Photo by tj scenes
It’s notoriously difficult for artists and creatives to critique their own work – we put so much of ourselves into it, we find it hard to achieve the necessary critical detachment. As Flaubert said, ‘A book is essentially organic, part of ourselves. We tear a length of gut from our bellies and serve it up’.
Here are three basic strategies for getting some critical distance on your own work:
1. Distance in space
From Leonardo da Vinci’s advice to artists:
We know very well that errors are better recognized in the works of others than in our own; and often by reproving little faults in others, we may ignore great ones in ourselves. I say that when you paint you should have a flat mirror and often look at your work as reflected in it, when you will see it reversed, and it will appear to you like some other painter’s work, so you will be better able to judge of its faults than in any other way. Again it is well that you should often leave off work and take a little relaxation, because when you come back to it you are a better judge; for sitting too close to a work may greatly deceive you. Again it is good to retire to a distance because the work looks smaller and your eye takes in more of it at a glance and sees more easily the lack of harmony and proportion in the limbs and colours of the objects.
(Leonardo da Vinci, Notebooks)
Sometimes it helps to completely change the environment where you experience the work. In the film 24 Hour Party People, the band Joy Division sit in their manager’s car to listen to their album for the first time, as this is how their audience will hear the songs on the radio.
2. Distance in time
As well as physical distance from the picture, Leonardo suggests that the artist take a break in order to come back “better able to judge”. Even a short interval of time can be enough to break the connection with your work and approach it afresh. Poet and novelist Maya Angelou uses a similar strategy, devoting mornings to writing a draft and evenings to editing it:
if April is the cruellest month, then eight o’clock at night is the cruellest hour, because that’s when I start to edit and all that pretty stuff I’ve written gets axed out. So if I’ve written 10 or 12 pages in six hours, it’ll end up as three or four if I’m lucky.
(from Creators on Creating, Ed. Frank Barron, Alfonso Montuori, Anthea Barron)
3. Seeing through others’ eyes
The easiest way to find out how your work looks to others is to ask them. Make sure you pick someone you can trust and whose opinion you respect. I’m currently attending a brilliant poetry workshop run by Mimi Khalvati, mainly because she has an almost supernatural ability to see to the heart of a poem, even in early draft form, and suggest unexpected ways of improving it. She doesn’t hold back if the writing isn’t up to scratch, but she does it so skilfully that even if she’s telling me to rewrite the whole thing I come out of the class feeling inspired and eager to get back to the writing.
If you aren’t able to consult your audience or respected critics, the next best thing is to use your imagination. Put yourself in their shoes – how does that feel? How does the world look through their eyes? How does the work look? What would they have to say about it?
How about you?
What strategies do you use for assessing your own creative work?