HOW TO CRITIQUE AND DISCUSS ART: 8 BASIC TIPS

Art criticism is the discussion or evaluation of visual art. An art critique can be given by anyone – a young kid on his first trip to an art museum or a professional critic with a PhD in the Arts. It can be as simple as verbally expressing emotive reactions to an art piece or as complex as using a formula of analysis based on historical, technical, social, cultural, and aesthetic knowledge.

In this article, we will attempt to simplify the art of critiquing so that every lady at basic and intermediate levels can join in and find their voice in the wonderful world of art. Every voice is valuable. So, here are 8 basic tips…

HOW TO CRITIQUE AND DISCUSS ART: 8 BASIC TIPS

KEEP IT SIMPLE AND EXPRESSIVE

Beginners, we recommend you keep your critique simple and emotional. Express the thoughts you have when viewing the piece. Express your feelings, even the negative ones, for example, “this painting makes me sad“.

Other acceptable simple critiques are:

  • “I feel so peaceful when I look at this piece.”
  • “It’s so dreamy! It’s like floating on clouds.”

The key to simple but constructive critiques is to find the right words to express what you feel. We recommend you familiarize yourself with expressive and descriptive words such as amorous, tragic, destructive, comical, etc. We’ve made a longer list for you below.

KEEP IT CONSTRUCTIVE

For many artists, art is an expression of their soul, their thoughts and emotions. By painting, they are sharing their soul with others, hoping their inner-depths will be seen, recognized and understood. They are also sharing their views on the subject of their painting. For this reason, many artists like to know what people are feeling and seeing when they view their art for the first time.

So, when forming a critique, we recommend you leave out the off-topic remarks and focus on messages that are useful, inspiring, insightful, or encouraging.

Some examples are:

  • “I love his eyes. The detail… I can see the pain pouring from them.”
  • “Look at those hands… The details in the wrinkles… It’s as if they are right there in front of me… I can feel the ripples… I can imagine all the fruits she picked and the meals she cooked and see how years in the sun baked her skin.”

The most important advice we can offer for discussing art is do not be obnoxious. A critique gives no one the right to be vicious or malicious. A critique should always be unbias. This is to say feelings and impressions should be expressed, but opinions that are influenced by the character of the artist or his lifestyle, should be left out. They are not constructive.

Here are a couple of examples to further explain this tip:

What crappy art. This artist should be shot for displaying this crap. He obviously has no idea what real art is. He is lazy and is probably too busy getting high and partying to really practice his craft. What a waste of my time.

versus

I don’t like this piece. I cannot see any intricacy in it. There are so few details … Over-simplification… That’s the word I am looking for. There are no images… no shapes, just colors… I am learning more everyday how much I enjoy seeing faces and trees and wrinkles on hands…

Can you see the difference? The first critique disparages the art as well as the artist. It speaks of the artist’s lifestyle in specifics terms. In contrast, the second speaks of emotions felt about the art, itself. It informs the artist or listener the aspects of the art that are displeasing. Therefore, it is constructive.

KEEP IT DESCRIPTIVE

Please try to avoid the words beautiful and ugly as much as possible. If you must use them, make sure to explain in a descriptive sentence why you think an artwork is beautiful or ugly.

If you have obtained a basic knowledge of art, it’s now time to start looking at artist’s painting techniques. Look at the brushstrokes and the details in recognizable objects and parts of the human body such as houses, trees, faces, hands, clothing, grass, sea, sand, tables, food, cups, clouds, and etc. For abstract arts, look at the lines, shapes, and colors.

KEEP IT ON SUBJECT

When an art is properly named, you have been given a hint of what you should see or feel. You have been told what the artist was thinking when he was making the piece or while he was naming it. So, don’t be afraid to use the subject, title, and any description the artist provided in your critique and discussion.

For example, if an artist names his painting: Sunset Sails on La Seine – your job is to now look for the boat, the river, and the sunset. Even if it is an abstract piece, it’s somewhere there being represented. And then a simple critique could be: “La Seine, yes I can see it. I can see the boat too. It does remind me of boat rides and sunsets in Paris.

Here’s a critique with a bit more detail: “I like the colors. I saw those exact colors when I picnicked along La Seine last year. That orangey-pink… And the way it hit the river along its edge, leaving the center that dark blue… It felt so magical. This painting has the same magical qualities. I love how most of his works bring me back to my years in Paris.

KEEP IT RELATIVE

If the art is about an event, current or past, don’t be afraid to discuss it. Just remember to keep on the topic. If it is a religious or political event, be careful you do not start an argument. Know your audience before proceeding.

If the art relates to a past event in your life, you can also discuss this. Art is known for bringing memories to the surface. Just remember to keep your “trip down memory lane” short. The show, after all, is about the art, not you.

KEEP IT TECHNICAL

For those who have more advanced knowledge, your critique can hold more details such as movement, expression, light, shadow, space, texture, emphasized objects or sections, hidden symbols. You can also discuss the repetitions in shapes and objects throughout the work, if there are any as well as any relationships between characters you are seeing.

You can even discuss the colors in detail. A great place to begin is how they work together? Do they blend well or do they clash? Do any pop out or get submerged?

Here are some basic technical critiques:

  • The artist did a wonderful job showing movement throughout the painting. You can see it in the way the lady’s dress flies behind her as well as the flowers, the leaves on the trees, the way the sea is rising and falling. It’s all so dramatic!”
  • Do you see how the artist repeated that symbol. You can see it here, and here, and here… oh, and look, even in the weave of this basket.

KEEP IT APPROPRIATE TO LOCATION AND PEOPLE

If you are at a social event, it is best to keep your critiques short. Allow others to share with you their opinions. If no one wants to speak, it is better that you encourage them to give an opinion then to continue on like a ball down a hill.

If you are a professional critic, you can add a few more minutes to your speaking time because some may be there to purposefully learn from you. With that said, please remember an art event is not a lecture room. You are there to enjoy and share the moment with others. So, share the floor.

Whether a professional or beginner, we will always recommend you watch your listeners while you speak. Look for boredom, exasperation, or discontent. Then be willing to adapt the length and detail of your critique to what you see.

When verbalizing a critique, be careful with your wording. If you are a beginner, don’t use terminology you do not fully understand. If you are speaking to beginners, use mostly simple words, otherwise you will force many to run in the opposite direction every time you approach. Critiques can be awfully boring when they are not understood.

ASK QUESTIONS

If you are in a group, ask questions. And most importantly, listen. This encourages conversation, thus creating a lively atmosphere.

When asking questions, make sure to ask open-ended questions. Do not ask questions that can be answered with a simple: Yes or No. Instead ask questions that require an opinion. If the person is nervous or shy, convey that there are no right or wrong answers. There’s just what you feel and what you see.

When asking, make sure to keep your facial expression and language open, receptive and humble. You want people to feel comfortable around you. The more you intimidate someone, the less they will want to talk and the more they will say what they think you want to hear rather than what they really believe.

If you want to extend a person’s commentary, you can also ask questions based on their critique. For example, you can ask if their feelings relate to the colors used in the piece or to the subject.

 

WORDS FOR DISCUSSING ART

To be able to effectively critique or discuss art, you need the vocabulary to describe, analyze, and interpret what you are feeling, thinking and most importantly, seeing. Here are a few words that can help.

When discussing color, consider these words: vibrant, pops out, brilliant, striking, luminous, stimulating, subtle, gaudy, highlighting, clashing, electric, healing, rich, opulent, dull, enlightening, soft, harsh, intense, warm, cold, dull, bright, light, dark, chaotic, harmonious, angry, happy.

When discussing structural aspects, consider these words: shapes, lines, circles, swirls, repetitions, spacious, space, soft, rigid, flowy, rhythmic, wavy, repetitive, repetition, movement, dotted, arrangement, detail, balance, intricacy, position, location, circular, spiral, continuous, angular, floral, horizontal, vertical, diagonal, positioning, center, focus, cluttered, symmetry.

When discussing texture, consider these words: rough, soft, flat, 1-dimensional, 3-dimensional, hard, smooth, silky, bumpy, ripples, sharp, blunt, dull, malleable, grainy, abrasive.

When discussing brush strokes, consider these words: short, long, splotchy, splatter, thick, thin, wide, layered, flat, knife thin, smeared, up, down, left, right, movement, pattern, simple, heavy, light, blended, staccato.

When discussing mood, consider these words: happy, sad, destructive, chaotic, spiritual, enlightening, healing, giddy, alive, violent, romantic, nostalgic, vintage, classical, moody, wintry, cold, hot, summer, spring, dreamy, exotic, sensual, dreary, teasing, secretive, risque, angry, hopeful, passionate, loving, tranquility, exciting, thought-provoking, philosophical, fun, quirky, comical, powerful, jubilant, zealous, blissful, religious, political, educational.

 


If you want to hear a professional curator describe a painting, watch the video below. In this video, Susan Grace Galassi, Senior Curator at The Frick Collection, discusses “Flaming June” by Frederic Leighton.