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Leading Students through a First Art Critique

When I was in art class in high school (early 80’s,) we never did any critiques that I recall. It wasn’t until I was in college studio art courses that I learned how and why to do them, and what traps to avoid. A good example of what not to say is when I was being critiqued for this 5-foot by 4-foot painting/collage in 1997:

What's Wild by Dawn Pedersen

The instructor had a teacher’s assistant who was a student at another university. This T.A. saw my painting and said disapprovingly, “It’s a bit narrative, isn’t it?” What do you do with that? And what’s wrong with being narrative in a painting? I learned nothing from her comments, and instead held a grudge against her ever since. I later saw some of her paintings and couldn’t make heads-or-tails of them: square abstract messes of heavily impastoed oil paint with no apparent thought of composition or color harmony. Nothing like the beauty of, say, Jackson Pollock’s work.

Anyhow, the first rule I have is that if you say something about a work of art in a critique, even your own work, start by saying what you like about it. There’s got to be at least one thing that is working for you. And if there’s nothing at all right with it, will cataloging its faults really help the artist in any way? Because that’s the point of critiques: improving everyone’s artwork. Moreover, it serves the purpose of making all students give greater thought to art. No-one’s going to listen to what you have to say right after you piss them off or make them defensive.

A few weeks ago, I had students participate in their first classroom critique. I had found that even in the high school advanced art class, my students had never had a critique before. It’s in the California state standards. If I may vent a little, I am regularly appalled at what my second year students don’t know. Their previous teacher couldn’t have been following the standards. And so I am teaching both the first year and second year students the same basic material to get everyone up to speed. No, my schools don’t check if I’m following the standards, but the standards are an important set of guidelines for me. They build critical thinking skills. And if any of my students go on to art college, they’ll be prepared with the terminology and skills they need to get the most out of their classes.

The Critique

I am grateful for The Art Teacher’s Book of Lists by Helen D. Hume. In it is a section on Art Criticism Questions [List 3-9, page 111]. Hume has two subsections here: “For a Formal Analysis of a Work of Art by a Known Artist” and “Sample Questions for Helping Students Analyze Their Own Work and that of Fellow Students.” Below, I have quoted these sample questions and included my commentary about how responsive my students were when we critiqued the Self-Portrait Collages.

Would someone be willing to talk about your own work?

Again, make sure the students know to talk about something they like first. Most are tempted to just dump all over their work, but they need to recognize that most times improvement requires recognizing what works as well as what doesn’t work. A few of my students were frustrated that they didn’t have a enough time on this project. I will keep this in mind the next time I do it.

Which of these artworks uses line (shape, color, form, space) most effectively?

I kept it simple and asked them about form and color only for this project. It’s important to ask the student “Why?”! A good number of my students were able to tell me why form or color was used effectively, using the terminology I’ve taught them.

Which of these meets the goals of the project best? (A goal might have been variety, creativity, etc.)

In the case of this project, the goals were: creativity, colorfulness, and craftsmanship. I got some good answers with this one, and I made sure that students addressed how the one they picked met a particular goal.

Which of these shows the greatest differences in value…the most contrast?

I’ve worked hard to teach my students the meaning and the importance of contrast. They are beginning to recognize in their work and others’ that contrast helps define edges and strengthen a composition. They now know how to squint their eyes to make contrast more apparent. Many of them were able to identify the artworks that most effectively set foreground and background apart by using value and/or color contrast.

Does this remind you of the work of any artist whose work you have seen?

This was a tough one. Although I have exposed the students to the works of many artists, they are having trouble retaining the names and styles. I am hunting for better methods of educating them about art history for greater retention. On this question, we usually faltered.

If you could make one change in your own artwork, what would you do?

This is a great question, and I received a lot of thoughtful answers on it. From the standpoint of becoming better artists, it’s the most important question I could ask.

If you were a curator and you could buy one of these artworks for the collection of your museum, which one would it be? Why?

My students loved this one! First, I had to explain that a curator is a person who decides what a museum purchases. That person must keep in mind what art people would want to see, and what art is important and aesthetically beautiful. My students responded to this question more than any other. They loved the thought of having that kind of important role, and then explaining their choices.

In talking about your own work of art, what would you have done if you had had more time?

I found this question to be too similar to the question about changing one thing in one’s work.

What were you trying to show through the style you used?

I didn’t use this question during the critique. Instead, I had students write Artist’s Statements after the critique. The writing prompt was:

Explain why you chose the images, objects, and colors you did to represent yourself. You are encouraged to include anything new you’ve come to understand about your work during the class critique, and what if anything you might do differently next time.

I also asked students to tell me what grade they think they deserved according to our rubric, and why.

UPDATE 1/22/06

Here’s an art teacher’s guide to critiques by Martin Bartel. It’s for college students but includes many things you can ask the younger set. It is really comprehensive and includes worksheets for students.

UPDATE 2/5/06

Here’s another approach to critiques.

5 thoughts on “Leading Students through a First Art Critique

  1. This was extremely helpful as I am a student teacher and am having my first critique for my high school students tomorrow. Thanks!


  2. I agree completely. The first things you’ve mentioned are something I stress to my students as life skills necessary beyond the Art room. No matter who/when you are addressing, they will shut down if you call them crap and tune out everything you have to say from then on.

    I’m also one who believes that Art standards are important to follow. It validates our profession and does nothing less than help prepare our students for the challenges they face in the world of tomorrow.

    Thanks for the great critique sheet-I’m going to try it with my 7th graders. Hope you don’t mind if I modify it a bit.

    Thanks again!!

  3. You’re welcome, Heather and Fadra!

  4. Hi Dawn,

    I have been a long time fan of your website. I am also an art teacher. Wednesday I would like to have a critique in my classes. Of course I want it to be meaningful and engaging, but more importantly, FUN! Do you or any other art educators reading this post have any ideas for unique critiques, HA! I was trying to come up with a critiquing game. Any ideas?

    As always, THANKS for your insight!

  5. Thank you so much! I’m teaching for the first time and found this sooooo helpful. Really appreciate the pointers.

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