(Sketch by Shannon Sanders for May 24 Guest Group Critiques.)

If you’ve ever taken a drawing or painting class, you’ve probably experienced some group critiques, when everyone puts their work up, the instructor talks and everyone just looks. I’ve always considered these to be the most fun and second most valuable (after ‘doing’ the art) – part of the art classes I’ve taken in my life.

I’ve talked to many illustrators and fine artists who feel the same way. No surprise there! Critiques are a key way artists learn. The tradition goes back to the ateliers of the 19th century and before that, the master and apprentice arrangements of the Renaissance and maybe much earlier, maybe all the way back to drawing on cave walls.

For five years I did illustration critiques in my Make Your Marks & Splashes course on children’s book illustration, considerably helped in these by creative kindred spirits Scott Mitchell (my brother), dear high school friend Donna Warwick, technology-loving compadres Erik Niells and Clay Leben and a platoon of hardworking students who uploaded new works every month and stayed up until the wee hours talking composition and treating each other and me with a special patience and kindness.

I tried hard in the critiques to pick out the ‘common errors’ and share ideas that had proven almost magically helpful and important to me as a freelance illustrator. But, like most people I only know what I like (re: the discussion topic of Art.) I live far from the world’s publishing centers and don’t know more than you about the illustration market or trends.

I decided that the students deserved more. We weren’t exploiting the feedback learning to its full potential.  So I rounded up a few talented working illustrator pals from our incredible Austin SCBWI chapter to give our sessions a vitamin B-12 shot. That was in 2015. Right away we felt enriched by the multiple perspectives.

In November 2015 I opened Guest Group Critiques to the public (a separate subscription option) to help pay for all of the guest instructors.

This year we’ve added some ‘gatekeepers’ – art directors and agents who work with children’s book artists every day. In January we enjoyed critiques with Nick Balian, art manager (and illustrator) for digital publisher ustyme books and in February and March, we learned so much from a two-part, two assignment session with Loraine Joyner, recently retired after 23 years as art director for Peachtree Publishers.

In April we enjoyed a terrifically helpful visit with Andrea Brown Literary Agency senior agent Kelly Sonnack.

Senior agent Kelly Sonnack

Senior agent Kelly Sonnack

The critiques still figure into the Marks & Splashes curriculum, for those who want to participate.

In fact most subscribers are students or alums of the online course or the classes I teach at Laguna Gloria. For them critiques provide a chance to apply lessons learned and see how the results fly with the gang and guests.

For subscribing non-students, the sessions offer monthly ‘drills’ with two-way exposure hard to find where they live, and for the price of a cheap plate lunch.

I’ll still critique occasionally. But most months we’ll try to feature someone from the outside – a successful illustrator, agent, art director, editor or teacher reviewing a selection of our group’s latest work.

Nicole Tugeau

Nicole Tugeau

Next Tuesday, May 24 we’re scheduled for a review by children’s literary agent and art rep Nicole Tugeau. She’ll critique 15 final art versions from a big pile of sketches submitted by our group that you can see in video atop this post.

On June 20 we’re set to host Penguin-Random House senior art director Giuseppe Castellanowho has mentored us before in Marks & Splashes. He’ll think aloud about ten of the pieces he’s chosen from our June folder. You can find out more about session with him, see what he’s asking to see from you and register here.

We plan to continue doing these for a while, at least through the year, as we feel our way to the best format, if there is one.

Art by Honore Daumier, Guest Group Critiques

Art by Honore Daumier

Questions still bedevil us … Should sessions remain democratic and egalitarian, where everything submitted gets looked at?

Or do we go for a more selective monthly ‘contest’? Should guest instructors prompt with a specific, unique assignment? What about revisions? Do we weigh art over market or vice-versa…?

It’s a bit of a messy experiment and might always be that. But if the premise sounds attractive – like it just might be the lunacy you’re looking for (to paraphrase Billy Joel) – now might be the time for you to hop on board, and come co-create with us!

Find out more about Nicole Tugeau’s May 24 critique. See last month’s video, where she gave us a great impromptu lesson

Get the scoop on the June 20 session with Giuseppe Castellano.