How to survive a negative critique

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"Feedback is the breakfast of champions."

Kenneth H. Blanchard, leadership expert and author


Whether you are just starting in digital art or have years of experience under your belt, two things are certain: first, you want to get better. And second, you will need to take a fair share of criticism along the way. Original insight, guidance, a fresh look at your work - those are all valuable benefits of having your art critiqued.

And since we already talked about how to give constructive criticism, let's look at it from the other side, too.

Because getting a negative comment is tough...right? Our egos get in the way and a defense mechanism kicks in, preventing us from accepting criticism at its face value.

How can you approach a critique of your work with open ears and embrace even - or especially - the negative comments?

Listen and Grow

The CG Cookie tutor crew knows that not everyone is receptive to feedback: "The number of people who refuse to accept feedback is staggering," says Jonathan Williamson. "But they are only hurting themselves. You don't exist in a vacuum and you absolutely need the input of others."

Jonathan Gonzalez agrees: "You can't sharpen your skills and talent if you keep them hidden away because you fear what others will say. Just put yourself out there and have thick skin." 

Change the way you feel about criticism

Why is feedback so important? Jack Canfield, the author of "The Success Principles", sees it as an incredibly empowering tool:

One of the most useful projects you could undertake is to change how you feel about negative feedback (...) To reach your goals more quickly, you need to welcome, receive, and embrace all the feedback that comes your way. 

"I love criticism," says Senad Korjenić, a CG Cookie user and Blender artist. "I need the opinion of other people to see what can be fixed. When working in Blender, I always show my work to people who know nothing about rendering, because they immediately notice what makes my images unrealistic - and I can improve my work." raspberries3

"Raspberries" before and after community feedback, image by Senad Korjenić

Assume the Best Intentions

"It’s easy to assume that negative feedback is coming from someone trying to belittle my work or promote their own superior knowledge, especially when we all know that there are trolls out there!" says Kent Trammell. So what can you do? "I've learned to turn it around," says Kent. "I simply assume first that people are trying to help, which helps me to interpret their feedback with positive lenses. This 'innocent until proven guilty' approach helps me to keep an open mind."  Best defense against trolls: a positive attitude.

The best defense against trolls: keeping a positive attitude.

Don't Fight it

Feeling the urge to argue with a negative critique? "The rule of thumb is: if you're finding yourself getting defensive against feedback, you're probably wrong," says Jonathan Williamson. "You're likely defending your work for the wrong reasons, like your pride. But that is not how you become a better artist." Kent agrees: "I know for myself that fighting negative feedback hurts my ability to learn from it. At the end of the day, it is just my pride getting in the way of my growth." Take a deep breath and ask yourself: is there a chance that the critic is right?

If you really, seriously disagree

Sometimes, a critique can just seem way off. "If I'm on the fence about whether something is a good recommendation or not, I do a quick search about the critic," says Kent. "If they have an impressive body of work I’m much more likely to be very thankful and humbled that they’re offering insight. If they don’t have any discoverable work online, I still thank them but kindly interpret their insight with a grain of salt."

Be Proud of Your Work

"This is just something I threw together quickly, I know it sucks."

How often have you seen comments like this in an online forum?

A self-depreciating, overly-modest attitude is a way to shield ourselves from criticism. Unfortunately, it does our work a whole lot of injustice.

"If you go into a studio for a job interview and tell them, 'Here's my work, it's not very good, though...' you are definitely not getting hired. Similarly, don't be self-dismissive and don't sell yourself short in the online space. The tone with which you present your work definitely impacts how people perceive your work," says Jonathan Williamson.

If you're ready to put your art out there and share it with the world (as you should!), why not put your best foot forward and present it with confidence and a positive attitude. After all, if you don't stand up for your work, others won't, either.

"This is my first sculpture - it's far from perfect, but I'm really enjoying what I've learned so far and would appreciate your feedback."

Sounds much better, right?

A Little Inspiration

"When all is said and done, it is usually ourselves who are our own harshest critics," says Jonathan Gonzalez, "and if that is your case, it's actually a great sign! There is a Zen Pencils comic that I like referring to from time to time," says Jonathan. "It explains that what makes you feel critical about your own art is your good taste - and that is something to be proud of, and keep working hard until your skills can match the visions in your head."


Do you want to open up to feedback? Join CG Cookie Community Forums to give and receive friendly peer critique.

If you want to learn more first, head over to our selection of tutorials.

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    small-troll

    nice post, but i disagree slightly about self depreciating descriptions, as a amateur artist i can usually see where my work is poor, and will post work saying where i think improvements could be made, my aim is to invite comments and advice on how to do it better. essentially encouraging criticism. and i think that most people who make self depreciating comments are doing it for similar reasons rather than trying to deflect criticism. that being said i have discovered that it is a poor technique to encourage criticism as the comment turns people off from the post and are less likely to critique the work, and the rest of the section is spot on.

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    Dennis Brown

    This is such a great article, and something every artist should certainly read.

    I have also run across some of those times where I simply didn't agree, but I've since found it to be almost as helpful to read into parts of it anyways. Even though you may run across people that you may completely disagree with, you have to also wonder what would make them make a comment like that in the first place. Sometimes you may find places to improve, simply trying to figure out how someone came to that conclusion. You do have to remember, at the very least, they are a viewer.

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    Anton Peck

    I completely see what you mean by this, as I've been down that road many times (as well as the times where I'm just being a super-negative self-bashing jerk).

    However... with that said, I've come to realize something important: Whatever the intentions, _most_ people (not all, mind) will immediately interpret a negative-sounding comment as just that - negative. People hear/read what they want to hear/read, and miscommunication happens all the time.

    The best success I had with a self-critique model to invite others was when I painted over one of my own designs with comments to indicate improvement.

    Anymore, I tend to tread lightly in that regard. What you said about it being a poor technique to encourage criticism is spot-on.

    Cheers!

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    anarchymedes

    When I read it (thanks Pavla, by the way) I agree — in principle. Hypothetically. In other words, so long as it's not *my* work (which I may not have made for sale, and which may be very personal to me), being drawn and quartered by some [expletive deleted] critic — with a superior smirk, or even a sadistic glee, which are much, much easier to imagine than any 'best intentions' on their part. If that happens, I feel so defensive that attack seems the best defense — but then once again I remember that duels have been outlawed and so the keyboard warriors indeed *are* safe (shame! cowards!) :-)
    So instead of the 'traditional' self-deprecating line, let me ask this: what if I don't want to become a professional artist, but simply try to express myself? Yes, art for the sake of art (boo!)
    And about the importance of feedback: I can't help wondering how sex workers grow professionally? Do they have forums where their performance is critiqued (constructively, of course!) and dissatisfied customers post suggested improvements?
    My point is, critique is a slippery ground. It's like sparring in martial arts: yes, if you want to grow, you *must* spar with those who are better than you. But it's not a real fight to the death. In both cases, there is a fine line which, when crossed, means genuine pain, suffering, possibly permanent damage... and so on.

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    Omar Domenech

    Cool read. It's a tricky subject, since everyone has an unique point of view and taste, everyone has their own perception of what looks good and different people will often suggest so many different things, sometimes it's hard to listen everyones wide varying range of thoughts. This always reminds me of a scene in Motorcycle Diaries, where a gentlemen who's writing a book asks Che Guevara to read that book he's writing and give him feedback on how he thinks his book is going, and after Che reads the gentlemen's book, he is so so brutally honest in his critique the gentlemen has no choice but to happily accept what Che Guevara has to say and replied "Well boy, no one has ever been so honest with me, I thank you for that".

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    Trevor Burge

    I rather enjoyed this. I have always shied away from getting critiqued, but this just opened my mind on how to interpret what I need to from critiques. Some good points in here, and I really like the idea of trying to get a background on the person giving the negative critique if you really disagree.

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    Pavla Karon

    That's fantastic! Thanks, Trevor, and glad to hear you found this helpful.

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    Pavla Karon

    Anarchymedes (love the name, btw!) I agree that being on the receiving end of a negative critique, one often images the critic being out to spread pain, suffering and despair (I felt this way recently when I sat through a whole Vin Diesel movie). My approach is to become aware that a lot of the emotions are generated in our own head, and as such, they can be turned around and channeled into something more positive. And if your critic truly is sadistic, you can always send them this article: https://cgcookie.com/2015/10/15/can-you-give-valuable-feedback/ (or a ticket to a Vin Diesel movie)

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    Pavla Karon

    Totally agree about reflecting even if you disagree. Thanks Dennis!

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    anarchymedes

    All right, let me give you another (somewhat extreme, perhaps) example. If you've seen the original Caligula movie, there is a scene there where the emperor is...ahem...having his way with a young centurion whose wedding he was attending. I've been trying to imagine ever since I saw that: how did they make the actor film that scene? What would he say to his kids later when they'd ask, Dad, is it you there? No, I mean no disrespect (or criticism) for that actor; what I'm trying to say is that everyone has a breaking point: a limit of ugliness, ridiculousness, and inadequacy that he or she can live with, if not entirely shrug off. Beyond that limit, there begins a real (very real!) humiliation: a trauma that sometimes results in a permanent damage to the self-esteem and to the very concept of the humanity and one's role in it, and it doesn't matter how that damage was done - through a unflattering movie role, by a scathing review on one's book, or simply through lampooning one's looks on Facebook. This limit is very individual and so before blasting someone online, one would do well to consider the consequences. If the example of Charlotte Dawson is not enough (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlotte_Dawson) then think of how many decide that they've got nothing to lose and reach for the gun every day in the USA - for that very reason, because their limit has been breached.
    P.S. I'm glad you liked my nickname. :-)

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    anarchymedes

    It's all about the level of the author's emotional involvement in his or her work. If someone does it for a living, it becomes just that: a job. Customer service. In this case, well, the customer is always right and so long as one is well paid and retains his or her clients, it's not exactly like, who the hell cares what the others think but it's relatively easy to consider any feedback in a detached way. After all, it's just craft: emotionally, you're not really there. For some people though, their art is everything they are and disrespect to it feels like personal disrespect to them - and an attack on it feels like an attack on them, too, with all that implies.
    P.S. When I was a lot younger, I walked away from a few software development jobs, saying that it was beneath my honour, as a professional, to hammer out crappy code fast, as they demanded. Now they can have it by bucketloads, but I'm no longer mentally there. Hence Blender, and other stuff, for self-expression :-)

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    Pavla Karon

    That *is* pretty cool, and it really brings home the importance of honesty and how rare it is these days. I will definitely take brutal honesty over fake sugar-coating any day!

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    m-singleton

    This could use a companion piece on how to offer constructive critiques.

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    Pavla Karon

    Voilà ;) https://cgcookie.com/2015/10/15/can-you-give-valuable-feedback/

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