If you want to understand art on a deeper level, it’s important to learn the skill of critiquing art.
It seems simple to say this. Don’t you just look at something and talk about what you see? But the truth of the matter is a lot more complex than you’d think!
Art, after all, has a lot of meaning. Art is the feelings, thoughts, and ideas that an artist wants to communicate. It has various purposes and endless complexities. What you see and feel may not be what others see and feel.
Art is just that complicated.
If you want to be able to see the giant beneath the tip of the iceberg, it’s a good idea to study how professional art critics do their job and learn a little bit about it. At the very least, you’ll be able to communicate with other artists better! And, if you persist long enough, you can even make use of your newly found understanding to create better art!
- How to Critique Art?
- Critiquing Art with DAIJ
- How to Critique Artworks | Step-by-Step!
- How to Objectively Self-Critique?
- Frequently Asked Questions
- See More, Practice More!
How to Critique Art?
You can critique art based on various angles — both technical and non-technical.
For the former, you look at the artist’s skills, their use of various techniques, the overall composition, etc. Basically, you describe all the different elements and principles used in a work of art and how it was put together in order to create a complete piece of work.
As for the latter type, it’s all about feeling. What do you feel when looking at a piece of artwork? What do you think the author is trying to present to the world? What is the meaning behind it all?
Aside from allowing you to provide better negative and positive feedback to fellow artists who are in need of a different perspective in their art journey, critiquing technical skills is useful because it can give you a better understanding of art as a whole. Which should improve your own drawing skills over time.
As for the second, ‘based-on-feeling’ type, the improvement is usually more spiritual. It allows you to get a sense of your inner desires and ambitions as an artist. And may even help broaden your horizons in the art community in general.
Critiquing Art with DAIJ
If you want to learn how to critique art comprehensively, you need to familiarize yourself with DAIJ. DAIJ is an acronym for “Description, Analysis, Interpretation, and Judgment. You might have also heard of it in the form of “Dem Apples is Juicy”, which is more popular with younger art critics in junior high school and high school.
Anyway, back to the topic! DAIJ represents the four different steps required in order to properly critique art. You can view it as follows:
- Description: Basic description of a given artwork (e.g., name, artist, medium, art history, etc.)
- Analysis: Analysis of the elements and principles of art used in a given artwork.
- Interpretation: Open interpretation of the emotions and deeper meanings that the artist wants to portray in their artwork.
- Judgment: Final conclusion of the overall composition, be it negative or positive.
For a better understanding of how to use DAIJ for critiquing art, study the breakdown of each step below — art examples included for practice!
DAIJ #1: Description
When learning how to critique art, the first stage is the easiest. All you need to do is provide a basic description. A description in art critique is a short, general explanation about a piece of art. To make it clear, the description at this stage is 100% objective.
This is not the time to tell the listener of your critique whether you like a given artwork.
All you have to do is describe the art in front of you and relay all the factual information (e.g., the name of the author, the name of the work, the time period it was painted, known-history, the medium used, etc.) available to you.
The purpose of this step when critiquing art is to allow you to fully observe the art in front of you. After all, you first need to look closely at the art piece in order to provide this description. Basically, it’s a step that was purposefully created to give you time to understand the overall structure of the composition and summarize what you see.
Of course, if you’re doing a written art critique, this step is also a great way to introduce the art being analyzed. It can also lead the reader towards the direction you viewed the painting, and give them an insight as to what you see.
Description Example: “The Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh
As mentioned, the basic information about the art should be shared at this stage:
‘The Starry Night’ was painted by Vincent van Gogh in 1889. The medium is oil paint on canvas, and the dimensions are 73.7 cm × 92.1 cm…
After reccounting these basic details, it’s time to get to the description of the actual painting. Again, this is not about your own reaction to the art. It’s just an objective statement. For example, you can say:
In ‘The Starry Night’ you see a nighttime scene in the countryside. On the left-hand side of the painting, there’s a tall cypress tree. And to its right, you can see a village and a more open view of the starry sky with the moon and the stars — which is done primarily in blues and yellows…
As you can see, nowhere in this example description is there anything beyond what can be seen. No opinions were given either. This is the key to this first step in critiquing art.
DAIJ #2: Analysis
The next step when carrying out a criticism is the analysis. Don’t get this step mixed up with the first step. They are very similar, but now is the time to take a closer look and truly break down what you see.
It’s best to have a good understanding of the elements and principles of art before making an analysis. Only by knowing them can you better dissect the artwork in front of you.
In any case, all you need to know for now is that the purpose of this stage in critiquing art is to put on magnifying glasses to see the parts and not the whole. Whilst the purpose of the previous stage is to see the whole, not the parts.
Analysis Example: “The Night Watch” by Rembrandt Van Rijn
To give you an example of how a basic analysis for critiquing artworks, let’s take a look at “The Night Watch” by Rembrandt. The most crucial thing in any analysis is to look at the details and point out why it is either successful or not successful:
It is truly faultless for ‘The Night Watch’ to be best known for its play in light and shadows. The contrast in values and colors is well done and is the most eye-catching element in this work. With the background figures shrouded mostly in darks and neutral colors, whilst the two focus figures at the front are highlighted and painted in more boldly saturated colors.
DAIJ #3: Interpretation
The next step in giving art critiques is interpretation. As can be guessed from the name, now is the time to open your inner art critic and make your own judgment on the artist’s work.
Take note, this stage is usually about the more spiritual aspects involved. Speaking about techniques and the level of the artist’s skill is reserved for the earlier stage. This now leaves you open to describe how you feel about the work and what you think is the theme or the main idea of a given work of art.
You can also try to explore the inner musings of the artist when they were working on their art. Were they happy or tired? Do you find that the work communicates these emotions? You can also consider whether or not the artwork has to do with their religious belief, their hobbies, their experiences, etc. This may tell you what the purpose behind the artwork is.
Many art critics like to discuss these things because it gives them insight into their favorite artists. It’s always nice to know what they were like back then and why and how they were able to create their artwork.
Interpretation Example: “The Scream” by Edvard Munch
For our example for this stage of art critique, we’re looking at “The Scream” by Edvard Munch.
According to Munch, he painted this work after a real-life experience of sudden anxiety and alienation whilst walking down a road with his friends. What was supposed to be a relaxing and joyful experience was suddenly blown by a “gust of melancholy” — as he himself described — after the skies changed into red.
When interpreting, historical information like this can be taken into account and put together with your own perspective to make your art critique even more meaningful:
‘The Scream’ is very simple in style and can even be said to be a bit messy. However, it really does give off a feeling of anxiety — as it is best known for.
Even if you forget about the core figure, whose expression says it all. Looking at the carefully done red skies in the artwork makes one shudder and feel … off. All in all, Munch did a good job transcribing his experience of anxiety onto the canvas.
DAIJ #4: Judgment
The last step in the DAIJ art critique plan is Judgment. This is the time for you to make your final conclusion on the artwork. Was it a success or a failure? Where was it successful and where could it have been improved?
A big part of being an art critic is to offer advice. You see a lot and should know a lot. That experience can be shared with others through your art critique.
This is also why you are often asked to give critiques for other artists work in art class. It’s a good way to help your peers have a better understanding of the general principles of art composition and see what areas can be improved. If you think your understanding is too shallow to give advice, then just providing positive feedback to other students can help boost their self-confidence.
Judgment Example: “Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth
Now is the time to round up everything that you’ve said in your DAIJ art critique thus far and make your own judgment. You can rephrase your previous statements briefly to make sure your main points come across well just like the example ‘judgment’ statement below:
‘Christina’s World’ is a very purposeful artwork painted with a lot of skill. The composition is well done — the clear separation between Christina and the house successfully creates a work of art that is filled with emotion. Both positive and negative.
Positive, because there’s a sense of determination in Christina’s outstretched hand. Negative, because the longing and sorrow in her inability to move forward is shown in the way her body instinctively shifts towards the direction of the far-away house in the distance.
The realism in the artwork only makes ‘Christina’s World’ feel more real. As if you were right there in that moment, intruding on the private and complicated feelings felt by Christina — a girl who suffered from a degenerative muscular disorder that kept her from walking.
How to Critique Artworks | Step-by-Step!
Just now, we talked about the basic composition of an art critique process using DAIJ. It’s already pretty complete on its own, but we missed out on some of the general rules one should know before making a critique.
To make it clear, the following step-by-step instructions are mostly supplementary. They’re to be used in conjunction with DAIJ. It’s just that things are stated more clearly so that you know exactly what is needed for each step.
In the end, you can get by with DAIJ, but reading the tutorial below should help clear some of the more confusing aspects:
Step 1. Observe From a Distance
When critiquing a work of art, it’s always nice to see it from various perspectives. Doing so refreshes the eyes and allows you to see things that you might not have noticed before.
Our first step instructs art critics to view artwork from a distance primarily for this reason. Another reason is that it’s best to view paintings from a distance so that you can study an entire composition without getting too distracted by the details.
This is especially true for larger artwork — for example, “Guernica” which is 349.3 cm × 776.6 cm (137.4 in × 305.5 in)!! If you were to stand right in front of such a large piece of art, the effect would definitely not be as good, and you’d miss a lot of content.
Step 2. Look Closer
After taking an overall look at the painting, it’s finally time to come closer.
Don’t be impatient at this stage! Now is not the time to let out your inner art critic. Basically, it’s all about observing carefully — which should be done before giving any form of critique.
Anyway, take your time. In this way, you won’t be embarrassed in front of fellow art critics because you missed out on something big.
Step 3. Don’t Think About Other Paintings
After you’ve finished getting a close look, it’s time to start critiquing. Before anything else, however, it’s important to remember a general rule.
That is, don’t think about other art or other artists!
Doing so will give the two pieces of artwork a disservice, and it may lead to your critique going completely off the rails.
Step 4. Consider the Overall Composition
The famous oil painter Picasso is best known for his surrealist works. Case in point, “Guernica” is a culmination of various surreal elements representing a very real event where a small village was bombed during the Spanish Civil War.
When doing a critique with other art critics on the spot, these facts should be spread around pretty quickly. After that, it’s time to officially start your analysis. This should begin with the following questions: How’s the overall composition of the artwork? Did the artist make good use of the principles of art in his composition?
For the untrained artists, “Guernica” probably looks a bit messy, with various cubist structures all mixed up together. But, in fact, everything in this work was put together very purposefully.
Look, at a distance, isn’t your eye drawn to the key elements in the painting because of the straight lines that were purposefully painted to lead the viewer’s eye? The balance in “Guernica” is also done very well, with the alternating blacks and whites making the depicted bombing incident look appropriately chaotic but not irritating to the eyes.
Step 5. Observe the Main Subject & Theme
The main subject of any given piece of art is very crucial to doing critiques as an artist. Of course, paintings like Guernica, where no obvious main subject is available, also exist. Which makes things a little bit tricky.
However, that doesn’t change what you should be doing at this stage — which is to study the elements in the created artwork that stand out.
The main idea behind “Guernica” is the bombing of a small village. To depict such a scene, there must, of course, be a bomb. That bomb, in Picasso’s surrealist style art piece, takes the form of a light bulb (pointed out in the image above).
The straight lines and the gaze of the person lying across the keymost diagonal line point to said lightbulb. Instantly attracting the viewer’s eye towards that area. It can’t be said to be the main focus, but it’s a crucial element in the composition and is the support of the main theme.
Step 6. Analyze the Elements of the Art
After analyzing the main subject, it’s time to analyze the rest of the elements used in the work of art. For your reference, the elements of art include:
How were these elements arranged in the art that you’re critiquing? And, how did the arrangement of these elements affect the overall composition? These are the questions that need to be answered to complete this step.
Step 7. Make a Final Judgement
At the end, it’s time to put together everything you’ve observed and analyzed to create your final critique for the art piece. Whatever you think is right. Art critique is very subjective in this way. No matter how good some paintings are, some people still dislike them.
Of course, if you’re goal is to give feedback to a fellow artist, it’s best to look at the art piece more objectively. It doesn’t have to be a positive review, but it should at least not be too negative.
BONUS! Find Someone Else to Appraise the Work With You!
Do you know what’s the most fun when critiquing art? Having someone critique with you! Or, even better, having several people critiquing with you.
That way, you can study art from various perspectives. It’s always fun to hear the opinions of others on a given work. Case in point, there are plenty of art critique videos out there that were created for the purpose of sharing different views of famous art through history.
How to Objectively Self-Critique?
If you want to objectively self-critique your own art, you need to be more rigorous about the facts. This is the time to take out the principles and elements of art and judge the piece bit by bit. This way, you have parameters from which you can base your critique — which should ease the process somewhat.
After breaking down the composition of your work bit by bit. It’s time to decide whether or not you were successful. The key here is to direct the critique towards the art, not yourself.
To be more specific, as the artist of the work, there’s no need to interpret its meaning. You should know what the main theme behind the artwork is better than anyone else. So all you need to do is figure out whether others can interpret such a meaning when they look at your work.
If not, what comes across instead? Different people may see different things when looking at a single piece of art. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to make your purpose clear. At the very least, your main idea should be understood by most viewers’ before it can be considered successful.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Makes a Good Art Critic?
A good art critic not only has to have deep foundations in art, but also be well-versed in art history. Only with this information in your knowledge reserves will you be able to analyze a work of art carefully and review it according to the standards relevant to that period in history.
How Do You Critique Art Nicely?
If you want to critique art nicely, it’s best to have a reason for each judgment that you give. For example, if you think the art was not so successful in a certain area, then it’s best to provide some advice on how those areas can be improved rather than straight-out saying that it is a failure.
How Do You Describe a Bad Painting?
If you want to give criticism to ‘bad’ art, it’s best to minimize the analysis and interpretation and move straight to your judgment. Clearly mark the most critical areas that need improvement and try to reserve most of your opinions if you want to avoid offending anyone.
How to Give Constructive Criticism for Art?
If you are asked to give constructive criticism for art, then you should be honest, specific, and be as objective as you can possibly be. For example, if the art style is not to your taste, focus on other aspects. Also, it’s best for your feedback to be more actionable so that your fellow artist can get to making improvements right away.
See More, Practice More!
If you want to seriously learn how to critique art. It’s always best to see more. The more art you see, the more open your mind will be.
It shouldn’t be long before you can become a professional art critic if you practice hard enough! Of course, if you want to speed up your progress, you can consider taking classes to learn some industry secrets from recognized master artists in the industry.