An art criticism is a thorough analysis and evaluation of a work of art. While no two people will experience the same reaction to or interpret a work of art in the same way, there are a few standard guidelines you can follow to write a thoughtful and thorough critique. The basic elements of an art criticism are the description, analysis, interpretation and assessment of the work.
Part 1 of 4: Describing the work
Step 1. Gather general information about the job
This is the kind of text you find on the caption of a museum or gallery, or in the caption of an art book. Knowing the background of a work can make a big difference in how you will interpret and understand the work. Start your critique by providing the following information:
- Title of the work
- Artist name
- When the piece is made
- Where it was made
- The types of media used to create the work (e.g., oil on canvas)
- The precise size of the work
Step 2. Describe what you see
Describe the illustration in neutral terms. Your description should include things such as the form and scope of the work. If the artwork depicts figures or objects rather than abstract shapes, describe what it represents.
- For example, you could say something like, "This is a small-scale portrait of a young woman, depicted from the waist down, against a dark background. She has her hands clasped in front of her chest and looks up and slightly to the right of the viewer. She wears a pink dress, and a long veil falls behind her head.'
- Avoid using terms like "beautiful," "ugly," "good," or "bad." At this point you are just telling what you see, without judging the art!
Step 3. Discuss the elements of the work
Then you can describe work in more detail. Talk about how the artwork uses these five basic elements of art and design: line, color, space, light, and form.
Step 4. Describe the use of line
Lines in a work of art can be literal or implicit. Different types of lines can bring about different moods or effects. For example:
- Curved lines can have a calming effect, while jagged lines may feel a little harder, or create a sense of energy.
- Rough, sketchy lines create a sense of movement and freedom, while smooth, uninterrupted lines give a more still and carefully planned impression.
- A line of sight or line of action can be suggested by the arrangement of figures and objects within a scene. For example, a group of figures all looking or pointing in a certain direction can create an implicit line that draws your eye through the work in a certain direction.
Step 5. Talk about the use of color in the work
Note characteristics such as hue (red, green, blue, etc.), color value (lightness or darkness), and intensity. Look at common color schemes and think about how the colors work together.
For example, do the colors clash or are they harmonious? Does the work use a variety of colors, or is it more monochromatic (all shades of blue, for example)?
Step 6. Describe the use of space in the work
'Space' here refers to the areas around and between objects in a work. When talking about space, focus on things like depth and perspective, overlapping objects, and using empty space versus space full of details.
When describing a two-dimensional work of art, such as a painting, discuss whether or not to give an illusion of three-dimensional space and depth to the work
Step 7. Describe the use of light in the work
Light in a work of art can appear warm or cool, bright or muted, natural or artificial. Take the time to talk about the role of light and shadow in the work.
- If you are dealing with a two-dimensional work, such as a painting, you may want to emphasize how the artist creates the illusion of light.
- For a three-dimensional work, such as a sculpture, you can discuss the interaction between light and the work. For example, is the surface reflective? Does the sculpture cast an interesting shadow? Are some parts of the image more shaded or better lit than others?
Step 8. Take note of the way form is used in the work
Are the shapes in the work geometric, with straight lines and perfect curves, or are they more natural? Is the work dominated by a certain type of shape, or do you see a number of different shapes?
- Shapes play an important role in both abstract and figurative works. For example, in a portrait of a bride by James Sant, there are remarkable triangular shapes created by the veil around her shoulders and her clasped hands in front of her chest.
- Once you notice a shape in a painting, you can look to see if the shape is repeated elsewhere in the painting.
Part 2 of 4: Analyzing the work
Step 1. Discuss how the work uses the principles of composition
Once you've described the work, it's time to analyze, or discuss how it all comes together. Start by talking about how the work is put together, keeping in mind some basic ideas. For example:
- Balance: How do the colors, shapes and textures in the piece work together? Do they create a balanced or harmonious effect, or is the piece unbalanced in some way?
- Contrast: Does the work use contrasting colors, textures, or lighting? Contrast can also be found in the use of different shapes or contours, such as jagged versus curved lines, or geometric versus natural shapes.
- Traffic: How does the work create a sense of movement? Is your gaze drawn through the composition in a certain way?
- Percentage: Do the size of the various elements in the work seem as you would expect, or are they surprising? For example, if the work shows a group of people, do certain figures look bigger or smaller than they would be in real life?
Step 2. Designate the point of focus in the work
Most artworks have one or more dots that are meant to grab your attention and catch your eye. In a portrait, this could be the subject's face or eyes. In a still life it could be a centrally placed or well lit object. Try to determine which parts of the work are emphasized.
- Look at the work and take note of any features that immediately catch your eye or that your gaze keeps returning to.
- Ask yourself why your eye is drawn to the feature. For example, if you find that your gaze remains fixed on one figure in the group, is it because the figure is larger than the others? Is that figure closer to the viewer? Brighter lit?
Step #3. Look for themes in the work
Identify a few key themes and discuss how the artist uses the elements of design (color, light, space, shape, and line) to express these themes. Themes can include things such as:
- The use of color schemes that give the work a certain mood or meaning. See, for example, the paintings of Picasso's blue period.
- Symbolism and religious or mythological images. For example, look at the use of numbers and symbols from classical mythology in Renaissance works such as Botticelli's "Birth of Venus."
- Repeating images or motifs within a work or group of works. For a good example of this, see how plants and flowers are used in many of Frida Kahlo's paintings.
Part 3 of 4: Interpreting the work
Step 1. Try to establish the purpose of the work
In other words, what do you think the artist was trying to say with the work? Why did he/she make the work? Try to summarize the general meaning of the work as you see it.
Step 2. Describe your own reaction to work
Now it's time to get a little more subjective. Think about what you feel while watching the work. What do you think is the general mood of the work? Does it remind you of anything (ideas, experiences, other works of art)?
Use expressive language to articulate your reaction to work. For example, is the atmosphere at work sad? Hopeful? Peaceful? Would you describe the work as beautiful or ugly?
Step 3. Support your interpretation with examples
Use examples from your description and analysis of the work to explain why you think and feel a certain way about a work of art.
For example, “I think James Sant's portrait of a young bride is intended to give an idea of the bride's spiritual devotion. This is indicated by the line of the composition, which draws the viewer's eye upward, following the subject's upward gaze. It is also suggested by warm light coming from a source somewhere above the young woman.'
Part 4 of 4: Assessing the work
Step 1. Decide whether you think the work is successful or not
The aim here is not necessarily to indicate whether a work of art is 'good' or 'bad'. Instead, think about whether the work is 'successful'. For example, consider the following:
- Do you think the work conveys what the artist wanted to say?
- Did the artist use materials and techniques well?
- Is the artwork original, or does it imitate other artworks?
Step 2. Explain why you judge the work in a certain way
Once you have selected a few aspects on which to assess the work, clearly state the focus of your evaluation. For example, you could say that you rate the piece by how well it is organized, how well it is technically finished, and how successfully the work conveys its intended mood or themes.
Step 3. Summarize why you think the work succeeded or failed
Explain your assessment of the work in a few sentences. Provide specific reasons for your judgment, using your interpretation and analysis of the work.