Why Creative People Should Be Critics Too – A Ramble

Although I’m more of an artist these days, most of my formal training is as a writer. However, a slightly strange thing about one of the creative writing courses that I took during my late teens/early twenties was that the course would often include more hours spent studying literature than actually practicing writing or even discussing writing techniques.

For quite a while, I thought that this was just “filler” or possibly a way to make the course seem more “prestigious” or something like that. At my most cynical, I concluded that the literature modules were included to make the writing-based parts of the course seem more interesting by comparison.

But, thinking about it more carefully, it was actually a much more essential part of the course than it first appeared to be. In fact, it has even been useful to me after I became an artist. But, why? Because studying literature makes you think like a critic.

There’s often something of an artificial divide between critics and creative people in popular culture. After all, there’s even the famous saying that “a critic is just a failed writer/artist/director/musician” But, thinking like a critic is one of the best ways to get good at writing or making art.

Why? Because, when you strip away all of the pretentiousness, the main job of a critic is to study and analyse other creative works. A critic takes a careful look at something and works out which parts of it “work” and which parts don’t. After this, they also have to work out why.

Once they’ve done this, a critic also has to look at how a creative work relates to other works in the same genre, how it takes inspiration from other things and what techniques the writer, artist etc.. used. A critic has to really “get to know” something and then describe it in a (relatively) concise review.

In other words, a critic has to “dissect” other things in order to see how they work and then distil that information into a small guide. A critic has to be able to look at creative works closely and think about them in a greater level of depth. Over time, a critic will also gain a good sense of both their own sensibilities and the sorts of things that appeal to audiences.

From there, it isn’t too much of a leap to “reverse engineering” other creative works in order to learn how to improve your own creative works.

And this is how you learn how to be a better artist, writer etc… You see what other people have done, you work out how they did it and then you use those techniques in a new and original way in your own works. In addition to this, if you have a basic knowledge of copyright law, you can even go a step further and take inspiration from any works that really impress you.

Part of taking inspiration properly includes being able to look at creative works in a fairly analytical “critic-like” way in order to break them down into the general, non-copyrightable elements that you can re-use in new and interesting ways.

Thinking like a critic means that you can focus on more than just the story that is being told or the image in a painting. It means that you also pay attention to things like story structure, emotional tone, narrative style, chapter length, art materials, colour palettes, lighting decisions, themes etc.. too.

Thinking like a critic also means that you can learn from more than just the things in your chosen field too.

For example, many of the art techniques that I’ve learnt over the past few years haven’t come from looking at other paintings and drawings, or even from reading art tutorials. They’ve come from looking closely at movies, TV shows, photographs and computer games. So, yes, thinking like a critic means that the range of “educational materials” available to you is much larger than you might think.

So, strange as it might sound, thinking like a critic is one of the best ways to become a better artist or a better writer.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Why Do Critics Have A Reputation For Being Cynical ? – A Ramble

Well, for today, I thought that I’d do something a bit different and talk about critics. This is mostly because I’ve had something of a slight insight into being a critic due to the occasional reviews that I write on here. When I first started writing reviews on here about 4-5 years ago, I was determined not to be like those critics. You know the ones I mean, the snooty ones who never seem to like anything.

In other words, I often only reviewed things that I really, really liked and could give positive reviews to. Of course, this has changed over the years.

In fact, this article was prompted by the fact that this review of mine ended up containing a lot more criticism than I originally expected. Yet, I don’t consider it to be a “bad” review (seriously, it’s a good show!). But, in a sudden moment of clarity, I realised that I’d turned into the type of critic I once wanted to avoid becoming.

So, why do critics have a reputation for being cynical?

There are several reasons for this. The first is simply that they’ve had more experience with reviewing things, not to mention that if someone is even vaguely interested in criticism then they’ve probably seen/watched/read/played quite a lot of stuff (or they will in the course of finding things to review). What this all means is that critics often have a larger frame of reference when making comparisons and judgements.

For example, one of my regular review features on here is reviewing fan-made levels for “Doom II“. When I started doing this, I hadn’t really played that many of these levels – so, I was amazed by what people could do with this classic game. But, once I’d played a lot more levels, I started spotting things like commonly re-used graphics, common changes to the game, common level design techniques etc.. So, I was less amazed by these things than I used to be. This has probably led to mildly less awe-struck reviews, even though I still consider “Doom II” to be one of my favourite games.

Another reason is because I’m not a professional critic (nor would I really want to be). Whilst professional critics getting free advance review copies from film studios, game developers etc… is a good thing for a whole host of reasons, there’s also a place for critics (like me) who don’t get these – and don’t want them. But, both professional and amateur criticsm can result in more cynical-sounding reviews for different reasons.

Since I’m not a professional critic, I mostly review things that are older, second-hand, discounted, free (for everyone) etc.. Although this means that I get to review more interesting/random stuff and can look at things that are overlooked by professional critics who have to review the latest things, this has also forced me to pay more attention to whether something is worth the time and/or money that the audience needs to invest in it. And, as such, this can sometimes result in more cynical-sounding reviews.

Professional critics, on the other hand, don’t have to worry about the cost of the things they review. In theory, this ideally means that all products are on a level playing field and can be considered purely on their artistic merits. Likewise, advance copies given to professional critics mean that they can inform consumers on the day that something is released.

All of this stuff is a necessary counterbalance to things like manufactured hype and advertising (and it’s why you should be very, very wary if a film studio or a game developer refuses to give professional critics advance access). But, seeing the contrast between a more formal professional evaluation of something new and the idealised, rose-tinted portrayal of it in advertising can make a more “realistic” review look cynical by comparison.

Finally, one reason that critics can sound cynical is because reviews often serve a dual function these days. As well as being a guide for consumers, they’re also often a type of entertainment too. This often means that reviews include humour more regularly than they used to a few decades ago. Of course, one of the best sources of humour is joking about the thing that you’re reviewing, which can include everything from occasional affectionate humour to constant merciless ridicule.

But, when this isn’t done in the right way, it can often make it look like the reviewer is some kind of bitter cynic who can do nothing more than point and laugh at things other people make (and some reviewers can actually make this genuinely entertaining, but some can’t). Likewise, if you’re a fan of something, then you might not appreciate critics ridiculing it. So, humour can sometimes explain why critics appear to be more cynical than they actually are.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Today’s Art (26th January 2014)

Well, I decided to make a larger version of the “Motivational Mantra” (for dealing with non-constructive criticism) from today’s article. Since this blog is aimed at a slightly more general audience, I changed/edited the last line of the poem in the version posted here (the original, and best, version of this poem can be found here) .

This edited version is a lot less dramatic, amusing and emotional – but it’s probably something you can hang on your studio , bedroom, office etc.. wall without any worries.

Plus, since I usually try to include two pictures in these daily art posts, I’ll also include a rather small and generic watercolour pencil painting I made in about ten minutes.

Note: only “Random Mountains” is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence. This is mainly since I consider “Motivational Mantra” to be poetry rather than art.

"Motivational Mantra (Edited Version)" By C. A. Brown

“Motivational Mantra (Edited Version)” By C. A. Brown

Motivational Mantra (edited version)” is an edited/censored “PG-rated” version of this picture.

If you aren’t bothered by one of the most interesting and versatile words in the English language, then don’t waste any time looking at this watered-down version and check out the original instead.

"Random Mountains" By C. A. Brown

“Random Mountains” By C. A. Brown

As the title suggests, “Random Mountains” is a random painting of some mountains. I mainly made this to fill up the space which was left on the page of my watercolour sketchbook after I had drawn/painted “Motivational Mantra”.

The Best Revenge Against Your Critics (And A Mantra To Help You Do It)

The gesture is optional, but probably extremely satisfying.

The gesture is optional, but probably extremely satisfying.

[Note: This article isn’t about constructive criticism, where people are actually trying to help you improve your art by pointing out things that need improvement. This is an article about how to respond to purely negative and non-constructive criticism.]

Sometimes the best art isn’t produced in a glorious, and almost magical, creative flow.

Sometimes the best art isn’t produced when you’re “in the zone” and it feels like your mind is some kind of lightning-fast biological supercomputer with a perfect connection to the ethereal internet of your subconscious mind.

Sometimes, the best art isn’t produced in a creative state which feels like you’ve just taken a “limitless” pill.

No, sometimes the best art is produced as a way of sticking two fingers (or just one if you live anywhere outside Britain or Australia) up at the world.

Sometimes, the best art is produced as a way of sticking one or two fingers up at someone or something that has wronged or devalued you. Sometimes, the best art isn’t produced out of love but out of pure bloody-minded revenge and a desire to make your critics look like idiots.

No, I’m not talking about libelling people here (and you have to be super-careful about this, at least in Britain). I’m not even talking about drawing insulting caricatures of your critics [although every artist probably should have at least one of these kind of moments ]. Yes, these are all forms of artistic revenge, but there’s an even better one than all of these.

It’s simple.

Produce good art.

Produce amazing art that will even leave your critics spluttering and stuttering with awe.

Produce art so good that it proves them wrong in every way.

Produce art so awe-inspiring that, even years later, people will still tell funny stories about the people who told you that you’d never amount to anything.

Produce art so mersmeric that even the art you made two days ago looks terrible by comparison. Then jokingly agree with your critics’ opinions about your old art. Laugh at them if they say anything bad about your new art.

Even if you’re a total beginner who can only draw stick figures and smiley faces, then you can still strive to produce good art. You can still practice your art daily in the way that a martial artist practices kata every day. You can still know that, with enough effort and enough practice, you’ll become something amazing.

But, if you curl up into a ball and abandon your dreams of being an artist when faced with the constant dripping criticism of people who are (quite frankly) not artists, then they’ve won. The bastards have ground you down and turned you into one of them.

The best revenge against these people is to succeed as an artist (even if it’s just creatively, rather than financially). To use a well-worn example, it’s a bit like the nerdy kid at school who gets bullied by all of the “popular” kids.

Flash forward twenty years and the nerdy kid has started their own technology company and is a multi-millionaire with a stunningly handsome and charming husband. Meanwhile, the “popular” kids are languishing in dead-end jobs, dead-end relationships and dead-end lives.

But, if the person who criticises your art is an artist and has something valid to say about it, then listen to them. Take on board anything they say which you find useful and jettison the rest. And, remember, every artist has their own unique views on what does and doesn’t make good art.

Still, all of this can be more difficult than it sounds- so I’ve prepared a “mantra” (well, technically, a secular prayer of sorts..) which you can repeat to help you through these kinds of situations.

Go on, try it – it’ll make you feel totally epic and ready to face whatever the world throws at you.
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Motivational Mantra:

Repeat after me….

Whenever a critic tries to knock me off course,
I tack against the wind and keep going.

Whenever someone tells me that my art is terrible,
I laugh at them, then prove them wrong.

Whenever anyone tells me that only famous artists can make it,
I find badly-made “famous” art and compare it to my own.

Whenever anyone tells me that I should compromise my dreams by even one inch,
I produce something to show them how amazing that one inch is.

Whenever any critic thinks that what they say is true,
I produce something amazing as way of saying “F*** you!”

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Anyway, I hope that this has been inspirational 🙂 Now get out there and kick some ass!