Not quite sure how to give a critique? This article is an attempt to provide some advice.
There are two checklists: a positive list for the elements that contribute to a successful work; and a negative list that looks at flaws.
Finally, you will find advice on putting it all together including the frame of mind needed for providing a critique. I have tried to keep the lists compact and general while still aiming to explain what is, perhaps, not obvious. The lists should work for both realism and abstract art as they are not based on a set of rules such as "Don't put the horizon on the middle".
Positive Check List
Focus/impact area - An effective focus/impact area makes the difference between a picture and a work of art. The impact area gives the viewer direction and establishes a sense of priority for all the other elements. A focus/impact area means that the artist has been able to capture what in real life is selective seeing - we can only focus on one thing at a time, the rest is seen through peripheral vision. Does the work have such an area?
Mood/feeling - Does the work convey a mood? Decide if it is merely rendering of parts or if there is a sense of interpretation and feeling.
Creativity - What has been done better, or differently, from the ordinary? Was creativity used in the selection of subject and/or use of materials?
Composition - Design - Are there interesting shapes - both positive and negative? Is there a variety of shape sizes? Are the picture elements arranged in a dominant design scheme - for example with rectangular or diagonal emphasis? Is the design based on one or several geometric forms and, if several, do they work together? Does the design work with, or against, the subject? Does it attract attention to itself (i.e. the arrangement takes over the subject)? Is the composition balanced?
Composition - Counterpoint - Evaluate the complexity of the subject and the selection of shapes used. Look for a dominant element, subelements and repetition of elements. Is there variety/counterpoint? In general, the more complex the better - without going over the top. Remember the rule: ”Diversity within unity”.
Value - How has tonal value been used to convey mood, depth, dimension, and impact/focus? Look at the composition of general tonal areas.
Color - How has color been used to convey mood, harmony, and depth? Does the color scheme fit the subject? Has color been used to establish a focus/impact area? Check for the use of color fundamentals like complementary or analogous color.
Other fundamentals - Evaluate the use of other fundamentals (besides color and value) such as perspective, edges, and style. How does perspective help to convey depth? Is perspective used creatively? Are hard edges used to pull elements forward and soft edges used to integrate elements in the scene? How is style used to promote the intent/mood?
Unity - Unity is what holds all parts together. Has color, pattern or technique been used to establish unity?
Craftsmanship - This is where the technical skills such as drawing and the handling of materials are assessed.
Readability/flow - Can the viewer's eye move easily into the work? How has the artist used shape, line, value, color, perspective, etc to guide you to the focus/impact area, to/from sub-themes and away from exit areas?
Negative Check List
Technical inaccuracy - Does inaccurate drawing make elements work against the logic or intent of the composition? For example, shadows that fall in the wrong direction, a sloping horizon, errors in perspective for realistic art.
Lack of imagination - Poor selection of subject and approach. A dull subject rendered in a dull way.
Lack of originality - Presenting a trite subject that has been painted a thousand times before.
Content discrepancy – An element that is not in character with the logic or intent of the work. For example: the artist intends to make a realistic wildlife painting but shows the animal in the wrong environment.
Style discrepancy - Inconsistent styles within the same work, or the obvious influence of another artist’s style in parts.
Inconsistent quality - Landscape good, wildlife weak.
Easy way out – The artist has obviously positioned a subject to avoid difficult detail.
Plagiarism - The artist has copied another's work, or used someone else's photographs, and presented it as their own. (This also has legal implications.)
Lack of interpretation - The artist was controlled by the subject. For example, including the shadow of a photo flash, or rendering a subject's eyes with effect of photo flash; a pleine aire artist has included an ugly object which detracts from their landscape simply because it was there.
Poor presentation - How is the work presented? Is it free from the non-artistic use of coffee-stains, globs of paint, brush hairs stuck in dry paint, fingerprints, shoddy frame, poorly cut matte, sloppily painted edges of canvas, canvas shining through, poor/uneven varnishing, cracks, scratches, etc?
Empty - No mood, message or feeling conveyed.
Your critique should be divided into two sections: what has been done well and what could be improved. The focus should be on providing feedback that will help the artist - and onlookers - learn something.
What has been done well - select a few of the best things and say why you think they work.
What could be improved – select areas where the biggest improvements could be made and say why. Suggest ways the improvements could be made and give your reasons. Where appropriate, provide links to relevant examples or reference material. If the artist has chosen to allow digital alternations of their work you may like to provide an edited image to illustrate your points.
*let the checklists dictate the form of the critique - you shouldn't try to comment on every item. Use them to help you pinpoint and analyse what has been done well and what could be improved.
*overwhelm the artist by including too many suggestions or too much information.
*critique in a positive, non-judgmental spirit.
*try to pitch your critique to the right level - you will not turn a beginner into an expert in a single step.
*try to be as objective as possible and set aside your own taste in art - the critique is about the artist's work, not about you.
Remember, the artist is seeking constructive feedback on how to improve - both in the work under critique and for their future development. Therefore, your suggested improvements do not have to be corrections that can be easily made. For example, it may not be possible to completely rearrange a watercolor but the artist can incorporate what is learned in future work.
When the artwork is exceptionally good, and you can not find any improvements you can instead elaborate on the analysis and point out in more detail what has been done well - this could be more for the benefit of the onlookers than for the artist.
Finally, when giving a critique, try to think of yourself as being hired by the artist as a mentor or teacher, or perhaps a defense attorney whose job is to make your client's work look its best in court. If you truly dislike something and really can’t think of anything that would help, it is best to refrain from posting. If the artist has specifically asked for your opinion, perhaps, instead of a critique, you could suggest some exercises, articles, other artwork or reference material to look at. Remember there are plenty of lessons, projects, library images and other material here at WetCanvas! to refer to.