A Guide for Artists on How to Ask, Receive and Give Quality Feedback
Mandrin Gaudez is a 3D modeler at Illumination Mac Guff in Paris, France. Mandrin's focus is on characters but he loves working on vehicles, mechs and weapons too.
Mandrin also spends his time Teaching Zbrush and Modeling to students at Brassart and ECV and is also a Modeling mentor. With his experience, he shares with us his guide for artists on how to ask, receive and give quality feedback.
Improving skills is a very important thing to us artists. We are never satisfied. That is a fact, even the biggest, raddest artists around are always trying to improve. We never feel good enough and are never satisfied. Deep down, the thought remains
"It could be better, I could be better!" And if you don't, congrats, you are a cat! Have a nap!
I realised this in 2006, when I was eleven. With my father and my brother, we were about to watch the very new Pixar movie, Cars, and prepared to spend an entertaining evening together. The TV lit up, and the short at the start, "One Man Band", started to play.
Two one-man band began playing music exuberantly, to get a little girl to toss them a coin (artists have to eat too, you know). I will not tell you the whole story here, but at some point the coin is dropped, the girl gets angry and asks one of the musician for his violin. He gives it to her, she grabs it and something happens.
"Woah, these guys are amazing!" my dad exclaimed.
"What? Who? They are just dummies, the girl dropped the coin because of them!"
"Have you ever heard the sound of someone grabbing a violin?"
"That's a very particular sound, and someone had to recreate that for this film! The guys making these cartoons are incredible!"
My brain melted. People were actually creating cartoons everyday, and for a living! That day I knew that creating films was what I wanted to do, I found my path.
But that's not the point of my story.
I had decided I wanted to go in this direction. I researched how to become a cartoon maker, how to create worlds and stories. And, a recurring thing I encountered was the fact that I would have to draw a lot. And I did, and drew more and more. My notebooks at school were covered in drawings, the corners were flipbooks...I drew again and again.
Drawing was good and I made friends with other illustrators. Then one thing struck my mind, this idea that would never leave me even years after, and which is still in my mind today.
"They are soooooo much better than me..."
And this idea stuck, impossible to throw away, because even if I got better than that person, I could just turn my head and find another one who was better than me.
Everyone else was telling me that I was good at drawing, and even my friends were telling me that I was good, but seeing their work, and mine, I felt I was not. Clearly not. I decided to discover why, and more importantly, to ask, how do I become better?
Thirteen years later, I might be able to say I found an answer. Not THE answer (which is 42 as we all know) but an answer, to this question, "How can I become better?"
And the answer is...feedback.
I have been working as a professional artist and teaching in several animation schools for a few years now. And I have been (and still am) on both sides of the feedback spectrum.
And today I will try my best to help you and as many people as possible, to improve together and share what we know in the best way possible, to make our art journeys smoother and our happy artists minds more relaxed.
I would like to claim too that nothing I will write in this article is an absolute truth, you may or may not agree with me. This article is just the result of what I observed during my years in the art community. If your advice is different, please let me know I would be delighted to hear it on the matter, and who knows, maybe you can help me make this article better!
So I'll focus on several steps here, since feedback is not a one way road, there are many directions to take:
1 : Asking for feedback
2 : Giving Feedback
3 : Receiving Feedback
These three steps might look simple, but they are way more complex than they seem. And as we'll see, missing any of these steps can lead to disastrous outcomes. (It's not a life and death situation, but I've seen some pretty fucked up arguments online and in classrooms, just because of a badly given feedback.)
So, let's jump right into it!
Step N°1: HOW TO ASK FOR FEEDBACK?
We've all been in this situation. You are working on your new piece, you finish it, and decide to post it on a very trendy forum! You're excited, you upload the images, type in the text message "Hey guys, just finished my last piece, let me know what you think!" You hope you'll get some feedback to improve for the next project.
But no one responds.
Why?? You spent a lot of time on this piece. People can see that, why don't they respond?
Is it people's fault? Most likely not! In fact, you are the one who didn't make the effort in the first place. And we'll see why that is just now.
People will not help you if you don't tell them you need help.
Keep in mind, we are online (most of the time), people have literally THOUSANDS of other things to see and do, why would they stop what they are doing to help you? Make that task easy for them!
I was in this situation once, when I was still a student. I posted online, no one responded. I was almost starting to rant about how people online sucked and everyone was only there to show off, and did not care about helping each others and blah blah blah...and one of my fellow comrades came in. He asked me "Hey man, would you care to give me some feedback please?"
I decided that I was not like the rest of "them" and that I would go help him.
I went to his computer, sat down, and...I was stuck. Nothing came out.
And I realised why I didn't get anything online. I really wanted to help that guy, I did, genuinely, but there was so much stuff to say that I didn't know where to even start - and he was a friend!!!
How was I expecting a total stranger to get deep into it and spend literally an hour to help me online? Let's be clear, it was not going to happen!
I did my best and still gave a complete feedback session to my friend, I'll tell you in the third part how it turned out!
That day I understood this: If there is too much to feedback. It is hard to feedback.
"Yes, but I'm a beginner, My work is what it is, am I condemned to live without feedback until I become good?"
No, you are not. So how to make it easy for people to help you?
People online really want to help out. But as we've seen, sometimes it's hard. So, how do you make that easier?
Try your best on your own
Try to identify your flaws, there can be several, like, anatomy errors, weird colours, lighting failures, the list is long. Once you have done that, try to fix it yourself first, and really do it, I mean it. There is nothing more frustrating than "Yeah I know" as a feedback answer.
Once you have done that, you have addressed everything you could on your own. Make the list of what is still to improve, there will often (always) be something here or there you know is wrong, but can not put a finger on what it is.
And THAT is what we want. Because now that we are aware of what is wrong, we can ask for some SPECIFIC answers. And THOSE are easy to give.
When you're posting your work, explain the "why" too. What I mean is, explain to people why you did this. Was it a study? A client work? A lighting exercise? You understood me, the same piece can get VERY different feedback regarding its purpose. An anatomy study will not have the same critique than a complete portfolio piece. Also, if you are under time constraints, explain that!
For example: "Let me know what you think guys" can become "I noticed that the shoulder blade looks weird, but I can't find what is wrong with it, any idea how to fix it?"
This does not only gives people an easier time answering since they know what to search for, but it also proves you are really willing to improve and that you did your research. Keep in mind, many people online are searching for validation rather than improvements, and nobody cares about people wanting praise.
Be careful though, sometimes asking for too specific feedback can really influence the eye of the person giving the critique! By asking people to look closely at the shoulder of your character, you might make them miss the fact that his feet are completely broken!
I'll add a side note here. It may seem obvious, but when you are asking for ANYTHING, be it online or in real life (especially when it involves people spending their time),
You can ask a very good question, easy to answer etc...but if you don't say "Hello" and "Thank You", you might get a (most likely cold) answer, and you might also look like someone who doesn't care about other people. And, that is exactly the opposite of the desired effect when it comes to helping each other. Remember, nobody is forced to help anyone online, people do it because they want to, make them want to!
Another way to get easier feedback is to help people. Feedback is not unlike money, the more you give, the more feedback you receive. People will be more inclined to give a feedback to someone who already helped them in the past. Plus, by giving cool feedback, you might earn some friends (I totally did)!
Step N°2: HOW TO GIVE FEEDBACK?
So, now I think you have understood that feedback is a bit more complex than just telling what's good or bad about the art piece. I'll give the first rule of a good feedback right upfront:
Good feedback is CONSTRUCTIVE!!!
Meaning, you have to add some value to the piece you're criticising! What do I mean by that? You should always bring some ideas and/or knowledge to the table when you are giving feedback.
"It's crap, you suck!" and, "That's the best piece I've ever seen," are both very bad feedback, even if one can make your day and the other one ruin it. They are very bad feedback because they don't bring anything to the discussion. Avoid empty praise and/or destructive comments at all cost.
And if you REALLY have nothing to say to help, but you want to tell the artist how much you like his piece, please do, but try to add something to it.
For example : "Nice one mate" can become "Nice one mate, reminds me of [Insert cool artist name here] work".
You are now adding to the discussion. This article is not about how to make compliments though, so I won't go any further on this topic.
So, now that we've seen the basic rule of feedback, how to make this constructive criticism more valuable you may ask?
First, check how the person asked for feedback. If he or she read this article, you should already know what to search for! Because they specifically asked for it. Try to address these points first, then see if you can give some more steps to follow to improve.
It is better to give large and broad areas to improve rather than giving just one specific critique. But give both anyway, so the person can fix the mistake AND learn how not to make it again.
Remember the quote: "Give a man a fish, he will eat once, teach him how to fish, he'll eat his whole life."
The point here is not to teach the guy how to fish, but to show him the pond that better suits him.
[End of the fishing metaphors.]
Now, instead of saying "The arms are too long". You can say "The arms are too long, I think you're lacking on the anatomy front. you might want to check these very cool books by Paul Richer, and here are a few references [drop images]!"
Now you did not only point out the problem, you also helped solve it. and THAT is what we want.
Also if you can, MAKE PAINTOVERS! These are invaluable and so much easier to understand than written feedback! Plus, the fact that you took the time to open photoshop really makes people think "Damn, this guy is super cool" And being cool, is cool!
"Yes, but what if I want to help, but I am not super knowledgeable?"
That is not a huge problem. You don't need a degree in anatomy to point out a head that is too big or a nose too long, your feedback will just lack a bit on the "solution" side. But sometimes just knowing what is wrong can help a lot, you might even do your research to help someone and end up learning some stuff, isn't that cool? Plus, you tried to help, and the person will remember that and might help you later when you'll be the one asking for feedback.
Also, remember, if someone think it's weird, It is probably because it is the case. And the fact that this person is not an artist should not make you discard his advice.
Okay, now we know what a constructive feedback is. How do we express it so people actually hear it? You have to know one thing: people don't like to be told they are wrong.
"Yes, but they often are!"
Indeed, they are, but that's not about how things are, it's about how you present them.So, how to tell someone his art could be improved without being seen as a jerk?
Make him a sandwich! I'm dead serious, make a compliment sandwich. Start by saying one good thing about the piece you're criticising. then go to what could be improved as we've seen above, and then end it with a reminder that not everything is lost and that this person is on the good track! Your feedback will not only shine by its constructiveness, but also because it will make the person feel good. And that is a good thing if you want your critique to be heard (nobody likes to spend 15 minutes writing a feedback and not being listened to).
One last thing here, when giving feedback, do not give orders! People don't like to be commanded, and if you don't want the help you're sending to fall on deaf ears, give advice, not orders. Artists are rebels, people will want to fight your orders, even on an subconscious level.
So, quick recap here:
"The arms are too short man", would become, "Hey man, nice piece, I like what you did on the hands, they really give an attitude. My main concern is on the arms though, they are a bit short. I think you are a bit light on the anatomy, you might want to check Paul Richer's books, that would help your proportions to be a bit better. Your lighting could be improved too, maybe giving it smoother shadows would help. Otherwise, cool piece man, can't wait to see how it turns out, keep it up!"
Did you catch the difference? Now tell me which feedback you would prefer to receive! I won't repeat myself here, but politeness is still very important!
So as you may have understood, giving feedback and criticism is not something you can do "just like that", it takes time!
And remember, as my good friend Jesse Levit said: "Give people the feedback they need, not the one they want."
Step N°3 : HOW TO RECEIVE FEEDBACK ?
After years giving and receiving feedback, I can assure you one thing: not everyone is ready to hear a critique. And many people are having a hard time because they don't know the first rule of receiving a feedback.
Feedback is not a critique about who you are, it is a critique about your work!
Always remember this: if someone is giving you feedback, he wants to help you! His goal is to make you better, not to put you down. Even if it is not done with the best formulation (I agree with that), even a harsh feedback is a helping hand.
So, the FIRST thing to do when someone is giving you help is to thank him/her. This person took time to help you, be polite, thank him.
Then, if you did not understand what the person meant, tell him (politely please). It happens, no big deal, try your best before going back to them (if there is a term you don't know about, just google rather than spamming!)
Finally, if someone helped you... PLEASE, and I mean it PLEASE, do the changes they suggested and repost later (And you might even want to tag them on the post, just so they can see how their feedback helped you improve).
There is nothing more rewarding that to see someone you've helped succeed! And there is nothing more frustrating than taking some time to help someone and never have news, or worse...seeing they actually did not implement your feedback in their piece. They'll feel like you made them waste their time, and it will be true!
Did I say you should do everything everyone tells you online? No, absolutely not. But if you feel like the feedback someone gave you was constructive and helpful, please do the effort and put it into your work, it's so valuable.
Be careful though, sometimes a critique can be a sign that your art piece has some flaws in it you did not suspect.
For example. : "The ankle looks weird." can be a sign that your composition is not working, because the person did not look at the face first, and that is what you wanted to show in the first place. That is for more advanced artists who are very aware of what they are doing, just keep that in mind!
You might remember my fellow student friend who asked me some feedback in Part 1 (spoiler: the piece was horrible (sorry man)), but everyone can improve.
So, as I told you, I gave my best, I really put in all the effort I could to give him the best feedback possible. Checking anatomy, gave him links to books, searched with him for references, explained to him how the anatomy was weird and the drapery was not good. I spent an hour doing that (a real hour, that's not just a way of saying it took a long time) and so, 60 minutes later I said:
"Okay, do you have any other question?"
"Yeah, is it good or not?"
I had to leave the room before throwing a chair at him. The guy was not expecting feedback actually, he was asking for praise about his work.
And I am okay with that. Sometimes our art journeys can be tough, and sometimes you just want to be reassured. But if praise is what you want, ask for praise, not for feedback! This way you're not going to get anyone angry at you when they'll realise you actually don't care about improving. Remember that, if someone who helped you once felt like he was wasting his time doing so, he will not help you again.
We are all trying to improve, and we have this invaluable tool: the Internet. The art community is an amazing place, where everyone can get better and help each other. I am really glad to be a part of it. I only wish sometimes it could be better used, and that's the purpose of this article.
The power of feedback is amazing! It can open doors and really help people. It’s a shame that many do not know how to use it properly.
So please share this article! I hope it will make the art community even better. Huge thanks to Eugénie, Daphné and Rose for helping with the corrections and for adding some ideas and helping refining some others.
Illustrations were made by the amazing Rose luxey. Check out her work here!
As I said earlier, I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter, if you agree with me. Even if you don't. I would be glad to discuss that with you, and maybe together we will be able to make this article more complete!