Self-Critique is Part of the Process

“You’re too hard on yourself.”

“Quilters are famous for pointing out the flaws.”

I’ve heard both of these many times. I heard both these ideas yesterday in comments, when I posted about a recent finish. If you don’t think about it, they sound like the same thing, that pointing out flaws is the same as being hard on myself. That pointing out flaws is an unnecessary burden on my self-esteem, reinforcing bad thoughts about myself.

It’s not.

While it’s possible that quilters are famous for pointing out flaws, there can be more than one reason we do so. Perhaps it happens when someone is uncomfortable with praise, and seeks to minimize it (and herself) by criticizing her work. Perhaps it happens when someone is seeking praise, hoping that by pointing out problems, a chorus will arise denying it.

But for me, pointing out flaws is neither of those. For me, self-critique isn’t about you (or what you think of me or my quilts.) And it isn’t about me (and how good or not good of a person I am.) It’s about the work. It’s part of the process of working. It’s how I improve in what I do and how I think.

I’m not a perfectionist. My piecing is pretty good, generally, but there are too many variables that aren’t controllable to think I can “perfect” it. Starch has its place, but I won’t soak my fabrics in starch, as some people do, trying to deny fabric one of its most important characteristics: plasticity. The ability of fabric to stretch and ease is part of what makes it pleasing as a medium. Otherwise I might as well cut and paste paper into designs. And often, once a piece is quilted, small errors fade into the texture of the quilt, becoming nearly invisible. Even so, there will always be ways to improve my piecing, and I try to move in that direction.

Quilting, stitching those three layers together? I can do a serviceable job. But I have no expertise and probably never will.

My focus is on design. For me, piecing and quilting are always in service of the design. And to improve at designing, as at anything else, I need to practice. “Practice” is not simply doing something over and over. After all, doing the same wrong something over and over simply entrenches bad habits.

To practice with improvement, I need evaluation of my designs. And to evaluate them, I need to understand the characteristics that can lead to a pleasing composition.

We call those characteristics “design elements and principles.” In quilting, the elements are the tools of design, such as color, value, shape, pattern, and line. The tools are used to create the viewer’s experience, such as unity, movement, repetition, balance, and proportion. These are the principles.

As I learned more about the principles and elements, my designs became stronger. Coincidence? Perhaps. But along with learning about those factors, I also started to assess how successfully I’d applied them. What do I see? Why does it seem static, or too chaotic? The balance seems wrong; what happened, and how could it have been better? That color seems out of place; the value contrast could have been stronger here. Ooh, I really like the way this element echoes that one…

Self-critique, assessment, evaluation. Whatever you want to call it, describing — for myself — my design successes and failures, taught me to apply those design components.

When I point out the same positives and negatives of my designs to you, it is not so you will either confirm or deny my view. (Of course if you have opinions to share, I welcome them.) My hope is that what I’m learning will be of service to you, too.

My goal is not perfection. There will always be varying levels of success and failure within any quilt I make. My goal is to learn and to become more powerful in my art.

Self-critique is part of my work process, and part of my learning process. As I learn to see more clearly, I don’t learn to succeed. I learn to fail better.

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20 thoughts on “Self-Critique is Part of the Process

  1. Quilt Musings

    I agree with you totally. When I point out the things I am not satisfied in my work, it is not because I am discouraged or particularly upset. I am analyzing it and seeing what I would change next time so that I can become better. If I share my criticisms of my efforts, it is not because I am trying to downplay what I have done or worse, fishing for praise. I am inviting you to join me in the learning process, to contribute to my learning and maybe to learn from my process. And if someone invites honest commentary on their own quilts, I am honored to be invited into their creative process so that we both learn more.

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  2. Jim in IA

    There are some times when you are not happy with some sort of detail, usually stitch quality. You fix it for good reason. I would not say you are a perfectionist about details. Quality and careful measurement are important.

    The aspect I see you work hardest on is design. What colors work here? How should this be framed? Is it too dark, or light? Does the center get lost?

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  3. Jane

    I love this post. I feel exactly the same way about the way I critique my own work. That, and it’s being honest with me readers. I don’t ever pretend to be perfect or to get through a project without any hassles. I love reading other people do the same. Anyone can post a picture of something lovely they’ve made but it’s the analysis that makes a blog worth coming back to, whether I agree with it or not. Thanks for this.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      You’re very welcome. The blogs I like to read discuss process, too. Sometimes I feel like prompting the bloggers who simply post a photo — “Can you tell me more?” But I don’t, as that seems rude. 🙂

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      1. Jane

        I feel the same way about other people’s blogs. I think that every blog becomes a learning resource when the process is discussed. There are some bloggers I know well enough now to ask questions of, but most things I look at, I leave with a bunch of questions… which I later speculate on with the bloggers I’m comfortable talking with.

        I wonder whether I should leave a footer on my blog inviting questions…

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  4. KerryCan

    So much (all?) of what you’ve written can be applied to any skill we seek to improve. As I weave, or write, or make quilts, I see what I’m doing as a sort of laboratory, where I am free to try different approaches and assess effectiveness. We’re so lucky to have the freedom to do things again and again, to repeat experiments, and to be able to learn from our own work, as well as others.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Yes, physical skills like that, as well as how we think about things, including relationships etc. While I don’t want to spend my life “in my own head,” analyzing all my interactions, I’ve found it helpful to think deeply about how I process incoming… Thanks for reading.

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  5. snarkyquilter

    Every quilt we make is just one possible path of many. It’s thinking – oh, maybe I could have added a pieced border around the outside – that leads to series, or at least notes to self for the next one.

    I find critiquing a touchy subject in the quilting world. It’s hard to tell someone her quilt would work better if she put some solid space between all the exuberance when she’s beaming with pride. And you don’t want to be around a group of quilters who are reading the judges’ comments on their quilts.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      If the quilter asks for feedback, then it is fair to say (in an impersonal tone) your observations. But it’s also true that anyone receiving feedback will hear the negatives more clearly if there are also positives said first. As to judges’ comments, I guess if you enter a contest, you open yourself to that. If you’re sturdy enough, you’ll take what’s valid and work on improvement, and shrug and roll your eyes at the rest. When I taught we had evaluations each semester. Generally students were complimentary, but I knew there would always be some who did not like me, or the subject, or the way I taught. Sometimes they offered valid things, and sometimes they didn’t. It was pretty easy for me to take it without taking it personally. Of course, rarely were they outright mean, either.

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      1. snarkyquilter

        Indeed the operative word is “asking” for feedback. I’ll happily volunteer compliments, but not suggestions for improvement. Of course, I’ve finally learned that many will ask for feedback as a backhand way of soliciting praise.

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