Art School Critique Tips for International Students

I enjoy working with international students who are studying art and design in American universities because their experiences reveal a lot about the different ways people around the globe have of looking at creative work. And it shows how strongly different educational systems affect behavior and perceptions.

These factors naturally impact performance in an art school critique session. And as a result,, these sessions can be even more stressful than for native speakers. And it can be worse because of the language problem.

Here are some tips that I hope can help international students in preparing for a critique:

1) Learn how to give constructive criticism.

You might find that it’s difficult to offer negative opinions. You might already be nervous about your position in the class, or you might feel that any negative opinion might make you look bad.

The key here is to present the opinion in the right way. The other student is expecting some negative remarks – but it’s up to you to present your criticism in the right way. Most native speakers will refrain from saying “this is bad.” Or “you should do it differently.” Instead, the negative comment is usually stated using the hypothetical conditional.

For example, instead of saying “your color palette isn’t good,“ try saying “you could (or you might )consider changing the color palette.” If the typeface is a problem, try something like: “If you used a different typeface here, it might be more effective.”

You can also personalize the comment and soften the negative adjectives. For example. “This part of the composition seems a little unbalanced to me.”

And aways remember to balance negative comments with positive ones!

2) Are you aware of the artist or designer’s original intention?

Keep in mind that your opinions should be formed with respect to the intention of the work.

You might have strong opinions about design or aesthetics but just telling someone you don’t like their piece on that basis isn’t going to help them. Keep in mind what they were trying to do, not just whether you like the style or not. In most cases, an understanding of what the student was attempting will help you provide constructive and useful advice. (As will more familiarity with art theory and vocabulary…see below!)

3) You don’t have to follow all the suggestions you hear.

If your work is the focus of the critique, remember that you don’t have to follow all the advice you hear, even if it’s from your professor. This is important for students from Asian countries where the educational culture requires you to do what your teacher tells you. In the West, it’s more likely that you will be expected to think critically about whatever advice you hear. It’s not uncommon for American and Western students sometimes to disagree with suggestions from their professors; but it’s important that you can justify doing so in most cases.

Which brings me to:

4) Be prepared to defend your decisions.

It’s possible that the students or teachers who critique your work haven’t taken enough time to really figure out what you’re trying to do. (see point #2). You might have made the right decision aesthetically based on your concept but they just don’t see it. It’s helpful to review exactly what you’re trying to do before the critique just to remind yourself. Write down some notes to keep with you as a reminder. Sometimes in the stress of the moment, students forget or get mentally scrambled, especially when they’re working in a second language. Taking some notes beforehand will help you defend your position.

5) Familiarize yourself with art history and art theory.

Unfortunately, a lot of students in design and art school just don’t have much knowledge of art or art history. Definitely take some time to learn about the theory background and the history, especially of art movements since the 19th century. Studying formal aspects of art and composition will teach you what to look for and how to get past your subjective reactions and form an opinion that has a sounder academic basis. it’s also a great way to learn some useful vocabulary.

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