How to: critique artwork like a pro


Does the thought of an impending art critique bring tears to your eyes? Does it make you feel like crying in your Wheaties?–(who came up with that phrase, anyway?) For a lot of art students, it certainly does, and can be very intimidating, especially if we’re not accustomed to speaking in front of an audience. But with a little practice, you too can sound edu-ma-cated in front of others!

In order “properly” to critique any given artwork (in a way that is acceptable by any institution assigning four-digit numbers to its classes), you need only remember the acronym “DAIJ.” It stands for “Description, Analysis, Interpretation, Judgment,” or as a clever student in my highschool art class once said, “Dem Apples Is Juicy.”

Landscape With Butterflies - Salvador Dali For an example, I have randomly chosen an artwork to critique by taking a lame, five-second-long quiz, entitled What Famous Work of Art Are You?…the result of which, for me, was Salvador Dali’s “Landscape With Butterflies.” (Okay, so I’m not crazy about butterflies, but the opinion part comes later.)

In order to perform a criticism on any type of art, you simply carry out the 4 steps of DAIJ–remember, it’s “Description, Analysis, Interpretation, Judgment.” Or, if you’re really lazy, you could just use this handy Instant Art Critique Phrase Generator that I came across today. Sure, no one will be the wiser…
But if you really want to be intelligent, follow the darned steps already!

Description
Just as it says, first you describe the facts, including the name of the work, artist, medium, etc. Next, what does the art look like, what is it made of, what objects do you see in it? What textures, shapes, or colors are there? Are the colors vivid and bright, or subdued? Remember, all of these are straight facts, with no opinions added yet.

If you wanna be really thorough, look for and describe each of the “elements” of art: line, shape, form, color, space, texture and value. (I’ve also seen “time” and “mass” included in others’ lists, but they seem superfluous to me at this point.) Be very general at first, then get more specific later on.

The first step goes something like this:
In this painting, I see butterflies (obvious, but necessary). There are two of them, and they are in flight with their wings open. I also see what appears to be the side of a cliff, or a flat wall that has been broken off. It is daytime because the sky is blue, but there is also another drastic light-source coming from the right side, creating harsh shadows. The landscape appears to be outdoors, because of the sky and because of the vast desert in the distance. The colors are very intense, especially the blue and the orange. There is a strong contrast between light and dark, and overall, the lines are very defined. The viewer is either very close in proximity to the butterflies, or the butterflies are rather large. As the viewer, we appear to be standing in front of this scene, looking straight at it, and the overall effect is realism. Etc.

*Note: Through all this, you are not supposed to say whether or not you “like” any of the things…you’re just describing at this point.

Analysis
Next, tell how all the answers from the description you just made are related to each other, ie, how the above facts are organized, compliment one another, or create harmony or distress. This step can often be the most confusing, because it is very similar to the first and can easily overlap. A good suggestion is to think about some of the “principles” of art: movement (or rhythm), variety, proportion, emphasis, balance, contrast.

(I have seen some people list “scale” as an art principle, but again this seems redundant to me–it’s basically a more detailed word for what we mean by “proportion.” The Wikipedia entry on design elements and principles is a valuable resource if you need specific help sorting out and defining all of these terms.)
So put on your detail goggles and dive in…

As I view this piece, my eyes are occasionally led over to the vanishing point on the left (in the distance), but keep coming back to the focal point around the butterflies. This movement happens largely because of the shadow that the rock casts in that direction. The blue of the sky and the orange of the rock are very intense and bright (highly saturated), and their opposition with each other also contributes to the back and forth motion of our eyes as we view the painting. If the blue color was not as saturated, more focus would be on the right side of the painting, it would have too much “weight,” and our eyes would linger there more. As a result, the painting’s composition would be less balanced.

Also, because the butterflies appear to be abnormally large (in comparison to what we assume is a rock face or cliff), we do not have a concrete sense of scale or proportion. This creates an interesting sense of ambiguity, and as a viewer we’re not sure if in fact we are very small, or simply lying close to the ground, or if these are mutated giant butterflies next to a huge cliff. Who can be sure? There aren’t even any pebbles on the ground or other recognizable objects in the paintings to give us clues about scale. The bottom-most butterfly shadow (as well as the butterflies themselves, and the shadow cast by the rock) has a sort of glow around it caused by the lighter orange color surrounding it. This causes the shadow to further “emerge” from the surface it’s supposed to be cast on, making it appear more three-dimensional and adding focus to it. We know that actual, “real-life” shadows do not have this effect, and so it creates a surreal feeling–one of the things Dali’s paintings are most famous for.

Interpretation
Basically, how does the painting make you feel? What does it make you think of? (Don’t say you think the artwork “sucks”…Not yet! That comes in the next step!) What do you think the artist is trying to communicate to you as a viewer? But just because this step is more open-ended than the previous two, and there aren’t really any “right or wrong” answers, in my opinion it’s the most important (and fun) step.

I don’t feel either sad or happy when looking at this…The colors are nice ‘n bright, and butterflies usually make people feel happy, but I mainly feel “curious,” and maybe a bit confused. I’d like to have more details about what’s going on that are not available in the painting. The colors to me feel very cool, and even the oranges and browns have a lot of light “coolness” to them, but the surrounding visuals suggest a desert of some-sort, or somewhere very dry. The butterflies are painted fairly realistically, and are beautiful, but the wings on both are stuck in the same exact position, like they are pinned onto an entomologist’s board. Not to mention their somewhat unrealistic shadows and highlights.

So this is what I think Dali probably did: I think he found some recently dead butterflies and wanted to paint them, like one would paint a still-life with fruit or flowers or something. But to make them less boring than a typical still-life of butterflies pinned to a board, he added an imaginary background to make it into a “landscape” instead. That way, as a viewer, we could have the sense that these creatures are alive and kicking, in their own little colorful world. To me, I think this is a great concept, and a creative way of approaching a painting and making it more intriguing than a plain old still-life.

Of course, I have no idea if this is really what Dali intended people to feel when they viewed his painting. But it’s my interpretation, and I’m entitled to give it during this stage of critique.

Judgment
Okay, so whether or not in the previous step you interpreted the painting as “reminding you of dog crap,” you NOW get to say whether it is a success or a failure in your opinion. Also, do you feel it is original or not original? Would you hang it on your wall at home? Here’s the place for all the gut feelings that you had when you first looked at the artwork.

In general, I think this is an interesting and unique artwork. I enjoy the bright colors and would hang it up in my house if someone gave it to me for my birthday, but I probably wouldn’t buy it myself unless it was on sale. (Dali doesn’t do “bargain basement” prices?–oh well, never mind then.) As an artist myself, I appreciate the technical skill it took to create such a painting, and might be inspired to create a painting similar to this in the future, but perhaps with another subject. I certainly recognize the elements of “surrealism” that Dali’s artworks are famous for, and I think it succeeds, representing this category of art fairly well.

(EDIT: 2012-08-07: the links below are out of date. Please allow me some time to change them. Thanks!)

If you’re interested in viewing some other valuable resources about critiquing, may I suggest:
* The Kennedy Center’s “how to” article on Teaching Students to Critique
* Custom-Writing.org’s How to Write an Art Critique
* Keystone Central School District (in PA)has a web page with some very basic instructions for teachers, which are targeted towards younger students. There’s a “process” link to steps/instructions for critique, but there’s also a link to some really cute student art critiques written by some of their sixth-graders. Worth the entertainment if you’ve got an extra minute.

About jamie

Jamie is an award winning artist who has recently taken a hop, a skip, and a few jumps, and has landed happily in California. She specializes in textile/fabric pieces (art that you wear), but also creates paintings, sculptures, and quilted works of art.
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34 Responses to How to: critique artwork like a pro

  1. Hello! I came over to check out your blog after you left a comment on my Art-o-mat entry and had to subscribe. You have some very interesting and well-written entries and create really neat art. I loved your critique examples in this particular entry.

  2. Snow White says:

    Great article! Its so hard to me to remember the elements and principles of design when Im critiquing. I really love the “Dem Apples Is Juicy.” I think that will help me out a lot. Thank you so much!!!

  3. Shala Gagnon says:

    This is a really excellent resource for art students especialy, or just anyone looking to learn a little about how to look at art. Personally, I find it interesting how you can see a potential meaning in something you may never have even seen before once you’re forced to actually look at everything in the artwork, even if you created the piece yourself! Thanks for the help.

  4. Chance Scott says:

    I’m troubled by how the internal dynamic of the Egyptian motifs seems very disturbing in the light of the accessibility of work.

  5. michele says:

    Thank you lord for this website.

  6. Fantastic article! This DAIJ technique is really helpful. With it it’s much easier for me to critique art

  7. THANK YOU says:

    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for writing this article, it saved me when I had to write my critique.

  8. Dem Apples Is Juicy! says:

    Thanks a million for writing this article!! I was having a hard time determining what to put in my critique and how to arrange them. You made it so much easier! Thank you thank you thank you!!

  9. I thank you for sharing this. I’m in an art class and our teacher gave us homework: to critique a chosen artwork. I don’t know what to write in my paper so I searched the Internet and found your article. It really helped me a lot.

    The Hangover Part II torrent

  10. Jamison Colston says:

    Thank you so much for this article. Im an art student at the University of Tennessee(UTC). We have been studying the nature of critique and i have had a wonderful time with learning to really judge and analyze art. This post was so helpful. really learning to break it down step by step. I mean..at first i was smudging them all together. I really didnt understand how some of the steps could be done in such a way( verbally) that anyone would notice? but what helped me out was when you mentioned the progression from general to more complex. Thank you and i will constantly make references to this to help myself out and will reference this to some peers. I have a sophomore review in sping of 2012 and it will determine if i can proceed through the art department.( kinda sucks because alot of it deals with space) But im trying hard. Alot of money and time has went into this major. Which right now its a pre art but will be graphic design if i make it through. Anyways im done rambling, thank you.

  11. jamie says:

    I’m SO glad that I’ve been able to help you (and so many others!) by sharing my knowledge here…and I very much appreciate that you took the time to provide feedback to me. *Cheers* from myself to all of you! :)

  12. Rosie Knight says:

    I like this. Please do a critique of graphics and drawing as well.

  13. jamie says:

    That’s an excellent idea, Rosie … You can use DAIJ to critique most anything, including drawings and paintings, and even things that are not “ART”! But, it *would* be a good idea to have a critique of graphics and other design projects as another example. I’ll put it on my “to-do” list!

  14. andria holmes says:

    I found your post while looking for help to write an art critique for my finals. I got a 79% on the last one I did! It was horrible!! I really hope this works. It sounds like an excellent idea. I really want to say THANK YOU!!!

  15. Thank you for your article.
    Two of your links are out of date. And, the one that works is for Custom Writing, a website that writes essays for people to claim as their own (if they choose.) Doesn’t see very ethical to me, considering I am a teacher and face this ‘legal’ method of cheating.

    Peace,
    Penny Kjelgaard

  16. jamie says:

    Penny, thanks for the notice. I will try to update this post if I get a chance! (I wrote it so long ago…)
    Best,
    Jamie

  17. Wow! I’ve been searching high and low for a critique and i finally found one! Yay! I’m so “A”ing this test on Monday! Thx so much!!!!! This is exactly what our teacher told us but it’s much clearer. This is a perfect example and these are perfect instructions!

  18. Whoever wrote this article thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! =D

  19. princess101 says:

    wow! really good article,this has helped me alot with my art homework.

  20. ofmiceandmen says:

    Thank you! great little article. Kudos to to you!

  21. careyann says:

    As an art student myself, these guidelines for writing have saved my butt every time. I don’t think you know how helpful this is to me.

  22. Abiola Adeyemi says:

    i found the posted material quite good to expand my scope as an undergraduate on how to critic my painting piece as i execute them…thanks and cheers.

    >Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria.

  23. kristen says:

    THANKS… VERY FUNNY… I will remember Dem Apples Is Juicy!

  24. ME says:

    THANK YOU!!!!!! I’ve been doing art coursework constantly for the past few days and I thought i had been doing the critiques wrong. I had been so now i get to go over them :) at least i wont be handing in the wrong things :)

  25. Megi says:

    As an art student, I’ve found it really hard to analyse and critique pieces of artwork but your article has made the subject a lot easier to understand and apply. Thank you :)

  26. Pingback: Painting critiques | Topimage

  27. andrew says:

    juicy my friend

  28. Pingback: “Dem Apples Is Juicy.” | Troepfchen unterwegs

  29. I need your critic ,analysic my art . Your critic hepl me going is far of my art…
    thank you a lot.

  30. patrice says:

    very nice!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

  31. Erin says:

    Great post. I appreciated your comment about describing what seems obvious. I neglected to do so, thinking if it’s obvious why would I need to do that, but learned the hard way that is exactly what one must do!

  32. James Elkins says:

    Hi, nice post! I wrote a bit on your page on a Tumblr site about art critiques –

    tinyurl.com/kk3jocu

    Best,

    Jim

  33. megan says:

    YOU SAVED MY LIFE

  34. ashea says:

    1. What megan said.
    2. It would seem as though this type of technical breakdown would be common and easy to come across, but it’s not because not everyone has the skill to break things down so succinctly – keeping the technical stuff solid, while also being conversational enough for those of us cramming at the end of a hellacious semester. I’m not just a student who procrastinated, I’m a single mom whose life was turned upside down mid-semester, and this was PERFECT. I had to stop mid-catch-up (I only have hours to get everything to my very gracious teacher!) to say so.
    THANK YOU!

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