Monday, August 9, 2010

Evaluating your work (always and ever...)

Somebody wrote to the Quiltart list yesterday asking us to look at a piece posted on her blog.  “I think this is a disaster, but need opinions – honest ones – as I have been looking at it too long and am not objective,” she said.  “I really don't like this piece right now, but am at a loss how to proceed. I'm tempted to just rip it up and walk away from it.  Is it as bad as I think, or should I keep working?”

I went to the blog and the piece – a whole-cloth screenprint – looked fairly nice to me; at least many of the details were gorgeous, and the overall composition was certainly adequate.  I posted a comment that said, “I am less concerned with what I think of this piece (I kind of like it) than with what you think of it.  What don't you like about it?  If you can articulate in as much detail as possible what you like and what you dislike, then you can answer your own question – should you walk away?”

I elaborate on this here because it’s an issue that every sentient artist faces at least once a week – is my work any good?  We all have moments when we’re tempted to just rip it up and walk away. 

Pollyannas have their response all ready, if we should ask:  No, you shouldn’t rip it up, it’s wonderful and you are just having a crisis of low self-esteem, which is BAD and you need to go have a nice cup of tea and then come back and keep working on your wonderful piece. 

With friends like this, who needs enemies?  All your work is not wonderful.  Even all of Matisse’s work was not wonderful (well, almost all of it was, but then, he was Matisse….).   Your friends do you no favors if their knee-jerk reaction is to love everything.  And you do yourself no favors if you insist on finishing everything you start – think of all the time you can waste by sticking with projects that deserve to be trashed or at the very least, turned into placemats.

But that internal critic who likes to denigrate everything you do is no friend, either.  Self-doubt can cripple you.  So the big question is how you look at your own work, to determine which pieces to walk away from and which ones to finish (and if so, how).  I am a firm believer in formal evaluation, whether it’s of your artwork or a new recipe or a pair of shoes you might buy or your allocation of time to various life activities or any other endeavor you embark upon.  Here’s a format that I have found valuable, and perhaps you will too.

I like to use formal evaluation when I finish a piece of art.  That helps me decide whether it’s good enough to enter in important shows, for instance, or whether it should just go lie down on the bed for the next five years.  More important, it points me in the direction I want to go for my next piece.  But formal evaluation can also help in midstream if, like the Quiltart writer, you aren’t sure where or whether to go next.

A process note: if it’s important to you, write it down.  That helps focus your thinking, because fuzzy logic is more apparent on paper than just sloshing around in your brain.  And you can save it for future reference, because most life experiences have some connection to previous life experiences, and you can often learn from your past.

First, what did you like about the piece (or the piece so far)?  This can include design issues (the asymmetrical layout, with more happening on the right side, is nice), theme issues (I feel strongly about the environment and like making work about that), process issues (complicated piecing is really exciting), or specific details (that red part on the top really turned out great).

Second, what did you not like about the piece?  Again, you can list details of the composition (wish I’d put the focal point higher up instead of dead center; that green in the bottom corner is too muddy) or process problems (Kona cotton is too hefty for fine-line piecing; I should have quilted this with the walking foot, not free-motion; sure not going to work with metallic thread again) or overall observations (this was nice but it's not me).

Third, where did you make a choice of equally appealing alternatives, and which alternatives didn’t get tried out?

If, like the Quiltart writer, you’re trying to decide whether it’s worth finishing the piece, you should add a fourth question: how much trouble would it be to fix the things in the second column that you don’t like, and are the things in the first column that you do like strong enough to make that worthwhile? 

If you’re finished with the piece and want to know where to go with your next piece, you draw up a plan based on your lists.  Choose some things from the first column and do those again.  Decide how to avoid the things from the second column.  And try out something from the third column that sounds interesting. 

I also advised the Quiltart writer, “Perhaps before you do this you should put the piece away for a week, or however long you think you can spare before the deadline.  When you start feeling negative about a piece it's often cumulative, and the more you see it the more you dislike it.  But if you can go away for a while you can often see things in a new light and realize it isn't so bad after all.”  I should have added that sometimes you will see things in a new light and realize that yes, sure is bad, for the following reasons, and this piece is going into the discard bag (not the trash – but I’ll write about that some day in its own post).

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