How to Give Useful Feedback on Digital Art

 

“Oh man, that looks horrible.”

~ An actual comment from an online forum.


Once considered a highbrow discipline reserved to scholars, art criticism has been transformed by the digital age. In online art forums, everybody is everybody’s critic and meaningful feedback can be few and far between. 

Somewhere along the way, people assumed that if it's online, it must be picked to pieces with a fine-toothed comb,” says Kent Trammell, CG Cookie’s Blender trainer. “ I have often seen people swarm like vultures with their critiques in a way that was neither useful nor asked for.” 

Which is a shame. Because when done well, feedback can be a valuable gift for its receiver. So let's establish a basic etiquette: if you want to be genuinely helpful and give meaningful feedback , here are a few ground rules to live by.

#1 Avoid Unsolicited Advice

“People should first ask themselves: ‘Is an image a part of a work-in-progress thread? Did the artist even ask  for critiques?’” says Kent. “ In my experience, it is not socially acceptable to offer feedback without being asked - and I don’t think it should be acceptable online, either.”  >Before you share your 2 cents, make sure they are wanted. As a general rule, an artist will invite “C&C” (critique and comment) or "comments are welcome" if they are interested in someone's critical perspective.

#2 Think Online Anonymity Away

“We should all keep in mind that there are actual people on the other side. Simple social courtesy and competency is the foundation,” says Kent. Imagine that the guy with a Hulk avatar is, in fact, a skinny teenager anxiously awaiting feedback on their first Blender model. How would you talk to them in real life? 

If receiving a negative critique scares you, master these tips for accepting harsh feedback.

#3 Avoid Junk Feedback

“A pet peeve of mine is when people provide empty feedback that just says ‘It's bad,’ or ‘I don't like it’,” says Jonathan Gonzalez, CG Cookie’s Unity trainer. “Those types of comments may as well be thrown out.” 

Is there a better way? "Instead, point out specifically which parts of the artwork are lacking and why, then suggest ways for improvement," says Jonathan. For example:

‘This part of the mesh looks a bit rough, try adding in a few more edges or apply a subsurf modifier in there.’ 

"This will be so much more valuable to the other artist," says Jonathan.

#4 If It’s All Bad, Focus on Giving Direction

What if an artist asks for C&C of a piece that just, well, sucks?  “Try to determine where the artist is at regarding their skill set,” says Jonathan Williamson. “If you see that they are struggling with modeling, think back at when you were first beginning to model and the challenges you faced.”  Say something constructive and while you’re at it, why not point them in the right direction to learn? Try something like this: 

‘Your models have some way to go, but one thing that will help you out is studying topology. Here are a few helpful resources that I used when I was first learning.’ 

“That way, you don’t necessarily have to critique a specific piece, but point them in the right direction and tell them what to focus on technically that is going to improve their artwork,” concludes Jonathan.

#5 Allow Room for Personal Taste and Style

“No level of skill makes you an authority on someone else’s artistic expression,” says Kent. “I dislike comments like ‘You made the head too small’ without giving some point of reference or explaining why. What standard is your judgment based on? Why aren’t we assuming that the artist did exactly what they intended, including head size?”  Similarly, recognize that realism isn’t everybody’s goal. “A lot of advice is based on how to get the final result closer to photorealism, but not everybody wants that,” adds Kent.  Make sure you know what look the artist was going for (cartoonish? exaggerated? realistic?) so your criticism is relevant to their desired outcome.

#6 Choose Your Words Wisely

A written word without the context of your tone of voice and body language can come across harsher than intended; when in doubt, tone it down. A tried and tested approach is the "compliment sandwich method: Compliment + constructive feedback + compliment. As Kent puts it: “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, right? Likewise, compliments encourage and make criticism easier to swallow.” Framing advice in a positive way (saying what to do) is better than negative (saying what not  to do).  A not-so-good example: 

“The character’s arms are totally disproportionate and the muscle placement is wrong.”

Sounds a bit harsh, right? A much better example:

“I recommend taking a look at a references image to get the muscle placement right and adjusting the proportions to achieve a more realistic look.” 

Can you feel the difference? And added benefit is that the artist will become much more receptive to your feedback: harsh critique only invites defensiveness; kind guidance is much more likely to be received with open ears. If you want to go the extra mile, share a link to your favorite resource for reference images and chances are, you will have made the other artist’s day.

R#7 emember Why You Do It

“At the end of the day, every online critic should remember the purpose of constructive feedback; a contribution to the artist so they might improve their craft,” says Kent.


This article first appeared on CG Cookie blog in 2016.

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  • cm87

    Being autistic I often critique stuff in a way that almost everyone else goes "Seriously? That seems fine to me" or I'm looked upon as a dick.

  • Antonio Vazquez (antonioya)

    I will add one point more (for both sides): Remember, all people don't speak English, so sometimes your comments can be/or be understood in the wrong way. Be patient with non English speakers.

    We try to give advices in correct English, but for us is complex to find the "right" words.

  • Jo Last (voxnihili)

    I know what that's like. It's easy to be missunderstood. I can be too honest and sometimes seem cold but I do try to give good critique or just positive feedback, because that's what I would like to recieve. <:

  • Jo Last (voxnihili)

    This, this is what I'm always talking about when it comes to online forums (and the real world). I hate it when someone comments on say a movie, only saying "it's bad". What about it was bad and why? If everyone everywhere followed this article then the world would be a much nicer place!

  • Antonio Vazquez (antonioya)

    And usually, the people that write only "this sucks" is the people that don't value the work of others, but they ask respect for theirs works. Maybe, if they try to do the work that they critique, they would value it.

  • Doug Chamberlain (dougrchamberlain)

    This article came just days after I posted 20 hours worth of work following the tutorials on here and received a "WTF the gallery allows 5 minute works" We should only encourage, and constructively criticize.

  • jlerossignol

    Hi.
    Great article and I'll be making use of some of it in my classes. However, the "compliment sandwich method" can easily turn into a s#!t sandwich as the complements can be viewed as disingenuous. Which is the risk you explore in the rest of that section about how comments can come across harshly.
    By focusing on the work, the techniques used and pathways to improve the artists skills it is easier to avoid most of the problems you've touched on about receiving commenting on your artwork.
    As you said above, Artistic expression is a personal thing", so how would you feel if it was said to you. I tend to allow a short cooling off period before posting to double check, because once it's sent...that's it. "It's easier to avoid a mess than to clean one up"
    It also forces you, when writing the C&C to really thinking about the art work and how to improve it, thereby making you a better artist. So Constructive Criticism is also a good technique for improving your own skills.

  • crew
    Pavla Karon (pkaron)

    Well said! I agree 100% that avoiding a mess is easier than cleaning it - and the cooling-off period is a really wise approach.

  • garvamatic

    I'd like to add that one more reason to start with a positive point or two is that this approach gets the listener's attention better. Rather than recoil they will 'open' a bit to what you have to say, and be more likely to 'hear' the criticism if it is constructive. In order not to sound disingenuous pick a real aspect of the piece that is good, such as composition or lighting or maybe the palette. If nothing at all is good, pick the best of the worst bits and say why you think that is the best bit, then move carefully to the things that could use a bit of tweaking. Lastly if your goal is not to HELP the person you are offering your comments to, then just don't say anything at all. k

  • joevito

    I would tell them up front that you are autistic and ask for their understanding. If they don’t get it or they don’t want to get it, then they are the “dick”.

  • mrken

    I think that's excellent advice. What I would like to see more people do is be more specific about what aspect they want advice/critque on.

  • Mary Fazzolari (maryshan)

    absolutely agree! Great article!

  • crew
    Pavla Karon (pkaron)

    Yay! Thanks Mary!

  • Matthew Ullrey (ullreym)

    We need this kind of article promoted more often. I recently witnessed some negative criticism with no offered solution, nor was it sandwiched in a compliment. It seemed abusive and meant to hurt. It was disturbing to see and I feel bad for the person critiqued. By-the-way, the title for number seven has a small typo. Anyway, this article is worth a read and a reread. Thanks.

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