The Oreo approach to criticism

I'm not comfortable giving criticism on the record. I tend to be short (harsh) with my words and sometimes struggle to make them sound diplomatic.

When I was a member of Toastmasters I was called upon to evaluate speakers in a formal manner–standing at the front of the room and giving my evaluation orally. At first, I despised this job. But I grew more comfortable in the role because it made me a better thinker, listener, and all-around observer. It also forced me to work on the language I use.

Artists, too, are called upon to critique one another in both formal and informal situations. When faced with this, try the Oreo® Approach, which I learned about in Toastmasters.

Kathleen Nathan, Silver Dress. Photograph. ©The Artist
Kathleen Nathan, Silver Dress. Photograph. ©The Artist

As you know, the Oreo® is a cookie with two chocolate wafers on the outside and light, creamy filling on the inside. When you're critiquing someone's art or marketing materials, think of the chocolate wafers (the parts that hold the whole together) as praise. The fluffy stuff in the center is where you can offer room for improvement.

For example . . . your critique might go like this highly abbreviated version.

Chocolate wafer (praise): Julia, I really like your use of complementary colors in the composition. They make the image “pop.”

Fluffy stuff (room for improvement): I'm wondering, though, if it might be better without that tree on the left. Or perhaps toning down the green would allow me to focus better on the center. You might also consider changing the mat color. I think white would be a better choice in this instance. The red, for me, detracts from the collage itself.

End with another chocolate wafer (praise): Boy, your craftsmanship is terrific! I'd love to hear about the adhesive you're using.

This isn't a magic pill for giving constructive criticism. I struggle with diplomacy every time I work on an artist's statement, review marketing material at a workshop, or help a client reword an email newsletter.

What are your experiences with giving or receiving criticism? What can you share with other artists in these situations?

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12 thoughts on “The Oreo approach to criticism”

  1. As a former art school student, one of the things I miss the most was having my work critiqued. Yes, I had teachers that made me cry, and yes, I still get upset after hearing what needs improvement in my work. But it’s hard to progress without outside help. You get too close to your work when it’s just you and it day in and day out. I like the idea of sandwiching it with what’s good about the piece. I think it’s always important to balance what needs improvement with what’s been done right. That way the artists knows what’s working and doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. It’s a tough balance, but it can only help your work to grow.

  2. Nicolette Tallmadge

    Yes, I’ve had a couple of art teachers that made me cry too. Plus, my husband comes from a family that doesn’t mince words and don’t sandwich the fluffy stuff between the chocolate layers, so I’ve learned that if I ask his opinion about something, I need make sure I REALLY want to know the truth.

    While it’s always great to have that mixture of praise and criticism, sometimes you need to get the opinion of someone who’s not going to sugar coat their criticism. While I don’t much like some of the no-nonsense criticism that I received from my past art teacher and my dear husband, surprisingly I’ve found that grown more because of them. It helped me grow a thicker skin and helped me better able to take rejection from customers, galleries, etc without turning into a diva…or wallowing in self-pity.

    Just beware that you know the difference between someone who’s giving you genuine criticism that’s meant to help you improve and someone who’s being a critical just to be a jerk.

  3. As a child I once ate all the middles out of the Oreo cookies, plunked the chocolate bits back together , & put them all back into the box…tears (of laughter) still come to my eyes as I remember family members reaching into the package, pulling out two bits of chocolate & slowly examining the lack of cream filling…
    Back on topic, I realise that I do the Oreo thing instinctively…Just yesterday, I gently told a young ‘un that his logo was illegible between two ‘how cool is that’ compliments…Unfortunately little cynical slacker gave me a lame excuse & disappeared…& one of his words was ‘lucid’ which I had tried to point out implied clarity not cryptic, sigh…
    Possibly, I should have given only praise…On several occasions, built trust & then offered the constructive criticism part…Maybe Arrowroot cookies then Oreos later?

  4. I like having critiques from someone whose opinion I value. My mom tells me all the time that my work is great – and she does this for free. If I am paying a teacher or coach for help, I don’t want to hear what my mom tells me. I need to know why and how. I need to know what is great but more importantly what is not great. Good critiques don’t beat around the bush when in the fluffy white stuff part. They should be specific. How can I improve?

    Thanks for the great article.

  5. This is always a delicate matter on the part of the one getting the critique as well as the one giving it. I am on both ends since I am a teacher and a painter. As the former, when I see things that need improvement I first ask what they think of their piece. Then I offer advice for how to make the image better.
    As a painter, on the receiving end of criticism, I always choose the people I ask to comment with great care. In the first place, I have to respect what they know as well as admire their work.

  6. It’s the same idea as I (try to) use in teaching Astronomy or Physics (I’m an adjunct Professor at two unis) to undergrads. I try to say something positive before I lambaste their sometimes very avoidable (if they followed instructions) mistakes. It’s easier to do this when the mistakes are honestly due to lack of understanding. Of course, for my online class, when I’m late with grading I tend to get more terse. But at least with their research papers (midterm projects) I am very careful to note something positive before I critique and then hopefully end with something else positive.

    This works for all facets of learning, I believe. Self-improvement may come from within and a critique from the perspective of another (hopefully expert) person who finds a way to encourage as well as correct reinforces advancement.

  7. Words are empowering. I believe in building people up. I seek balance with a straight forward, gentle, yet honest, diplomatic critique.There have been times when I thought everything I said was non attacking,however we as creative people are quite sensitive and sometimes unknowingly a particular word or area of discussion can trigger defensiveness. It is a delicate area providing growth for both the recipient and the critic. I know with my roles as an artist, juror, judge, speaker and teacher we can be on both ends of a critique. I also find a difference in reception in whether the critique is public or private. I’ll never forget a critique in front of 500 people where “he” said my work was “morbid”… the audience was so surprised and disagreed but after more than 10 years I still remember the experience.

  8. Hi!
    I think there’s a real issue with the problems being sandwiched between praise (I know this concept as sh* sandwich :)) – the danger is that people only listen to the praise. One of the things I’ve found helpful to do is give feedback with asking what people thought about their work first, and depending how they phrase it, it helps getting a sense of how to enframe feedback – using Feeling/Thinking of the Myers Briggs, i.e. whether people value personal input/appreciation and effort or want a straighforward assessment of their weaknesses. I know e.g. that I tend to phrase feedback very carefully and emphasise people’s input/effort, but that is not what people necessarily want to hear.
    The other thing I have found in managing teams is that one needs to give praise if one wants one’s own criticism taken serious.

  9. Roger L Huffenberger

    Very good advice I’ve belong to a critique group for the last ten years.
    The people in the group use this approach. When I was a new comer to the group and the art world it was a pleasent experience to be critiqued this way.

  10. I’m always open for constructive criticism…
    as for myself, I try to only leave positive criticism, or nothing if I don’t care for the works, sometimes it’s just for an anatomical correction for an animal that I might know of and am familiar painting…having said that, we all have different tastes in medium and styles… that’s what I like about art/artists, each one being an individual with an individual style, not looking the same…we might not like everything, but that’s what makes the world go around, it would be boring if everyone’s art looked alike…JMO

  11. We use a similar process to Oreo at my work when doing 6 monthly staff appraisals. Studies how that NZ kids hear something like 10 negative for every positive, so even in my library I try to be positive with ‘naughty’ kids. With my art, I like to receive the Oreo approach or similar – otherwise there is a danger that my heart beats so loud that my ears can’t hear the message…

  12. This is a great topic! We are sorely in need of great critiquers. The oreo approach is interesting but it’s downside is feeling like it could turn into an “it’s good but…” I am blessed to live in an arts community and have a few people I turn to for their valuable opinion but as a realist painter finding good critique is still pretty hard. Personally I prefer a good clear comment/critique and not have it sandwiched but then again I grew a super thick skin after a vicious critique in college that people still talk about (30 yrs later!!!) My reward for surviving it is I’m the only one in my class still making & thriving w my art! In the end I guess it is best if you know or at least have some sense of the person you are critiquing…are they used to it? been in the art world long enough to have a bit of a thick skin? etc…

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