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Positive Criticism

Updated on November 23, 2008
"Three Lemons" still life by Robert A. Sloan
"Three Lemons" still life by Robert A. Sloan

Discouragement hurts

 I've been teaching art ever since the 1980s, either casually or sometimes by holding classes. Inevitably I run into adults, sometimes older people, who swear up and down "I have no talent. I can't even do stick figures."

Learning to draw well is a skill that takes years. So are fly fishing, sewing your own clothes or downhill skiing. It can be a wonderful hobby for people who never had the idea of becoming a full time artist. It's also in that category of hobbies that if you lose your job, it can become a way to get by till you get a new one or decide you'd rather be an artist.

I've heard a lot of reasons people aren't intereted in sewing or fly fishing but "I don't have any talent" doesn't come up. "I never took the time to learn" comes in a lot with cooking, sewing, gardening and many other things people take for granted that some people are experts and others appreciate.

It's more honest to say that about art if you don't like to draw and don't want to take the time to learn. Because anyone who's good at it has put in a lot of time learning how to do it well. This includes prodigy little kids who do it early. They put in the time practicing and playing and watching and learning by absorption the way little kids do, that's all.

Discouragement is brutal right around early childhood for any of the arts -- music, art, writing. If you weren't a prodigy little kid plus having people around who wanted you to be a prodigy at that, you faced constant discouragement. The meme of "You have talent/You don't have talent" and assumption that people don't need to learn how to do these complex skills is so common that people pass it on with good intentions! They believe it and want to save the kid the "heartbreak of finding out they have no talent, trying hard and failing."

Trying hard and getting a little better every time it doesn't work is how people learn things! So why is it so unthinkable that beginners do bad drawings, bad writing, clumsy dancing, bad music and unskilled anything?

The "Dummies" books cut right past that to reach to beginners and say "It's okay to not know how before you learn something. It's okay to be a Dummy and then learn to be an expert."

Anyone who hasn't learned how to do something is just a beginner who is capable of learning it -- if they believe they can. You don't need to grow up to be Leonardo da Vinci to get the health benefits and social approval of being able to draw well.

But how do you keep from discouraging a beginner at something like art or writing? How can you say something nice about a bad drawing or a bad story? More than that, how can you help beginners improve to the point it would actually be fun seeing their latest productions?

This is where Positive Criticism comes in.

Positive Reinforcement

 Psychologists and animal handlers know it's easier to teach any person or living animal a complex routine by rewarding progress, more than by punishing failure. Studies have proved this constantly. It's a classic experiment in psychology classes for a student to choose a particular behavior to reinforce by positive response, like smiling.

My daughter conditioned her professor to sit on the corner of his desk when she took psychology, and got an A for doing it. Sometimes I suspect psychology departments attract people who want to play practical jokes in the name of science. But the principle is real.

People, rats, cats, dogs and horses all respond to social approval by trying harder and learning more.

I applied this to teaching people art, but it's good for teaching anything -- or for getting along with the beginners among your family and friends while helping them get good enough that their works are actually enjoyable. Don't mention the mistakes. They know they made them. They're so self conscious after a lifetime of being discouraged that even small mistakes feel like a giant zit on a teenager's nose.

Mention what they got right. Find something nice to say about it. "I like the colors" is not a useless comment. That time, they picked a good color combination. Beginners are trying everything and some of their efforts will have muddy bad color combinations.

Being specific in the compliments is what makes them real feedback. "Your story's better than the last one" is a real help, especially if you add something like "I love the dialogue, that line is so funny." Or "That's a great description." Pick out the parts that worked.

Half the time a beginner gets something right by a lucky accident and doesn't understand why it worked. Explaining why it worked while complimenting is a way to make the lesson stick. They'll try it again. It'll work again. Soon the process of discussing and analyzing their latest efforts is something they look forward to and think of as emotional support.

Even if you're not an expert, saying something that is true and positive about a beginner's first efforts can help them become better at it. Encouraged, they've got more reason to go reading up on it, sketching, practicing and experimenting. The fourth time or the tenth time, they'll start getting better.

Positive Criticism

 I tried this when I was trying to stir up interest in an art workshop in the 1980s. I set a rule for the workshop that there would be no negative comments on anyone's finished art. If you saw a problem, talk about the problem but don't single out anyone else's art as an example of it. Discuss it as a topic and try it out with easy quick experiments that didn't cost someone a week of work and a lot of heartbreak to produce.

The attitude happened overnight. Everyone felt better with that emotional safety net, and the group became a lot of fun. People came back because the meetings were a kick and every one of them had a topic that broke down all the complex skills like shading, proportions, color and so on into discussions and experiments.

Everyone's art improved at a ferocious rate, including mine. I thought I was pretty good when I started the workshop and expected to teach often because we were on a rotating basis. I wound up improving as fast as the raw beginners because the meetings were fun and the process was working on me.

I spent more time sketching and experimenting. I tried things that were risky. I noticed things I hadn't even thought of, and people I thought didn't draw as well as I did knew things about it that I didn't and taught me. It was painless and happy, the art workshop grew to be the biggest activity in the club.

Within six months to a year every one of the beginners was skilled enough to sell art, doing good recognizable portraits with great proportions and plenty of feeling. Intermediates like me had become experts. The experts were going beyond mastery into stunning new masterpieces.

The system worked and had a great side effect. I noticed my social life warming up. I made friends easier. I had a better time at social occasions.

I was starting to apply that principle to other common topics like people's clothing choices or anything anyone did and took some pride in. I quit criticizing people casually and started complimenting as casually as I used to criticize -- and so people naturally liked me more.

What started as a way to create an art workshop that wouldn't be nervewracking and stressful became a change in my habits that improved my life and relationships. The principle of Positive Criticism made parties I held warmer and more enjoyable, it set a tone and atmosphere that accepted everyone -- but not uncritically. Just not painfully.

My opinions began to be taken more seriously because of how I presented them. I was treated with more respect and warmth by acquaintances and coworkers, because I had gained more confidence. It's a subtle, powerful social tool. It can be misused -- it's possible to turn into a control freak by going around offering an opinion on everything so strongly that no one wants to disagree. But if it's not targeted and done specifically to manipulate, it's a social shift that can erode social insecurity.

I gained a good reputation and that reinforced itself. This is true in the arts or in anything. Be honest -- just don't be brutal about it. The old saying "you catch more flies with honey" has some functional use.

Apply it to the people around you who are showing off their beginner drawings, first tune learned on the piano or Nanowrimo manuscript and you'll not only win some friends and keep the old. You'll actually help them do it well enough that it'll reach a point you look forward to reading their newest novel.


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    • The Frog Princess profile image

      The Frog Princess 

      7 years ago from Florence area of the Great Pee Dee of South Carolina

      I am a newby in the world of art even though I have done so many painting (including a mural). At this middle age in my life I finally have started classes and have enjoyed each one. Painting is relaxing me and my finished product is always proud to sit around my home. I have painted hard pieces just because I wanted the picture. I live on a farm with a pond and now have painted the pond with each season. My all time favorite is the winter setting with snow covered around the pond and the trees with no leaves but make such a statement in my painting.

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      I'm honored, Enelle. There are some types of work I would not feel qualified to critique though. If I don't have a strong enough background in the tradition, I could easily mistake a traditional stylization for a proportion error or other Western art technique. I know my limits, but the art workshops were always very open to different styles so you'd probably have been educating everyone in the workshop on what it meant.

    • Enelle Lamb profile image

      Enelle Lamb 

      9 years ago from Canada's 'California'

      Great hub, and really love the lemons. I certainly would have enjoyed taking one of your classes. I too would have been looking forward to your critiques. I don't know if you are 'up' on native art, but if you feel so inclined, I certainly would appreciate any insight you could give me regarding my work :D (and not 'fishing' for compliments either LOL...)

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Thanks, Sheena. I'm glad it gave you affirmation. You're right, it goes way beyond encouraging people to artwork or writing and into every aspect of life. Especially kids.

    • sheenarobins profile image


      10 years ago from Cebu, Philippines


      This is a very good article and very helpful. You opened my eyes on how I should deal with my kids and people I meet everyday. I am a natural when it comes to positive talk but you have put a confirmation of what I knew by heart.

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Yep, you are so right. Comparing to others is a good way to stop dead in your tracks, because when you weren't there, they put in years of practice. The only person you can compare your art or writing or anything to is your own past work. If what you do is better than the last one, that's a good feeling and enough momentum to keep on till everyone around you is going "OMG that's good" while you see what you could do to push it a bit farther.

      David Gerrold said it best in a writing workshop I attended in 1984 --"Talent is Enthusiasm. If you love what youre doing and enjoy the process, it's not hard to practice and you wind up getting good in spite of yourself by doing it a lot."

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 

      10 years ago from The Ozarks

      Robert, I enjoyed reading this hub. You must be a great teacher to have.

      I think one of the problems with the whole "talent/no talent" scenario is that people are comparing themselves to others, instead of to themselves.

      I do feel that I have some things I am talented in and others I am not so talented in. But what I mean by this is: I write better than I draw. Or I draw better than I swim.

      The things we are talented in are those that give us the highest return on investment in terms of internal satisfaction for the effort we put in. It's not a competition with somebody else.

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Thanks! No, I haven't heard of that before. Is it a novel or a writing book? The title is intriguing.


    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 

      10 years ago from South Africa

      Brilliant Hub, Robert. Positive reinforcement is so powerful and your approach is obviously great - wish I could join your workshops! Do you know the book "No More Secondhand Art" by Peter London? It is a great book which I have found very helpful to me in my writing practice.

      Thanks again for a great Hub.

      Love and peace


    • Pam Roberson profile image

      Pam Roberson 

      10 years ago from Virginia

      Thank you for taking the time to explain that robert. How very interesting, and she deserved that A+! She was quite brilliant to think of such a project, and that alone would have earned her an A in my book. I'm happy to hear it turned out in her favor. :) Thanks again!

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Thanks, Lita! Yes, it is in soft pastels. I like pastels a lot and think I did this one on sanded pastel paper that I'm coming to love.

      I've wondered about that myself. Some of them sounded bitter about lack of success in their own careers or ashamed of teaching instead of being full time artists. I know from experience that if there aren't many good artists around, people are less likely to buy art. When there are lots of good artists, people enjoy art more and are more likely to buy art.

      I think that a vicious-competitive attitude can be self defeating in many ways. Art is not a zero sum game. No matter how many other people learn pastels from me, none of them will be me. None of them could do Three Lemons exactly as I did even if I handed them all the same reference and the same sticks.

      I participate in some online activities at that are exactly that, classes and challenges to use a particular reference or one of several. I always love seeing what other artists do with it and they get a kick out of mine. I always learn something cool from it too that I wouldn't if I was just doing it on my own.

      Some things don't have a continuous learning curve. Art does. The better you get, the more you want to learn. The best master artists I know get as excited as little kids when some new color comes out or anyone comes up with a new technique or trick. Creativity leads to more invention -- and in art it's creating something out of nothing. It's more like sunlight than like a limited supply.

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Wow, thank you both!

      Pam, my daughter took notes on that class and watched her professor move around when he was lecturing. Every time he moved toward the desk, she smiled and sat up and looked at him with approval. She did it by smiling. Eventually he sat on the desk and she smiled and she just stayed consistent with it. In three weeks he was sitting on the corner of the desk a lot.

      He didn't notice it happening, so he gave her an A+ when she wrote it up as an experiment. She was always taking notes anyway, so her notes on his behavior were just in her regular notes. Most psychology professors of the practical jokes type appreciate a good one.

      pgrundy, I have been a very successful teacher. The track record of my art students for going from zero to selling art is still six months to a year, so consistently that when I teach someone I ask for a copy of a before and after drawing to put in my portfolio as proof I can teach. It's the only credential I have for teaching art.

      I lost that portfolio in a move and miss it so much, some of those students were good friends. If I take on a few local students I'll get one started again, just ask each of them to draw something at the start of the class and then get them to draw a similar subject afterward. They practice more because it's fun -- then there comes a turning point where on their own, their sketches look good enough to keep and it's totally self rewarding after that.

    • profile image

      Leta S 

      10 years ago

      Is your "Three Lemons" a pastel? :) Looks like it. I used to work quite a bit in pastels, though I haven't done much art of any kind lately, unfortunately--unless graphic design counts.

      I enjoyed reading an art based hub article here, and agree with what you are saying. Negativity can be so damning as far as creativity. I always wondered if the art profs who used it possibly didn't want future competition (?)

    • Pam Roberson profile image

      Pam Roberson 

      10 years ago from Virginia

      Robert, everything you said couldn't be more true. What a wonderful hub this is, and I wish more people felt this way about positive reinforcement - particularly teachers. I'd have to say the community of people here at hubpages offers the most positive reinforcement I've ever seen anywhere, and I'm so appreciative of it. A very small positive statement goes a long, long way. :)

      Now I'm terribly did your daughter condition her professor to sit on the corner of his desk??

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Robert, this is so good. I'll bet you are an awesome art teacher. I've taken lots of writing classes, and the best teachers always find things to praise instead of just picking everything apart. I love your 'Three Lemons' too. Thank you for sharing that with Hub Pages.

      I like to draw but I don't work hard at it. I guess writing is my first love. My favorite thing is making cartoons or just silly illustrations. I think when it comes to art, if it feels good, do it and keep doing it. I've never been steered wrong if I pay attention to that. Thanks again!


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