The Critique Method

Formal critiques are about learning how to analyze art. There are five basic steps that you will need to learn to apply anytime you approach an artwork. Understanding the critique method will help to make all art more understandable for you. It will make this class much easier for you, and will give you a great tool for surviving the AP test.

Definitions before we even start

Formal elements are devices (techniques, principles of art, composition, etc.) used by artists to help express their content.

They can be things like line, color, shape, etc; the elements and principles. They can also things like having all of the people in an art work stare at the main character, or putting the most important figure in the middle of the image. All of these are devices used by artists to help express their content. All of these are devices or tricks used by the artist to get their ideas across.

A critique is an analysis of the:

  • formal elements
  • narrative elements
  • contextual elements

…of a work of art.

The 4 steps of Critique

  • Description
  • Analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Judgement

Each of these 4 steps should be written as individual paragraphs.


  • If you know it, tell the reader the title of the artwork, the artist, and any other information you have
  • Describe what you see to the reader
  • Be detailed and exact, but only include features/information that matters
  • Be descriptive: tell us color, size, shapes, what materials the artwork is made out of, etc.


  • Pick out the most important Elements of Art, Principles of Design, or Compositional Elements that you see in the work
  • Explain how these different components shape the way you see the image and/or
  • Explain how these different components drive the narrative
  • Be specific (“The boy on the left is wearing complementary colors in order to catch our attention”)
  • Use proper vocabulary, learned from our notes and our lessons (Line, sgraffito, formal balance, etc.)


  • Tell the reader what you think
    • The image means
    • The story being told is
    • The feeling or mood you get from looking at the work
    • The reason someone would make the image
  • Connect your interpretation to the Analysis you did (“The cool colors make me think that the man in the picture is really sad”


  • Tell me the culture/country/city/time period it comes from
  • Discuss where it was found or placed
  • Tell me the piece’s function or use
  • Talk about the patron, and what the patron’s goals for the work were
  • If you know nothing concrete, make those good educated guesses based on similar works

As you write be sure to be clear, be thorough, use vocabulary when it is appropriate, and be sure to avoid judgments.  You are an art historian, not an art critic.  Only those jerks get to tell us if something is good or not ;)

Sample Critique