Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Blogpost Re-Run: Critiques & Portfolio Reviews

Below is a blogpost I did four years ago about reviewing people's work and giving them portfolio reviews. Seemed relevant to repost it (though I did some editing on the early paragraphs):

I'm asked to review people's work at conventions and as we head into the 2018 convention season, I'd like to share my thoughts on portfolio reviews, what I do, and what I'm thinking about when giving them.

Receiving a critique is hard. Bravo to the folks that are brave enough to put their work together, walk up to someone in the industry, and show them work opened up for comment. It's a vulnerable place to be. Hopefully, it's also an opportunity to get fresh eyes and ideas on the work with the hopes of improving it.

Giving a critique is hard too. When I first started attending conventions and people plopped down heir work for me to look at, I  had to prepare a way to approach giving critiques that would be helpful. I'd had my share of critiques of my work when I was an art student at Mott Community College and Eastern Michigan University...some were very positive, some were negative...but the ones that helped me most, were a mix of both: honest, but fair.

When I start with someone's portfolio, I first flip through most of the pages without giving very little feedback. I found after a few of these, that it's best to explain that to the artist first so that my silence isn't misconstrued. I want a chance to get a whole lay of the land, an impression of the work without explanation. As I'm doing this, I'm identifying what I see as the strongest piece and the weakest piece.  By doing this, I can now talk to the artist in relative terms about their work. I can show how the other pieces could benefit from whatever techniques or composition, or methodologies they used in the strongest piece. How could the things that they are doing right and well be applied to any piece of theirs with faults. I could hold them to some idealistic standard, but I think that is both too abstract and vague,  and also discouraging. I want to show them what they can fix right now, and they they are already capable of it.

I developed this approach because of my experiences in later college. I was frustrated with professors at the 30 & 400 level classes wanting to 'break you' and remold you in their image (or their idea of art) instead of trying to help you make what you are already doing better...even lightyears better...but within the framework of the work you are already doing. Now, when an art student is beginning, there are a LOT of bad habits that need to be taught out of you, where you need to be reformed, taught a visual foundation, not allowed to explore 'style', and shown how to see. But by the time a student is beyond those core skills, the tearing them down and building back up with whatever idea of art that professor has is pointless and unproductive.

With every review I try to help them fix their own mistakes. 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  needing to focus on those basics, or perspective or anatomy...but other times, I'm digging way in and nit-picking details about storytelling or line weights. As the conversation is ending, I usually give the artist some exercises and a handful of artists to reference 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, or comic storytelling, or children's book illustrations, or environments, whatever the case is, this portfolio should show the kind of work you want to get hired for and are interested in doing. And all of this should 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, ask about influences, find out why some pieces were handled certain ways, and try to engage the artist as much as possible. And then I listen to those answers to tailor my advice. 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.

2018 Appearances:
Heroes Con: June 15-17
San Diego Comic Con: July 18-22
Baltimore Comic Con: Sept. 28-30
New York Comic Con: Oct. 4-7

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