Appreciating Art: How to Critique Art at a Museum or Gallery

Visiting an art gallery or museum is a low-cost way to spend time with friends or a date. But many people don't know how to look at art. Watch the people in an art museum and you'll see them hustling through, pausing for only a minute at each sculpture or painting and looking either bored or perturbed, before traipsing on to the next piece. They say things like, "I don't get it," or "I could paint that," or "Why is everybody naked?" They assume there is some secret to appreciating art that they're not civilized or sophisticated enough to understand.

But here's a fact: You already know how to critique art.  

You listen to music, right? Music is — guess what? — art. If you can say that you prefer Beyoncé over Carrie Underwood or 'N Sync over Justin solo and come up with a reason why, you've critiqued art. Other art forms are no different.

Art museums are not like amusement parks: You're not expected to enjoy everything. But whatever your tastes, you'll find something you like. Think about all the different styles of painters:

  • Impressionists (Monet, Pissarro, and Renoir)
  • Realists (Manet and Edward Hopper)
  • Expressionists (Edvard Munch and Wassily Kandinsky)
  • Abstract expressionists (Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning)
  • Cubists (Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque)
  • Pop artists (Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein)
  • Surrealists (René Magritte and Salvador Dali)

All of these artists were painters, but their styles are nothing alike. The subject matters, colors, brush strokes, and moods are all different. Anyone who says they don't appreciate paintings just hasn't found an artist who speaks to them. Yet.

As you approach each art piece, remember that artists create their work to tell a story or evoke an emotion. Think about what you see. Someone else might glance at a painting or photograph of a boy sitting on a bench in a grassy lawn and say, "That's a boy sitting on a bench; I don't get the big deal." Look deeper than that. First, look at the technical aspects of the painting or photograph. Are the colors vibrant or muted? Does the texture of the piece look smooth or rough? Are the lines precise or jagged? Is the composition balanced or askew? Is your eye drawn to any particular area of the painting? (And if so, where, how, and why?)

Then look back at the subject. Is the boy in the painting/photograph looking at you (the viewer), or away from you, or at something behind you? How does the light that hits his face make him appear? (Angelic? Menacing? Indifferent?) What mood does the boy appear to be in? What do the clothes he's wearing say about him? What do you think he's doing there?

Next, combine the answers to all of these questions and ask yourself a few more: What emotion do you feel when you look at this art piece? Why do you think the artist chose to create it? Do you like this painting/photograph? Explain why or why not, either to yourself or to your companions.

And congratulations, you've just critiqued a piece of art.

The more you do this, the more you will see when you look at fine art. You can see that critiquing art is also a fine way to hone your powers of observation, learn new facts about history, and improve your conversation skills as you talk about what you observe with those around you.