I recently had breakfast at a diner with a couple of close friends who are not artists. In addition to serving delicious omelets the diner also exhibits artwork on its walls. During our breakfast conversation one of my friends asked me what I thought of the paintings on display…were they good or bad.
His question caused me to think back over the seemingly countless critiques I’ve had with students and a similar number of illustrated lectures I’ve given over the years. How do you look at art and talk about it in a way that is insightful and leads to some kind of appropriate judgement?
Good questions. Here are my suggestions. A few straightforward steps to becoming an enlightened critic.
You can use this information and process for judging paintings hanging on restaurant walls or for famous artworks on exhibit in museum galleries.
1. Start by slowing down and spending some time just looking at the work.
We live in a world that moves at break neck speed. A world where we are bombarded with visuals and other information. We have short attention spans and we multitask nearly everything we do all day long.
If, however, you want to make an honest evaluation of a work of art you need to slow things down and pay sole attention to that one object for a few moments…or more.
This seems simple but for most people it’s a challenge.
2. Do a mental inventory of what you see in the artwork.
Not what you think it’s supposed to represent or what it reminds you of. Just… What. You. See.
Notice the colors, the textures, the shapes, the objects (actual or represented). Is it abnormally large or small? Horizontal or vertical? What is it made of? Notice the level of craftsmanship. What other formal and material elements stand out?
Composition is next. Is it stable and balanced or dynamic and out of balance?
Now, what about the work’s narrative and emotional content? Keep in mind that you are still just doing an objective inventory at this point. Is there a scene represented here? Is there an overall feeling, and how is that expressed? How do the design elements and principles, as well as the materials, support the scene or emotional content?
What if the work is exclusively about formal qualities? If so, which formal qualities are the most important and how are they emphasized and supported?
Conducting this rather extensive inventory of what you see in an artwork takes time but the more you do it the easier and faster it will become. Right from the beginning, however, you’ll realize that thoroughly and carefully describing what you see in an artwork is a major key to insightful criticism.
And by the way, if you would like to brush up on your knowledge of these design elements/principles you can find brief descriptions and everyday examples of all of them in our book Design: A Beginner’s Handbook.
In the next post I’ll share the rest of the process and give you a few words of advice. In the meantime practice steps one and two a few times…