'd had my share of very negative and very positive critiques in college and of course, the most constructive were the ones that were a mix: of both: honest but fair. So over the years, I've developed my method and thought process for how I give a critique.

I start by quietly looking through the entire portfolio in one pass while not engaging the artist much at all. Besides getting an overall impression of the work, I'm also looking for what I see as the stronger and weaker pieces in the portfolio. This way, I can talk to the artists in relative terms about the pieces that need improving by comparing them to their more solid work. I could hold everyone to some absolute high standard, but ultimately, I think the best way to encourage someone and show their their faults without discouraging them, is to point out how techniques they've already applied to some work, could be used to improve all their work.

I developed this approach because of my experience in college being frustrated with some 300 & 400 level professors. Obviously when entering an art program the first few years of classes are to teach you (or re-teach you) the basics and for professors to "break" you of your bad artistic habits, to remold you and open your eyes and get you out of your comfort zone. But by the time you are a junior or senior in a college art program, I felt the professors should stop trying to break you, and focus on your work, and figuring out with you how to make what you are already doing better.

This is what I strive to do with every review. Not to break them or tell them they need to draw like artist X or shake off what makes them unique. I want to congratulate them on what is working and how to make what they already do better. We talk about contour line, line weight, inking techniques, creating greys, texture, style influences, subjects, and mood. I tailor the advice to the work in the portfolio. Sometimes my comments are about still needing to focus on basics, or perspective or anatomy...but other times, I'm getting in and nit-picking details about storytelling or line weights. As the conversation is ending, I usually give the artist some exercises I think will lead them in the direction they want to go..and those assignments can vary from "draw basic shapes and build up forms from them" to "start making comics"

There is also something to be said for how to prepare a portfolio and how to receive a critique.

A portfolio should contain a limited selection of your work showcasing the best you have to offer.
It should have a focus that gives the reviewer a sense of your voice as an artist. There is some merit in showing a wide range of all the varied styles, techniques, and mediums you can use, but ultimately, I find this can lead to too wide a variety of artistic voice that doesn't tell me who you are. It's ok to mix in some color and inks, and pencils, but a portfolio shouldn't be a Swiss-army knife of artistic deeds. Show the type of work you want to do: spot illustrations, comic storytelling, children's book illustrations, whatever the case is. And this should all be your best work to-date.

The best way to receive a review is to listen. Too often I hear the artist who is asking for an opinion, jumping in to self-deprecate, make excuses, or add too much background information. A reviewer can't give you their thoughts and suggestions if you are talking. That's not to say I conduct my reviews being the only one who talks. I ask questions, find out why some pieces were handled certain ways, and try to engage the artist as much as possible. It's totally fine if you disagree with what I or any other reviewer is saying (we may be very wrong about your work), but the only way you really find out if we have anything worth taking to heart is to listen.

So with all of that in mind, I wish you the best of luck when developing and showing a portfolio. I hope the review leads to you growing and improving as an artist or to getting hired for the work you want to do.

2014 Appearances:
MSU Comics Forum: February 22
C2E2: April 25-27
Comicpalooza: May 23-25
Heroes Con: June 20-22
San Diego Comic Con: July 23-27
Boston Comic Con: August 8-10
NY Comic Con: Oct. 9-12


Geof Dail said...

You make some great points!

1) It's frustrating when someone sees art work thinking "not my style", but instead they process it as "not very good". It's especially frustrating when fellow artists can't appreciate the work beyond their own biases.

2) An illustration portfolio is different from a graphic design portfolio. In graphic design, versatility is what should be showcased. In illustration, it should have more of an overall style & feel bridging the individual pieces.

Unknown said...

Very informative post–-it's nice to get a glimpse into the workings of a critiquer's mind

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