Examining what you make

Starting an art practice can be daunting. Here are my best tips and ideas to help get you set up for a sustainable practice. Examining what you make. This is the sixth in my series on How to Create Your Art Practice.

One of the elements of art practice that I think people tend to skip is the evaluation of what they make. Examining what you make is completely separate from the inner critic who shows up during the making process so don’t confuse the two. (I talk about the inner critic in a previous post from this series.) I personally find this step tricky because I like to keep it moving. Examining what I make requires me to stop and look back at things. But it is a critical step in improving my body of work.


I’m including two videos in today’s post because I think they give us a great overview of what we need to be aware of and looking for when we evaluate our work. They are geared to high school students as an introduction to these ideas so are easily accessible with fantastic visual examples.

Elements of art
Principles of design

Design Basics from me!

And here’s a previous post I made discussing those basic elements in my own work:

The book “Design Basics” I talk about in this post has been my reference book for many years. (You can pick it up for a song here. It doesn’t really matter what edition you have. I have a third edition. It’s under $4 and has free shipping and the principles haven’t changed!)  I also have an example sheet of nine abstract composition layouts I got from a class I took recently. I refer to it very often both in thinking about what I want to do before I start and then evaluating later. (It came from this Tammy Staab class.)

I think examining what we make gets a bad reputation as being soul crushing from poor representation in the media. On TV mean art instructors, vicious dance teachers, people who think suffering equals great art are what we see of creative life. And considering how personal art making is, it’s not surprising. A critique of our work CAN feel like a personal attack. But I find the reality of working with art instructors and other artists to be much more nourishing than that. 

If it’s a communal situation (a class or workshop), hopefully the instructor has built up some trust with you so there can be a discussion of what works and what doesn’t. If you are doing it on your own, it’s yet another muscle you will have to practice and build. I’m sharing these tools so you have some resources to start developing this muscle.

So what does examining what you make look like?

For me, this process takes a bit of time. I have to make the work and then let it sit for a bit. 

If I’m in the early stages of working on a project, I take a pic with my phone and look at it on screen. It’s amazing what that tiny bit of distance will get you. I am often able to spot things I want to fix easily by looking at my phone screen that I missed when looking at it straight on. I catch things like having the focal point in the dead center of the work or needed to emphasize lines or enlarge or reduce areas of color. Sometimes I take 8 or 10 photos during this stage of the process. Again, using the principles from the book or video as a guide to examining what I’ve made.

If I think I’m closer to being finished with the piece, I hang it in my kitchen. I have sort of a long kitchen/dining room so I hang the work on one wall and I am able to see it from various distances and lighting situations throughout the day. This helps me further examine the work against those design principles.

You just want to give yourself enough time and distance so you can see your work as if someone else made it. Just taking a break to walk around your workspace/house/neighborhood can let you create some distance so you can come back and look at the piece more critically. You need to have some emotional disconnection between what is on the page and yourself so that you can think about what is on the page and ONLY that.

Then stepping through the elements and deciding if they fit the piece or not, if you used the element well or not, is how you develop your eye. After you do it, it starts to feel more natural and less formal. I used a list I made to step through the elements for a long time when I was evaluating my work. Even journaling about it and keeping a log is helpful. Making notes on what you want to do differently next time or things you want to try again or expand on. I’ve done this journaling a few times and need to implement it into my regular practice because I think it provides much needed perspective and adds depth to my work.

Separating you from what you make

I touched on this above in a couple of places. But it is important to really foreground it. 

You are NOT what you make.

Is there some heart and soul in your work? Of course there is! Do you love it? Maybe, maybe not. But the thing you made is not you. You are valuable and whole just as you are, whether you make or not. So if someone criticizes something you made for whatever reason, that doesn’t mean they are also rejecting you personally.

You might have to practice this motto for a while so you can begin to be less precious with your pieces. I absolutely love what I’m working on in the moment. But once I start finishing it up, I start thinking about the next piece I’m going to work on and that starts the disconnection with the piece for me. I’ve been making long enough to know that this is just one piece in a long line of pieces. Some will be good, some won’t, but I can ALWAYS make more. I think the knowledge of there is more to be made helps that disconnect too.

My mom asks me all the time how I can bear to sell my work. I just smile and say there is more to be made. The experience of the making is what is precious to me, not the finished piece.

In community

I grew up hearing you had to have a tough skin to take criticism. That artists needed to be tough because the world is hateful. And while it is true that people will sometimes say unkind things, it is not the always, everywhere I grew up hearing about. 

I’m a part of several online and local art communities that are open and supportive and willing to embrace me right where I am as an artist. I am a huge believer in that there is room at the table for all of us. If your experience with an artist community is one of pettiness and scarcity, GET OUT. Life is too short for that kind of negativity. 

While as artists we often work alone, you don’t have to be lonely in creating your life as an artist. Find a community that will support you. There will likely be space there for critiques with kindness as well as support for the journey. 

What are your questions?

Hopefully you’ve read the past few How to Create an Art Practice posts. What’s coming up for you? Are you feeling energized to start or are you sagging in the middle? Do you have questions that you are hoping I’ll answer in this series? Send me an email and let me know what you are looking for or wondering about.