In order to give a quality critique – one that's meaningful, helpful, well-informed, constructive – you essentially need one thing: To know what you're talking about.
First things first: an opinion is not the same thing as a critique, it's only a small part of it. Anyone can give their opinion about a piece of art, and that's just fine, but when we're talking about a critique, it's more about good quality, informed, and meaningful feedback that the person on the receiving end – whether they are a viewer just taking it in, a person learning about the art, or the artists themselves – can use to assess the work as well. Simply stating your opinion is just surface level dialog, and it's just a small part of what a critique is. Having a deeper understanding about how you've come to your conclusion and being able to share it with others is a much more effective and stimulating form of dialog than just simply stating your opinion. Everyone should be able to back their opinion. Like I mentioned before, everyone is entitled to one, sure, but if you're going to put it out there (and even though you don't necessarily have to), you should be able to explain it and discuss it with others as well.
from the film Art School Confidential
In order to provide a good quality critique, there are 4 stages to consider: Description, Analysis, Interpretation, and Judgement/Evaluation. Below are brief descriptions of each stage of the critiquing process to help make the most thorough assessment. These can also help to gain a better understanding of your own work as well, and can be used to evaluate your own personal opinions, knowledge, and evolution and growth in your work, as well as an understanding of others' perspectives and an overall understanding of art. If you don't know how you'd answer some of these, it's your job to give it some thought, and if need be, do your research. Spend time with coming up with an informed answer. And remember: It's important to observe, be objective, and understand.. without losing your sense of wonderment. All of it plays a part.
The Simpsons admire a painting by Picasso
In this stage of the critique, you should keep opinions out, and focus on describing the work in an objective or value-neutral statement. Here are some points to consider in order to assess the work in this stage:
What is the title and who is (are) the artist(s)?
Describe single features in the work (i.e., objects, a person, tree)
Describe the abstract elements of the work (i.e., line movement, light, space, color).
Describe the technical qualities of the work (i.e., medium, materials).
Describe the subject matter. What is it all about? Are there recognizable images?
Using the elements you named in the description, make statements about the relationship of those things. Describe how the work is organized as a complete composition using elements and principles of design and composition. Here are some points to keep in mind when making a formal analysis:
How is the work constructed or planned (i.e., composition of shapes, lines, color)?
Identify some of the similarities throughout the work (i.e., repetition of line or shape).
Identify some of the points of emphasis in the work (i.e., specific scene, figure, story).
If the work has subjects or characters, what are the relationships between or among them?
This is a creative part of your critique in which you would describe how the work makes you think or feel, using your assessment in the previous stages of the critiquing process. Here are some points to help you with discussing your interpretation of the work:
Describe the expressive qualities you find in the work. What expressive language would you use to describe the qualities (i.e., tragic, ugly, funny)? And why would you use those words?
Does the work remind you of other things you have experienced (i.e., analogy or metaphor, something you've read, watched, or personally experienced)?
How does the work relate to other ideas or events in the world and/or in other aspects besides art?
Judgment or Evaluation
This is a complex part of the critique, and requires an assessment of your opinion based on the points of evaluation in the above categories or stages. It's about whether you are moved by the work, what you think of it, what your aesthetic judgement is of the work, and what your judgement is based on.
Here are some questions you can use to help present your opinion of the work's success or shortcomings:
What qualities of the work make you feel it is successful or not-so-successful?
Compare it with similar works that have moved you.
What criteria can you list to help others judge this work?
How original is the work? Why do you feel this work is original or not original? Think of it in terms of pushing the envelope (i.e., is the initial concept unoriginal but the piece is well-executed, or vice versa?)
Norman Rockwell, The Connoisseur
A couple things I'd like to add to this:
Sometimes It's good to work backwards, too, when thinking about a critique. While it's not necessarily backwards, what I mean is.. when you've got a strong gut reaction, go with it.. and then assess it from there. Why do you think you reacted to something the way you did?
Also, there are different scenarios where critiquing comes into play. All of the above is an overall general concept of what a critique might entail. There are instances where a critique is more specific to a topic, such as in a classroom where students are not only undergoing a critique, but also taking part in the critique of others' work. In this environment, it's important to be able to give and take constructive criticism well, and to take into consideration that there may be an assignment or theme to the work, and that this would be a significant element to the critique. Whether the work adheres to the assignment would probably be first and foremost in the evaluation of the work. The same goes for the relationship between an artist and art director, where the artist would most likely be given a set of points to keep in mind when completing the work. The viewing and sharing of the artwork in progress is an essential part of the overall critique in order to assure the work is staying true to the overall vision and that the outcome will hit the mark, and to keep everything moving forward in the most efficient way possible in order to meet a deadline. Being able to give and take constructive criticism is essential to the job. Also, in art history, for example, it's important to take into consideration the time in which the work was produced and what part of the world the artist resided in which will shed light on what was going on at the time in that place (such as art movements and/or war/conflict), as well as what materials and accommodations were available to the artist at that time.
from Simon Schama's The Power of Art, Mark Rothko episode
I hope you can use these stages of critique the next time you form and share an opinion about art or anything else you feel compelled to share your opinion about openly. And don't forget that you can use these points of reference when evaluating your own work as well.
I leave you with this great quote from a wonderful movie, Ratatouille.
In this scene, the antagonist in the film, the food critic Anton Ego, shares a very insightful review...
In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau's famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.