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Critiquing Systems

Here are a few techniques + approaches to improve
the quality and helpfulness of your critiques!


Critiquing could almost be an art form in and of itself! It's complex, but needs to be accessible. It can be approached from many different perspectives; there are no right answers. In essence, critique is like collaborative problem solving!
You as critic work with an artist to identify a problem (maybe one that they themselves are unaware of), then you work together to find a solution to it. They communicate through their existing body of work, and the technique they've developed or concept they've expressed. You communicate through your observations, impressions, and suggestions!
This guide is designed to give you some new ideas about how you might approach your critiques from a different angle! It contains questions for you to ask, as well as techniques for you to try!


Who are we and what are we doing?

Let's start out with one of the most fundamental aspects of any art form that unfortunately goes frequently overlooked (especially in critiques).
con·text (Noun)
  1. The circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.
  2. The parts of something written or spoken that immediately precede and follow a word or passage and clarify its meaning.
- Google Definitions
Context refers to where something (or someone) exists in regards to its surroundings! This doesn't just mean physically, it is about how what you are doing affects and is affected by everything around it! If you equate it to something like a scene in play, context is not only the setting of the scene but also all of the events and character development from the past as well as that scene's role in the overall story.

For critique this can be broken down into three different elements.
  1. The ARTIST

    The first part of this is the artist themselves! Their technique, previous works, level of ability or instruction, and personality will all affect the kind of critique they need or will find most accessible! So before you go critique someone's work, try to learn more about the artist. Check out their gallery, read their bio - get a feel for them as a person! Here are a few questions to consider about the artist.

    • What is their ability/technical level?
    • Where are they going next?
    • What are they experimenting with or learning?

      These first three help tell you the overall direction your critique should take. You want to encourage them to improve, but if you push too far or too quickly your advice will seem unapproachable. The trick is to find the next step in an artist's path. Usually they are already headed that way, you can just help them get there a little faster!

    • What media do they use?
    • What else are they interested in?
      (hobbies, inspirations, artists, styles etc.)

      These might seem tangential, but they help give you a vocabulary for your critique. Often times, the easiest way to get someone to approach something in a new way is to ask them to look at it as if it were something else!

      For example, if I know that someone is a photographer, that will affect the way I talk about how they compose their drawings. If I know that a writer is also an actor, that changes how I approach the cadence and pacing of their poetry.

  2. The ARTWORK

    While the body of your critique will obviously be about the artwork, it's important to take a look at what kind of a piece it is and gather all the information you can about it first! Sometimes, when the purpose or motivation of a piece goes neglected in a critique, it can render the critique less useful.

    • Why did the artist create this piece?
    • What were they trying to communicate?

      Let's figure out the fundamental concept of the piece! Everything has a purpose and a meaning (even if that purpose is to revoke meaning), and it's important to understand that before writing your critique. Is it a school project? Or a commission? A quick study or a finished work?

      A great starting point for giving feedback is looking at what the artist has already given themselves. If they've provided any form of self-critique, or if they did not meet their goals, then they already have a direction for you to help them go!

      Don't forget to read the description of the artwork! If there isn't enough there, and you have questions, ask them before writing your critique!

    • What medium and techniques were used?
    • Do recognize any inspirations?
    • Does it remind you of anything?

      All of these are about building up your toolkit of resources for when you get to your critique! If you have any extra insights about medium, or about possible influences (or reference material) - try to determine them at this stage! What can you add to the context of the artwork?

    • What is the un/finished status of the artwork?

      It's important to know how your critique will be used relative to the piece of art!

      1. Work in Progress pieces need critiques about where to go next.
      2. Revisable pieces need feedback on what could be changed or improved.
      3. Finished works need critiques that could be applied to future pieces!
  3. The CRITIC

    Your turn! The last piece of context is you, and the unique perspective that you can bring to a piece. While an objective critiquing voice is important, so is finding out how your own personal experience can help inform your critique!

    • Do you work in this (or a related) medium?
    • Have you created a piece like this before?
    • Does the concept or content relate to your personal experiences?

      Determine whether any of the things you have learned or discovered in your own work would be useful for the artist to know about theirs! This gets to the point where you can start thinking of things like "What would I have done differently?" Each critic brings a different perspective to a work of art, and while they might not always agree - it's important to find that perspective and embrace it a little bit!

      Develop your own critique technique, specialized to the way you work and think!

Observe + Experience + Analyze

Objective to Subjective!

Both the objective (quantifiable facts, physical truths) and subjective (interpretations, opinions) are useful to a critique! The difficulty is tying them together, so that they are stronger when relying upon each other to make an argument. How do you inform your impressions, and how do you communicate your understanding?

The following is originally a critique methodology for the performing arts, but it's a great way to read or analyze a work for the first time. The solution it finds is to push both the objective and the subjective to the extremes, and then discover the links between them!

This is a preparatory step to writing a critique. it's an exercise in visual literacy to help you think about the piece before you begin to write about it!

    Step one is pure observation! Completely objective - you are only allowed to describe the piece. You must completely divorce yourself from your emotional response and trust only your physical senses! This way you can find out more about a piece than if you let your interpretive mind take over right away. Most of the time these observations exist in our peripheral thinking, but by bringing them into the limelight we can better evaluate them later.

    Look for quantifiable elements first. Measurements, facts - the simpler the better!

    • What size is it?
    • What medium is it?
    • What are the qualities of line or form in it?
    • What color(s) is it composed of?
      (Is this a distinct color scheme?)
    • Are there recognizable elements of composition?

      These questions deal just with the outermost parts of a work. They take it to its most abstract and most essential. We just want to know what it is.

    • What does it depict?
    • Is it representational, or abstract?
    • How is it cropped or framed?
    • Is it flat, or dimensional?

      Now we are getting into the content of the piece, we want to know what it shows.

      Be sure not to get into interpretation yet! An objective description (a very shortened version at any rate) of the Mona Lisa might be "Oil on panel; waist high portrait of a woman rendered in neutral colors; figure in foreground with scenic background; balanced vertical composition; slightly smaller than 2 × 3."

    Now that you know objectively what a piece is, it's time to take a look at it subjectively! The law of the land is "how does it make you feel?" Here's where we get into things like emotional response, impact, and first impressions. Remember that you still aren't trying to draw any conclusions yet, the experience portion is about inward reflection on how and why a piece affects you.

    • What emotion do you feel when you see the piece?
    • What is the first thing you thought of when you saw it?
    • How do you feel in relation to it?
      (Is it overwhelming/inspiring/distressing?)
    • How could you describe it abstractly?
      (Is it quiet/loud - serene/tense?)

      A good exercise for this is to imagine transposing the entire artwork in a different medium. What would it be like if the painting were a song, or the story a sculpture?

    This is the final piece of the puzzle, and the most difficult to get a hold of. What does the piece mean? This is where objective and subjective merge to create intention. Use the evidence from your observations paired with the effects of your experience to infer as to the intentions behind the choices that the artist made!

    This is the final foundational element of the critique! From here on out it's a matter of evaluating those decisions and determining whether or not they serve the motivations effectively (and how they could be changed to strengthen the work).

    • Is the piece trying to communicate a message?
      (If so, what message?)
    • Is it intentionally evoking a mood?
    • Does it tell a story or a narrative?

      These are meant to get at what a piece is saying. Does it leave you with an idea or question?

    • What did the artist want you to take away from this piece?
    • Why did they create it?
    • Do you notice any bold decisions?
    • Does anything seem arbitrary?
    • How does the way it is made affect what it has to say?

      Now finally, we are looking at the intentions of the artist. Every mark they made, or word that they wrote was made for a reason and impacts the overall meaning of the piece. Find the choices and evaluate them!

Good & Bad

The spectrum of improvement!

Now we'll get into the body of the critique! Most people know that a well written critiqued isn't one-sided, it's balanced. A useful critique doesn't say that a piece is terrible, nor does it say that a piece is perfect! Rather it explains both the good and the bad and uses both to provide direction for improvement.

Don't forget the Context! No matter whether an artist is a beginner or a professional, they always have a next step to take. Don't try to make a novice into a master in a day, and don't be intimidated by an accomplished hand!

First let's talk about the different levels of analysis of both the good and the bad.
  1. WHAT works (or needs improvement) in the piece?

    Find things in the artwork that you believe were well done. Whether this means that the technique was great, or the concept innovative, or the design choices strong and definite - doesn't matter. You can find what works in any part of a piece.

    Take that element and describe it! This description in and of itself is useful, because now you've taken your perspective and communicated it to the artist (they can then use it to look at their piece in a different way).
    Your use of texture and pattern on the various fabrics in this painting is very effective (as are their individual colors and forms). Something about the composition seems cluttered though, overall it's a little busy. Also the figures don't seem like they fit in the environment.
  2. WHY does it work (or need improvement)?

    Now that you've determined what is good (or isn't), you need to explain why it works or doesn't work. Without this, the artist has nothing to go off of - by explaining the why, you give them insight into what you see in the piece! Go as descriptive as you can at this point, incorporating interpretation, technique, and overall effect. Take the part you are focusing on, and examine all elements of its form (color, shape, texture, line, space, etc.) as well as what it does for the rest of the piece.

    If you want to go all meta, you are now looking at that part in the Context of the piece as a whole.
    The stippling and smooth gradients give each material unique properties. The lighting on the silks make them look smooth, while the weight of the fabric in the woven items gives them a great roughness! You deal with a lot of different materials here, and each of them reads well as a different and unique kind of fabric, even down to the patterning (whether embroidered or dyed). In part, this is due to the great way that you treat the color of each of them; each one is a self contained analogous color scheme.

    The difficulty with this is that when you have so many different fabrics, they all take attention away from the subject! All the different colors and details compete with each other and it's hard to tell what's important and what isn't.
While this is enough for a cursory analysis, there's still a key part missing! Many critiques that we see are very good at identifying, describing, and analyzing the problem, where they fall short though is finding a solution.
  • HOW can it be changed/improved?

    This is what separates the informative critique from the educational critique! Now that you and the artist both know what's happening, it's time to give suggestions and advice on what to do next! Into this you should bring both your personal perspective and experience (what you would do differently) as well as established practices and theory in the field or medium. Your goal with this is to make your feedback as useful as possible; if the artist chooses to, they should be able to find in your critique everything they need to implement changes!

    If you want to make this part super useful, suggest more than one solution! This both gives the artist options, and lets them know that there are many options out their (encouraging them to find their own solution).

    Also, try to incorporate outside materials (such as tutorials, guides, etc.) if applicable. For more information, please see PE Feedback: Critiquing with Resources! by ziinyu.

    It seems like what you need to do at this point is filter through and select just a portion of the fabrics so that they aren't so jarring together. Also, being a little more selective with your colors would probably help. While each individual material has great coloring, together they just appear overwhelming. Select a simpler color scheme (such as analogous or even split-compliment) and shift everything into that system. Your values (light and dark) however, are quite good - so to ensure that you don't lose those when changing colors, export a black and white version that you can reference back to later.

    Alternately, if you are going for a feeling of monumental decadence, push it further in that direction! Add patterns to everything, even the smooth surfaces. Then take as much detail out of the figures as possible (almost like they were porcelain sculptures), this way they will pop out as the only simple elements.

    Either way, what you need to develop is a hierarchy. What is the most important aspect of your work? Make that the strongest visually, and work down to the less important pieces from there!
    Remember to use the why that you discovered earlier! If you just tell the artist what to do, it won't be nearly as effective as explaining the underlying issue first.
Now you have put together a critique that not only describes the problems and determines why they need work, but also gives the artist direction for how to improve upon them! Your critique is now both relevant AND applicable. Be sure to include this on as many levels as you think you can provide valuable feedback! Look at concept, composition, rendering, color, narrative - and give the what, why, and how of them.

But wait! There's more! While the preceding steps have made made for a very useful critique, there is one last (super secret) part of the equation that will help make it an accessible one.
  • How does it all RELATE?

    It's time to put it all together. In order to encourage the artist that they are headed in the right direction and give them extra momentum - incorporate all of your previous observations into your final suggestions. This is more than just a summary, it's figuring out how everything can work together to develop an individualized instruction.

    Take the good, figure out why it was good then determine how to use what that tells you about the artist (and their abilities/approach). Use that to help inform on how the bad can be improved.
    With your figures, the problem seems to be that the lighting isn't working quite the way that it should. Check out those fabrics on the floor - see how the floor around them has a sort of red glow to match the red fabric? That's known as bounced light, and it's one of the things that really helps let us know that two things share a space.

    Right now the figures look separate from the room, like they've been pasted into it, that's because the lighting on them is as if the items around them don't exist! Everywhere there is a strong color close to the skin (like that beautiful drapery), be sure to include some bounced light of that color! For skin tones, bounced light is especially apparent in the shadows (most shadows on skin end up being a much more saturated color than you'd expect).


Where do we go from here?

This last set of suggestions is really just for very special critiquing opportunities that happen when both the artist and the critic are very engaged. The focus of the follow through is what happens after the critique has been posted. What will the artist do next, and what will the critic do to continue helping?

  1. What happens with this piece?

    To start out with, address the item at hand. This has most to do with the context of the artwork - is it a work in progress or a finished piece? Start from there and continue outward.

    • What would you like to see in the final version?
    • Are there any easy revisions that could be made?
    • What are your suggestions for applying the critique to future pieces?

      Following up on these, what can be learned from this piece?
  2. What happens with future pieces?

    This is the big encouragement part of things! What other pieces do you want to see from them? Is there a theme that you think is worth exploring? Or maybe a concept that they could revisit from a different angle? Let the artist know that you are interested in seeing what happens next, and encourage them to keep working toward their goals!

    Also, if you have the time - make yourself available for follow up critiques! Tell them to contact you if they want you to look at future pieces (especially if they will be applying parts of your critique)!
  3. What studies/exercises could they do to help?

    Homework time! Sometimes when an artist is struggling for direction, they find it most effective to be given distinct challenges (admit it, this is why everyone is addicted to those drawing memes). Generally, this is something that you should discuss with the artist before going too far out on a limb. (Usually I end with a hint that I would have specific exercises to recommend if they are interested.)

    Here are a few suggestions for putting together assignments for an artist.

    1. Something similar to the existing piece.

      Suggest they do something (a new artwork) very similar to the piece you are critiquing, but slightly different. Manipulate that difference so that it puts a little more weight on the things they need to work on.
      You've really got a personality going with this one - if you're up for it, let's see this same character, but with hands and feet this time! Go ahead and leave the costume the same if you'd like (since it's looking pretty good), but try a different pose for a little variety!
    2. Technical studies on an element (usually repetitive with slight variation).

      The best way to get better at something is to do it over and over again! So identify what needs work and ask them to just do many many studies on that element. Whether this is some part of the anatomy for figure drawing, and scene structure for literature, color compositions in painting, etc. - encourage the artist to find out as much as they can about it by doing as much as they can with it!
      I know hands can be difficult, but the best way to figure them out is just to keep drawing them! What's super great about them though, is that unlike the rest of the figure, you always have a hand model! Try to do 100 sketches of your hand in different poses - they don't have to be perfect, but really play with different foreshortened angles. Work quickly and confidently!
    3. Create an exercise to isolate the problem.

      Sometimes the best way is the hardest way, fight fire with fire! If they are having difficulty with something, give them a task that puts that in the spotlight. Usually this means you have to take away a few of the things that they are relying upon to help them figure out new solutions. Give them a handicap to prevent them from handicapping themselves!
      I notice that you are letting the facial expressions of your figures tell their emotions, while keeping their poses pretty stiff. While this is sort of working, the characters could be so much stronger if the poses accentuated their mood! Here's a challenge - draw five different figures each for five different emotions (25 total). HOWEVER, you are only allowed to use silhouettes! No details, and no facial expressions - just body language!
  4. How can they help you, help them?

    ASK QUESTIONS. Ask the artist questions! Help them understand things, and encourage them to engage in conversation! Critique works best as a two-way street, so do everything you can to get a dialogue going. If they present an alternate (or opposing) view, great! Use it to teach you more about how they work and what they want to get out of critique! Encourage them to leave a little more information about what they are looking for in the description of deviations they want feedback on. Respond to them, and if they follow up with new work, provide critique for that too! Each critique holds the opportunity for a relationship in which both parties can learn from each other!

That's it for these guidelines! While there are plenty more specific techniques to talk about, I wanted to give you some of the theory behind giving/receiving feedback. So if you made it through the whole article, please give these ideas some thought, and hopefully incorporate a few of them into your next critique!

I will be doing a follow up on critique techniques (things like red-lining, deconstructing, or line-by-line). If there are any that you personally use (and would recommend), please describe them in the comments!


Add a Comment:
hefeigal Featured By Owner Feb 28, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Very descriptive, informative, and helpful.
justMANGO Featured By Owner Dec 22, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
Phew! That must've taken you a long time to write. It has so many great advises and it's explained with so much depth. *adds to collection for future reference*

Though I must also say, I'm a little disappointed that some of the things stated in this guide must be stated so explicitly. For example, it seems, to me at least, quite straightforward and logical that a good critic takes into consideration the artist's skill and what they're looking for in a critique, as well as observing objectively the various features of the artwork in question. The guide is written because there's a need for such a guide, so the fact that this is here means that many people out there isn't doing these seemingly straightforward and logical things. For this phenomenon I am saddened and disappointed.

But then again, I suppose that I can be positively and think that beginners will need a place to start, and as beginners, they need the pointers that this guide gives them. =)
ziinyu Featured By Owner Dec 23, 2012  Student Interface Designer
Definitely - and I agree it's too bad that people need encouragement to take into account the artist's individual skill level. With this contest and some of the other critiquing community things, part of the goal is to get artists critiquing each other's work, even outside of pieces they would normally tackle. In that respect, it's mostly to let them know that it's okay to critique anyone regardless of how your abilities relate to theirs, so long as you feel you have something useful to offer them. That being said, once you start critiquing everyone it becomes super important to be aware of their individual course!

A cookie-cutter avoidance measure, if you will!
miontre Featured By Owner Dec 22, 2012  Hobbyist Photographer
Amazing in-depth article!
Astrikos Featured By Owner Dec 22, 2012   General Artist
Amazing article as always!
lintu47 Featured By Owner Dec 22, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
Amazing! Great information you gathered here, i find this article truly helpful! :clap:
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