Become a Better Artist: The Role of Criticism

An art teacher’s take on the role of criticism in improvement.

In this excerpt from the ConverSapiens podcasts, art teacher Chris Screws answers questions about the most common errors of beginner artists, the role of personal expression in their work, and the goal of the artist. We also discuss shape drawing and learning to observe like an artist to overcome the ingrained symbolic representations we all carry from childhood.

Anytime you go into a studio class, you’ll hear this from the teacher. They’ll say, “You need darker darks and lighter lights.” That’s because so many beginner artists wind up with flat pieces that lack in contrast. Do you have any ideas as to why that might be?

I definitely have my theory. This will be my 19th year teaching, so I think I’m thinking pretty on it. It’s fear. They’re afraid of making a mistake. They’ve gotten the piece it to a certain point where it looks okay, and it may even be better than they thought it was going to be. They don’t want to push it too hard because they fear they will mess it up. I see it as fear, first and foremost.

It could also come from a lack of vision. The student may not know what they need to do to get their work to the place where I think it needs to be. A more experienced artist would see where it needs to go, but they don’t know what it should look like. A good way to help those students see what’s missing is to use your cell phone camera. If we take a photograph of whatever it is they’re trying to draw and make it black and white, then take a picture of their drawing and take it to black and white, they can put those two pictures side by side and it becomes clear. At that point, they’re able to go back and darken things up. Color is very distracting.

How do you see the artists’ personality manifesting in their work?

In the later classes I can see it more, because at that point they’ve acquired their skills and are able to put their personality into the work. That could come out in the medium they choose — those who might want more control are going to gravitate towards drawing, because it’s more controllable, where those who are a little more expressive might go towards paint. Color palettes are definitely affected as well. In our AP Art class, I tell my students that the types of materials you use should backup your concepts or ideas. The artist has to come up with a question they’re asking themselves. Those questions should lead to a sustained investigation of a certain concept. We talk about material choice, color use, mark making, etc. All those choices affect what your goal is, and your personality naturally guides how you make them. So definitely, you can see their personality in their work at every level.

I saw this little comic online. It depicted a painter who was showing their work, which was was a canvas with some abstract expressionist lines on it. A second character looks at the work and says, “That looks bad!” The artist responds indignantly, saying “Oh, so you’re judging how I feel?” Being an art teacher who has to judge artworks on a regular basis, how do you respond to that? How do you balance the personality and feelings of the artist with a judgement of their work?

I would want to know what the goal was. What’s the goal of this piece? It’s true that there are certain design aesthetics. We have our principles of design, or elements of art that, as an art educator, we might use to have a checklist of what’s expected. Do we have good balance? Do we have good line use? Good color choices? Is it pleasing to the eye? We can kind of grade it on an academic scale, but as far answering whether it’s a good or bad piece of art, what’s the goal?

So you would judge an artwork based on what the goal was and how well the artist achieved the goal?

In the classroom, for sure. Out in public, if I was showing in an art show with other artists, there will definitely be pieces that I’m going to gravitate towards more than others. It could be because they have similar aesthetics to me. Honestly it’s usually not. The more similar your art is to mine, the less I’m attracted to it. But if a piece is missing its own goal, or if it’s not reaching those elemental expectations, in the academic setting, I might think that’s not a successful piece of art. Not that it’s bad or good, but maybe it’s not as successful as it could be.

I think that whoever made that cartoon has a point, but then there’s also everyone who has ever had to critique art, and they also have a point. I’m curious how much weight the artist’s explanation should have on those judgements.

Well you shouldn’t have to explain your art.

So it should speak for itself?

To me, yes. That’s a goal of mine. I should not have to explain what’s happening. In my brain, I run down my checklist of things that would make a successful piece of art and ask, does it have that?

What are some of those things that make a successful piece of art?

We talked about contrast earlier, about work looking too light or flat. Contrast is definitely a goal of mine. I want the images to pop, for lack of a better word. I want them to stand out. And contrast can be with lightness and darkness of color, it can be contrast of textures, contrast of line; it depends on what I’m making, but that’s a big one for me. Composition is also huge, and that goes across the board, from a beginning level to the advanced levels. Composition is the layout on your design. That’s everything. Is it balanced? There are plenty of rules, like the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds is crucial.

Learn how to draw shapes directly from Chris on his YouTube channel!

I’ve been watching some of your YouTube channel, Create Art with Chris. You’re videos are great, by the way.

Thank you. I love it! It’s been fun to do. It’s a new medium for me to play around with.

Let’s say that I am a new student of yours on YouTube. I just started watching your videos and I’m trying to learn how to draw. What is key for beginning to learn how to draw? What should I focus on first?

You have to learn how to see. You have to learn how to observe. If you can’t do that, you can’t pick apart your pieces to understand what went wrong.

How do I go about learning how to see?

I actually have a lesson in one of my previous videos that’s about shape drawing, and the whole goal is to draw what you see, not what you think you see. In that video, I take a copyright free photo of a bird that I found on Google, and I break it down into its most basic components. We’re not necessarily talking about the anatomy of the bird…. I’m talking about the basic structure of how to represent the bird in a drawing. As the artist this is how you examine that particular photograph to break it down into more attainable shapes. From those base shapes, you can add texture, detail, and shading later. Learning how to see what’s there in its most basic form is crucial.

Do you have student’s work with upside down drawings in your classes?

I have before, if I have a student whose brain is fighting themselves, who keeps drawing the same symbol of an idea. That’s what happens in those early stages. A lot of beginners will draw a symbolic representation of what they think their subject should look like. No matter what level of experience you have, when you were a kid, you probably drew a face. So you start drawing what you did when you were in sixth grade, because that’s usually about where your natural art education stops. We have to just get rid of that symbolic representation and actually examine what’s in front of us. If that’s just not clicking, you can absolutely turn what you’re drawing upside down, if you’re using a photographic reference. It does work, and it gets you of your symbol drawing habits. The end product doesn’t always look great, but it’s going to be closer to realism then what it was previously.

Yes, everyone has the symbol that they draw for a house, but you can’t go into that house… It would fall down!

Check out the full conversation with Chris by listening to episode one of ConverSapiens! Listen to it right here, or find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or any other podcast platform.

Haunted Houses & The Birth of a High School Special FX Class

How a haunted Halloween attraction led to a one of a kind art program.

I spoke with art teacher and lifelong artist Chris Screws about the unique Special Effects class he has pioneered in the Visual Art program at Pinson Valley High School. His Special Effects class is one of only five such programs offered at the high school level in the US! In this excerpt from his appearance on ConverSapiens, Chris shares with me the origin story of Pinson’s SFX program, which started in the unlikeliest of places: a haunted house!

One of the most exciting things about the art program you have helped to build at Pinson Valley High School is your very unique Special Effects class. I haven’t ever seen SFX taught in an art program at any other high school. I know that ties into the haunted house attraction you helped create, but I was wondering if you could elaborate on that. How did that class come to be?

It started because there was a need arising from a previous project that had been going on, as you said. About 12 years ago a coworker and I were talking about horror movies and we got on then subject of Halloween and haunted houses. He told me there used to be a haunted house just a couple miles down the road from the school that he had actually acted in. I was explaining that at that time, in the county, we were not able to charge fees for the classroom at all, so we had a zero dollar budget for our art classes. He brought up the possibility of us reopening a haunt as a way to raise funding for the school, so we made a plan for what a new haunt would look like and we presented to the city council. At first they didn’t want to do it because with the previous haunted house the people who were in charge of it (not my coworker but the old owners) had disrespected the building the city had let them use. They had torn some things up, so the council was a little leery of having another haunted attraction there. The building is really cool. It’s a community center now, but it was an old school house that was built in 1937, so there are already some creepy stories there.

Since we were fundraising for the art department, the city finally approved, and we were able to start it up. We aren’t affiliated with the school — it’s its own separate entity — but we write a check to the school and we donate money every school year. So that’s how the haunted house started, which then led to the Special Effects class. Once the kids began visiting the haunt, they wanted to act in it and be involved. Some wanted to help with some of the makeup as well. I saw that we needed to educate these kids on how to do those things, because they can’t just show up and expect to be able to know how to properly apply makeup prosthetics or how to use an airbrush or the other props correctly, or how to prepare the costumes, etc. So I presented that information to our principal at the time and I asked for permission to create a Special Effects program. He’s all about green lights, so he said yes, and that’s how our program came about.

What’s the name of the haunted house?

It’s the Insanitarium Haunted Attraction. Our website is

So your Special Effects students get an opportunity to learn a unique form of art that… Well I don’t know of another High School in the area that has something like that…

In the area, no. Not even in the state. I think there are now five high schools in the entire US with a SFX program like ours. There’s a couple in California, there’s one in Ohio, and one in Colorado.

Wow! You’re really pioneering in that area, then?

For sure, at this level. There are plenty of makeup arts schools that do things like this at the college level, but as far as high schools go there are only a handful of us nationally.

That’s awesome! Not only are your students given a very rare opportunity to learn special effects art, as you’ve just discussed, but they also have a place to show it at the end of their time in your class, in something like a recurring art show through Insanitarium Haunt.

Yes, they have the option of being involved in the haunted house, but that’s not required of them by the class. Quite a few of them do want to get involved, so they work with me to produce the makeup. We aren’t as involved in the haunt as we used to be because we have such an amazing staff at Insanitarium now that takes care of the majority of costuming. They are just unbelievable, and they’re doing an amazing job, so it’s allowed me to step back and focus on teaching.

What are the dates the haunt runs?

We typically start at the last weekend of September and then run through the weekends of October and all week, the week of Halloween.

Do you have any favorite movies that serve as inspiration for your special effects career?

For special effects, I would say that it was American Werewolf in London. It’s a movie that just kind of blows your mind! If you’re not familiar with the movie you need to go on YouTube and watch a little of the transformation scene of American Werewolf in London. It is unbelievable! It’s all practical. There’s no CG. Particularly the artist Rick Baker is someone who pioneered some of the looks that come from it. He was the lead makeup artist in that movie. I think that was the starting point for SFX for me because it blew my mind! It felt so real, and it still does this day. It’s one of those things that is both beautiful and disturbing at the same time.

I guess you would probably be in favor of practical effects over CG, in general?

Yeah, I think as a physical artist I would have to say so. But I also think that some of the coolest stuff you see in movies and TV shows now happens when they blend both approaches. They’ll start with the practical effects and then add the CG element, because there’s only so much you can do on a human body. You can’t take away, you can only add to it. So if you want to do something that looks like a monster with a hole in its body or if you want to have something that’s caved in, you’re going to achieve that using CG. With practical effects you would be limited to doing a mass of prosthetic build-up to make that happen, to make other areas of the body look reduced. With a blended approach, you can have a zombie with lots of practical on their face, and then if you want a big hole in their head, for example, you break out the green paint and add it with CG.

Is there an aspect of special effects artwork that you enjoy doing outside of preparing for Insanitarium and teaching?

I enjoy sculpting and I love making masks, which is related to special effects, of course. It’s a fun challenge to have to make a 3-dimensional creation. I can then make copies of that creation from the molding. I got to learn how to do that several years ago and that was a big challenge, but once you figure it out, you can start changing your sculptures based on the molding process. Now I can make copies and copies, and I do that on my Etsy shop now, where I sell my masks online

What’s your Etsy Shop?

My store is called CatacombChris on Etsy, or you can visit

Does mask making involve casting, or that sort of thing?

Yes. Once the original is made, I can make multiple copies of it. I’m making latex masks now. I’ve gone away a little bit from natural latex because so many people have a lot of allergies to that. There are several companies and make synthetic latex, so I’ve been using that. You just pour it into your mold and then make a copy. Then you can paint it whatever colors you like. Mask making is cool because it’s wearable art. It’s functional.

Are your masks inspired from the horror scene or have you ventured to other areas?

I learned out of necessity for Insanitarium. All of our characters are original characters at the haunt, so we wanted very particular looks and no one had items like that. I flew to Texas to take a three class on mask making, and went from there. Now I teach the techniques I learned in my Special Effects class.

You can hear the rest of our conversation on the first episode of the ConverSapiens podcast! We go on to discuss other aspects of learning and teaching art. Check it out here, or by searching for ConverSapiens on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever podcasts are played!

The Heart of Art Education

What’s the point of studying visual art?

Every student has asked the familiar question: “When am I ever going to use this?” I recently had a conversation with a very talented artist and art educator, Chris Screws, who helped answer that question for visual art classes. Mr. Screws has 19 years of experience teaching art at all levels. In our conversation, I asked him how he got into art and teaching it. Then we moved to the classroom, exploring his take on classroom management, interdisciplinary collaboration, and finally, his larger teaching philosophy, where he shared with me the true purpose of studying art. Whether you’re an educator, an artist, or just someone with an interest in learning, I think you’ll find this excerpt from our conversation enlightening.

Mr. Screws, how did you get into art? Is it something that you grew up always doing? What does that story look like?

I just want to learn how to draw Batman! I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing. I think that’s true with most children. It’s just part of your life: you create. At a certain point it stops for most kids, but for me it didn’t. Around 6th grade my parents found someone locally who taught art lessons and I learned how to draw people better and how to paint landscapes, and other traditional aspects of art. I constantly had to remind the teacher that I just wanted to learn how to draw Batman! But we came back to that. I eventually learned that I need to know how to draw a person before I can draw a particular person.

I’ve noticed in your classroom you have a lot of Funko Pops and things like that, so I guess comic books and super heroes are right up your alley?


It’s interesting that you started out with an interest in comics. It makes sense that can be an avenue for kids to get into full blown art careers. They’re in contact with art at all times through comics, cartoons, etc. Okay, you got into art through Batman…. How did you get into teaching in particular?

I think that comes back to what I saw growing up. My father is a United Methodist Minister and my mother is a teacher, so showing other people how to do things is something I was always around. I think art is this perfect combination of showing people how to create things. There’s an educational aspect, but there’s also the fulfilling of our soul within it. It’s not just a typical core class.

Indeed! There’s an expression involved that you may not see in core classes for whatever it is inside that wants to come out through art. Do you think people overestimate the role of talent when it comes to learning art?

I think so, yes.

Right, I’m no artist, but when you talk to people about art they always tend to default to “I can’t draw,” and “I can’t paint.” I always think, well there’s a whole lot of art teachers out there that may argue differently!

Yes! Everyday in the classroom I hear, “I can’t.” What I want to say is, sure, you can’t… yet. We have to add that yet to the end of it. I totally believe that there are people who are more inclined to want to learn, and I think people read that as skill because they’re looking at others who are not necessarily on their first day doing art. This happens in my classroom everyday, but especially in Art 1 classes. You see kids who are trying art for the first time, then there are other kids who are not at the beginning of the journey, they’re in the middle of their journey. The kid at the beginning sees the one in the middle and they see the discrepancies between their pieces, and it’s tough. We’ve got to get them over that hurdle, and that’s part of the job.

I think so much of that is born out of comparing oneself to other people. Speaking of that issue, how do you address your student’s individual learning needs when you have such a wide spectrum of skill represented in your classes?

We have to call it out. That’s the first step. You can’t just leave it unsaid, you have to call it out. As soon as child realizes that you see they’re struggling or having issues, that’s the first step. If you just go on about your business and you’re teaching your content without addressing that kid who has less experience, they’re going to get discouraged, and they’re going to want to quit. They’re not going to stick with it.

It can be easy to assume that student might just ask for that extra help, but that’s not really always the case. Often you have kids who, if the teacher isn’t there and seeing what’s going on, are never going to speak up, because maybe they feel embarrassed or they’re just naturally shy.

Sure. There’s also that comfort level, where maybe we haven’t established that trust yet. The beginning part of every semester is going to be very difficult, especially in the Art 1 class, because the students don’t know me and I don’t know them, yet I’m asking them to do something that they’ve never done before, that they’re not confident in. Because of that we have to establish that trust first. Until then, it’s very difficult to get them to ask questions, so it has to be me going to them and saying hey, we see there’s an issue here, but that’s okay.

I think part of that trust is you saying that it’s okay and completely natural to have made mistakes.

Right. I try to relate to their experience to my own. I was where they were at one point. Occasionally I might have a piece of art that I did previously that wasn’t the best. I’ve got tons of superhero drawings from middle school, and I’ve shared those with some of my kids. I lets them see that I’ve been there too, so they can see that this is what it did look like when I was just starting, and this is what it can look like. Now we can talk about how I got from here to there and how you can do the same.

What does classroom management look like for you?

It could be different for younger ages — I started teaching in a middle school, and that was tougher — but in the high school setting, whenever I have issues, I just talk to the student. I try not to call them out in front of their friends because that’s just going to be confrontational, which is always bad. I try to have a conversation with them, maybe when they get up to sharpen their pencil or something, so it doesn’t look like I’m confronting them out of nowhere. I try to have conversations where I’ll just ask them what’s going. Usually it’s totally unrelated to what’s happening in my room. That behavior doesn’t just come out of nowhere or even out of something that happens in the 90 minutes that I have them. It’s something that happened that morning or the previous night. But they also don’t want to share that information until you’ve gained a little bit of trust. Just talk to them. Have that conversation. Show that you care about them as you calmly address the issue.

Let’s say you have a kid who isn’t a behavioral issue, but maybe they don’t really want to do the work. Perhaps they just landed in your class without actually choosing it. What are some strategies that you use to motivate students in those situations?

Going back to that trust, I really find that once they get to know you a little bit they’re more willing to try. Even if art is not something they’re totally into, if they can feel comfortable, they’re willing to try. I’ve found very few students who, once they try it and once they get into it a little bit, don’t follow through. It’s a super rare occurrence. I also set my expectations as clearly as I possibly can so that their pathway to learning and to success in the class is as clear as possible.

What does interdisciplinary collaboration look like in your art classes? Do you do a lot of that?

It happens a lot in our Special Effects class, because the types of projects we do have connections all over the place, so we have to take an interdisciplinary approach. We work with Industrial Maintenance a lot to do 3D printing for some items that we need. We also worked with them to build a functioning heart model that we used as a learning tool for our Anatomy classes. We sculpted a heart that was slightly larger than life size, just for educational purposes. We sculpted it out of clay and molded it using a special type of plaster for molding prosthetics. We put latex balloons inside the mold that we ran through the different chambers. Then we hooked it up to a pump that Industrial Maintenance built so that it could pump and beat. It took a long time! We also have interdisciplinary connections on a smaller scale with some of our Art class projects. We try to involve math classes when we’re doing perspective. Since we’re always talking about angles, math comes into play a lot. When we talk about drawing faces and human proportions, both fractions and anatomy play their part. We also collaborate with the Theatre program to help paint backdrops and design sets. This past year we sculpted and molded five original masks for our Theatre class that went on to be used in our local Trumbauer competition.

That’s so cool! I would like to figure out how to do a little bit more of that in my classes to get that connection going, because it’s really interesting for the kids to break those boundaries and see where subjects can connect. It makes their education more meaningful.

Yes, and you hear that old question less: “When am I going to use this.”

Well with art, I think we underestimate the amount of artwork, and graphic design that is around us all the time. Anytime you interface with your phone or your computer or anything like that, you’re looking at the result of thousands and thousands of artists’ work. Somebody drew and designed all of those little images that flood your screens.

It’s certainly everywhere, but in addition to that, the whole point of an art class, no matter what level, is to learn problem-solving. The goal is to learn how to solve a problem.

So problem-solving is at the base of studying art, for you?

Yes. It really hits in the advanced classes, like in our SFX class or AP Art, because they require you to take those entry-level classes to gain some skills. In my beginner level classes, I’m concerned about them learning how to draw, how to design, how to paint and learning and the basics of sculpture. Then in those advanced classes, it’s all about application. At that point, they have the tools they need to solve the problems that either I present to them or that they discover for themselves. Hopefully that gets translated to their entire life.

To your point, I think when anyone starts teaching become aware of the need and of the situations that some of the kids come from and it’s very tempting to feel, out of compassion, that you are what I see described as “So much more than a _________ teacher.” When I was a first-year teacher, I was certainly in that position. I felt like my content should almost take a backseat to a larger picture. Since then I have come to believe that is an incomplete way of looking at things. I now believe that your philosophical purpose can be set within your content, and that can positively impact your students. When you tell me that the key to art is problem-solving, I feel like you might be on the same page. Would you agree with that idea?

For sure.

You say problem-solving is the underlying theme of art, and I think that’s the perfect way to put it. For me, as a Spanish teacher, the underlying theme is that we’re confronting the other. There are literacy skills involved in learning a new language, sure, but the underlying philosophical purpose is that you’re going to confront the other if you try to learn another language. That develops things like compassion and empathy, and it fosters an understanding of the sacredness of all life.

When I understand that, now it’s not that I am a public servant first and a Spanish teacher last. It’s really that being a great Spanish teacher is a public service, and that’s a high bar to strive toward. Being a great Spanish teacher, a great Art teacher, or a great Math teacher then becomes a high goal to reach after.

Right. They’re not disparate things.

You can hear my full conversation with Chris by listening episode 1 of the new ConverSapiens podcast! Hear it right here or search for ConverSapiens on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever else podcasts are played.