Art Criticism: Definition, Steps & Example

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  • 0:03 Art Criticism
  • 0:31 Steps
  • 3:15 Example
  • 4:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Colleen Cleveland

Colleen has taught college level Game Development and Graphic Design and has a Master's in Interactive Entertainment and Masters in Media Psychology.

Expert Contributor
Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

In this lesson, we'll learn about the steps involved in art criticism and how they work. We'll also try out our critical-thinking skills on a real-life painting. When you've finished with the lesson, you can use our brief quiz to see how much you know about art criticism.

Art Criticism

Art criticism is analyzing and evaluating works of art. As art critics, when we look at a painting, sculpture, or other form of art, we don't approach it as something that we like or dislike. We view it in a business-like way. For example, does the artwork represent a particular era, movement, or style? In approaching art criticism, just think of yourself as a detective. In other words, what makes art 'art'?


Art criticism involves four basic steps, including:

  1. Look at the obvious
  2. Analyze the artwork
  3. Decide on an interpretation
  4. Make a judgment call

1. Look at the Obvious

In the course of your daily life, you'll most likely have to provide others with some general information about yourself, such as your name, address, or school. When critiquing an art piece, you'll be looking for that same type of information about the artist.

For example, what's the name of the piece? What's the name of the artist? What country was he or she from? What medium did the artist use, such as paint, clay, film, or other type of material?

2. Analyze the Artwork

Next you have to describe the piece of art in terms of its subject matter, color, and style. For example, if you're looking at a painting, do you see people, a landscape, or an object? Let's say you see a woman. Is she smiling? Is she frowning? What is she wearing? Is she doing anything?

Check out the color palette, which is a spectrum of colors used by the artist. Sometimes you can tell from the color during which century the piece was created. Do you see pastels, or do you see bright colors? Maybe you see more muted tones.

Look at the style. Style refers to a particular type of movement, such as Art Nouveau or Cubism. If the woman is very realistic, you may want to look at periods prior to 1910. If you sort of see a woman, but she is made up of cubes, you might suspect that the picture was painted in the 1910s or 1920s during the Cubist period of art.

3. Decide on an Interpretation

Now that you've examined the artwork, what does it all mean? John Q. Public would like to hear what you think is going on in the painting. Sometimes your interpretation may be more straightforward; other times, you'll be calling John's attention to a hidden meaning. For instance, Salvador Dalí, the surrealist painter, specialized in hidden meanings, which stem from sexual trauma to science and religion.

4. Make a Judgment Call

Last, but not least, an art critic needs to make a judgment call. For example, what did you think of the artwork? In this step you have to go beyond 'I like it', 'I love it', or even 'I hate it'.

In making your judgment call, you need to ask yourself if the work was successful. For instance, did it convey the message the artist intended? Was the composition, color, and line quality successful in, say, representing Bauhaus, Swiss Design, or Art Nouveau? In art criticism, judgment is never personal; it is about interpreting the art and whether the art communicates a message to the audience.


Fruit by Alphonse Mucha
Art Nouveau

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Additional Activities

Art Criticism Activities

Further Exploration:

1. In the lesson, you learned about the four steps art critics follow in the process of critiquing a work of art. Choose a painting or artistic photograph to work with and take yourself through these steps. Write up your finished critique as if you're writing for an art related newspaper column or an art magazine.

2. A few artistic movements or styles were mentioned in the lesson. Read more about artistic movements that occurred beginning in the early twentieth century. Then choose two of those styles to research further. Choose one style that appeals to you and one that you don't quite understand. In your reading, find out something about the beginnings of those movements and some of the artists associated with them. Does this further knowledge help you understand these movements better? Perhaps you even gain some appreciation for a style that at first seemed strange!

3. There are several aspects of a work of art that critics consider when they evaluate a painting. Some of these are content, manner, color, form, and organization of the material in the space. Choose a painting to evaluate. Look in an art book, or find one online. Choose a painting you like. Say something about each of the aspects just listed. You may not be able to pinpoint the style exactly, but describe it in your own words. Form refers to how the figures or objects are drawn. The color palette means the dominant colors used. To talk about organization, look at the way objects or figures are arranged.

Note to Instructors:

Since this is a creative, exploratory activity, there are no right or wrong answers. What you want from students is to show that they read the lesson carefully and are giving sufficient attention to understanding the material they read for further exploration.

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