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Three Ways to Assess Your Own Creative Work

Sketches by Leonardo

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?


  1. Mark — loved the post, loved the image. Wonderful!

    I’ve added it to the Skelliewag links blog :-).

  2. Thanks Skellie – and for the great advice re sourcing images. Your links blog looks cool, another good idea!

    For anyone else reading this, Skellie’s post about sourcing images is here: http://www.skelliewag.org/a-complete-guide-to-finding-and-using-incredible-flickr-images-162.htm

  3. Really interesting to read this. I always reckon in writing – get it down, get anything down, no matter how bad you feel about it. Then leave it. Come back next day – there’s always something there you can use and work with. Usually, surprise surprise – it’s often not half as bad as you thought

  4. Rex Gibson says:

    This is an absolutely neccesary process in the creative process. in music production all three tactics listed here are applicable.

    Another modes I use:
    Difference in Intensity. I commonly make mistakes where something is out of balance in relationship to other elements of my work. As a method of combating this mistake I use volume as a “variable”. So, I will turn the music up REALLY loud and feel it literally physically. The air of the speakers pushing against my clothes. However often times I actually gain the most perspective from listening to the music as extremely quite levels where the music is barely percievable. Then scrutinize the sound to see what is still perceptible.

    I would imagine perhaps that this would translate to other creative mediums as well. Visual seems the most logical in things like changing the transparency of an image when working in a digital format. But what about Filtered glasses or something for physical mediums?

    What about writing? Is it possible to change the physical intensity at which one perceives words? Perhaps obfuscating every other paragraph or word?

    Just thinking out lout. I love this article. It rings “true” to me. Great work.

  5. For the visual artists among us, the mirror is our best friend when we need to see our work as if for the first time. Turn your back to your work, raise the mirror to eye level and look at the canvas / drawing board in reverse over your shoulder. All the weaknesses of the composition that your eye had become immune to are suddenly revealed by the unaccustomed viewpoint, and the bad contrasts are exposed, and even your colour harmonies can be laid bare by the new angle on your work.
    For best effect use a lorry’s rear view mirror so as to see your work in reverse and in miniature simultaneously. I used to use this technique in a huge studio, painting roadside billboards to see my work “at a distance”. (In lontano)
    In Photoshop, just flip the entire image horizontally and zoom out! ๐Ÿ™‚

    We all need to step out of the frame occasionally.

  6. Hi Folks, thanks for the great comments. Sorry for the delay in responding, I’ve been away for work and my blog is in need of attention!

    Pamela – yes, that’s pretty well how I do it, at least for a longer piece of work. My first draft can be incredibly sketchy but if I’ve got to the end then it feels as though I’ve got something to work with – revision feels a lot less daunting than writing! It certainly works for you to judge by your bibliography, very impressive.

    Rex – love your suggestions. I wish I could turn the volume up on a poem! Maybe I could shout it from the rooftops. Actually reading it out loud is a good way of finding problems in a poem – if it’s awkward to read, there’s something not quite right. I’ll try your obfuscating words suggestion.

    Michael – thanks, great description of your working method. I’d never have thought of the lorry’s rear view mirror! I sometimes use the mirror technique on poems – you can tell a lot about a poem by its shape on the page, and you can get similarly ‘blind’ to this if you spend too long looking at it. Some fascinating stuff on your blog, really makes me appreciate the craft that goes into animation.

  7. i never thought of looking at my artwork in a mirror before! upside down and sideways, yes, but in reverse? wow! i’m going to try it sometime!

    i always ask my mum. if she’s pretty sure she likes it and wants to know more, then i’m on the right track. if she just plain ol’ doesn’t get it, it’s time to rework it a little.

  8. Lauren – glad to hear your mum provides such a reliable litmus test for your work. My mum seems to enjoy my poems, I don’t think she’d be so keen to be consulted every time though…

  9. Mark everytime i read one of your works which is tied to your lateral action course, I’m amazed when i read the dates on your articles. Your work is truly becoming time (independent). Three years later and your articles resound so loudly as if they were just uttered. Great portrayal on how to receive criticism and grow as an artist!!


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