How to Critique Art

Put aside judgment and evaluate the basics:

Art critiques. In art school, they are a pain. Students awkwardly stand in front of the class and explain what they’ve done with their latest work of art. Then the instructor asks the rest of the class to offer critiques that the student may or may not want to hear. Few enjoy the process when forced, but critiques are a beneficial tool to help artists grow and refine their skills.

Now, the critique process doesn’t come naturally to most people. It’s tempting to simply say that you like what an artist has done, but this isn’t a critique. It’s important to understand the purpose of a critique session, and the basic dos and don’ts.

Judgment vs. Critique

First, keep in mind that criticism in a critique session is not the same as judgment of the final product. A critique session is not meant to establish if your work is good or bad. Varying labels of “good” or “bad” have no place in a critique session for these are judgments. Critiques, on the other hand, allow artists to get an outside perspective of their work’s many layers. Sometimes we are too close to our work, and we need someone to pull us back and shift our perspective. During a critique, your art is dissected and examined according to basic principles and elements of art making.

Never in a critique should anyone simply say: “I like this,” “I don’t like this” “It looks good,” or “It looks bad.” Instead, a viewer needs to dive further.

Why DO you like it? Is it balanced? Is it symmetrical?

Why DON’T you like it? Poorly executed? Cliché subject matter?

“I like it!” or “This sucks!” are not critiques. Critiques involve exploration of the following:

1. Technical Assessment

When you create a piece of art, you use basic principles and elements of design. No matter what, whether you are conscious of it or not, you implement the concepts below.

During a critique session, viewers should evaluate a piece of art based on these concepts:

The basic principles of design include:

  1. Balance- symmetry, asymmetry, where the piece is weighted
  2. Proportion- how the size of forms compare to one another in the piece
  3. Emphasis- which elements are highlighted; the focal point(s)
  4. Variety- the use of different elements to create visual diversity
  5. Movement- the paths the viewer’s eyes follow (or don’t follow)
  6. Rhythm- the flow/movement created by repeated elements
  7. Harmony- how visual elements play together in the piece

Basic elements of art include:

  1. Line- the marks/strokes between two points
  2. Shape- 2D enclosed areas
  3. Form- 3D shapes; perceived volume of shapes
  4. Color- hue, saturation, purity; general use of color
  5. Space- background, foreground, middle ground; negative space vs positive space
  6. Texture- how something feels or appears to feel
  7. Value- degree of lightness to darkness; contrast

2. IntentIon

Often, I see artists get upset over feedback they receive about their art when it is clear the viewer has absolutely no idea of the artist’s intention for creating the piece.

During a critique the artist and the viewer should discuss the intention of the art and then compare and contrast that with the principles of art and design above.

For example, if an artist’s intention was to create a dramatic human scene, like Baroque artists from the 1600s who used dark values in the background and deep rich colors, but the artist instead used pastel colors and only midtones, this would be a really good thing to call to the artist’s attention.

If you are an artist seeking a critique, let your viewers know your intentions with your art and the kind of feedback you are looking for. Also, let the viewer know if you are stuck on any area.

3. Skill and Execution

When our intention doesn’t match our execution of the elements above, critique sessions are beneficial to help get an artist on the right track. Skill and execution are touchier subjects to discuss in a critique, because a beginner artist may not want to hear “you poorly executed your shape and value here”.

When discussing skill and execution, always approach them as areas to improve upon. Again, critiques should never be a judgment of the artist’s work or skills. A critic should never say something like “You suck at making faces.” Instead, they can say things like “Your proportions are off. Your symmetry could use some work.”

Artists need to be okay hearing critiques that assess skill, as this is how we grow and decide which areas we need to practice. Now, if your intention was to make an asymmetrical and oddly proportioned face, then an assessment of the technical execution doesn’t need to be covered (which is why it’s nice to let your viewer know your intention first).

4. Style

To touch on those oddly proportioned faces again, style is an artistic choice. When an artists’ work intentionally strays from reality, or when consistent stylistic choices are made throughout a piece or a body of work, it’s appropriate to mention how and where style appears in the work being critiqued. It is also good practice to ask an artist “was this intentional?” when viewing a possible stylistic choice. If it was, then style is apparent. If it wasn’t, then this is an area an artist can address in terms of their execution and skill.

5. The Message and Meaning

What is the artist trying to say? Is this message effective? How does the art make you feel? Is there symbolism?

The message and the meaning behind a piece of art can matter just as much or more than the execution of technical principles, especially is the artist is creating conceptual work. During a critique, artists can ask the viewers general questions to see how their work is being interpreted. If the artist has a specific message they want to convey, they can use the critiques to refine the message.

Okay, now that you know the basics of an art critique, keep the following in mind:

Not Everyone Knows How to Critique Art

In my experience, everybody thinks they are a critic, but not everyone knows how to critique. If you want someone to help you dissect your artwork, don’t pick just anybody. Random people on the internet should not be trusted immediately. I caution you against posting your work on Instagram with any broad caption relating to “What do you think of this?”

Choose a critique partner wisely. Find someone who understands the basic art elements and principles above. Maybe even show them this post. Or, if you do resort to soliciting advice from anyone online, make sure to ask for very specific feedback and find a platform with like-minded people. I’ve actually seen some really valuable critiquing happening on art subReddits.

The Danger of Personal Opinions during critiques

I want to make it very clear that not everyone will like your art or agree with where you are taking your work. If you aim to make your art look cluttered and chaotic, it’s very likely that someone will say they don’t like your art, because it is in fact cluttered and chaotic. If you are working with a critique partner who knows how to withhold judgment, this won’t be an issue, but as I said before, a lot of people have no idea how to responsibly and productively critique art.

This is why it’s important to always create according to your vision. Don’t try to cater to the people around you (unless they are paying you for your work). You as the creator need to understand why you do what you do so that you can stay true to your art as you get outside comments, critiques, and judgments.

Try to Enjoy the Process

Critique sessions can be really beneficial for artists at any level. And they can be especially beneficial if you ever find yourself feeling stuck on a piece in progress. I know that it can be hard to find a critique partner that can be trusted, so in case you really need someone to help you, I offer 30-minute critique consulting sessions for artists of any level through my consulting services. Check out my consulting page for more details.

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