Artists need to be able to give and receive feedback on their work, but “critique” is usually synonymous with criticism, and “I like it” doesn’t offer much help to a painter who wants to grow. So how do we see, think about, and evaluate works of art in a way that helps us see, grow, and support our community of friends? I teach a critique class to foster a community ready to give this essential support for artists. In critiques class, students develop their ability to see and talk about a wide variety of artworks in real and constructive ways. Students often say these skills not only help them give feedback to other artists, but it helps them see and evaluate their own work more keenly too. There is a step in the critique process that is surprisingly beautiful. It’s surprising because it is so simple, yet it gives so much to the artists. This surprising practice of insight is nothing fancy. It’s a simple description of the artwork, without any additional thoughts or judgements. Setting aside what we like or don’t like, what memories or emotions we may or may not be experiencing, we practice observing an artwork without judgement, and witness not our own reactions, but the visual elements before us. See if you can guess what famous painting I’m describing. It sounds a bit like this: The painting is oil and charcoal on canvas. It is 82 inches tall and 76 inches wide, or a bit taller and wider than a tall person with their arms outstretched. The flat composition is broken up into a collection of rectangles like window panes, the largest of which is a light blue rectangle, just a bit lighter than 50% grey, or about a value 6 on the standard value finder scale. Unlike the rest of the rectangles that are long and thin – all stacked horizontally except for the long verticals at the left and right edges of the painting – the large blue rectangle is nearly a squat square, taking up the lower portion of the painting from the bottom edge to just above center. This blue squat square stops about 4 inches before the left edge of the canvas, and about 1 inch before the right edge of the canvas. Where it stops are perfectly straight yet slightly uneven lines drawn in black charcoal. The blue paint goes up to the black line, sometimes overlapping the line, sometimes touching the line, sometimes stopping right before the line… and here it leaves a gap where the pale yellow paint underneath shows through the blue. There is a blue stripe that is almost exactly the same width as the non-blue vertical rectangles on the left. This is blue vertical stripe is separated from the rest of the square by the boldest charcoal line, again appearing and disappearing with the paint. To the right of the vertical blue stripe is one inch of pale pink, the same color is on three sides of the blue square. To the left of the blue squat square is a subdivided tall rectangle that is one inch of pale pink at the left edge, three inches of the same pink on the upper portion – just shy of half, and a gold stripe between two green stripes contained below and to the right of the pink. Straight charcoal lines define some of the rectangular boundaries, but not all. Some lines have been drawn, then painted over. There is one squiggly little line at the left edge, near the divide from pink to green. Most of the lines are very straight verticals and horizontals, and they seem to have been drawn with a ruler. A few lines are at various angles, and there are two subtle curves, which also seem to have been drawn with a tool. The colors have been painted with very thin paint, and in various hues of one color per block, so the surface is not even, but modulated within the sometimes W-directional loose brushstrokes. The previous layers of color show through the top color as if it was tissue paper. This thin paint layering within straight rectangles – some edged with straight but uneven charcoal lines – continues throughout the painting. Sometimes color blocks are broken up with lines, and some of these lines have been painted over so they are seen only faintly, as pentimenti. Touching the large blue rectangle on three sides are pale pink rectangles of a slightly lighter value, and more long and narrow than the blue, Above the pink are rectangles of varied heights and widths. The top one inch stripe is a pale red, then below the red is a thicker stripe of orange, a half inch thin stripe of darker blue, a pale repeat of the previous orange, blue-green painted very thinly, green over yellow, and that yellow continued, the same blue as the square below, then a dusky pink, and pink, and… Were you able to guess or envision the painting I’m describing? Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park 116 Since I’m just getting started with the description, I think you can see how a thorough job of this process would take a long time, but result in some keen observations and insights about the patterns and structures within the painting without breaking a sweat. Observation becomes an exploration with rewarding surprises and pleasures along the way. The viewers experience a sustaining curiosity that many feel as centering as meditation. For the artist, there is often an enjoyable sensation of having their work be seen, and this can be deeply satisfying to a soul. After a session of simple observations – description without judgement – everyone is glowing. We do this exercise for as long as we can. Sometimes a brief few minutes, sometimes up to two hours. The more you look, the more there is to see. This description gives us the foundation for the next steps, which are interpretation of what the artist is trying to do with the piece, then judgement of how the artist could do it more. After the foundation of observation is laid, the following steps are easy, graceful, insightful, and cause no anxiety or pain. In these classes, I introduce this description and analysis process by saying “describe this painting as if you were describing it to a blind person.” This brought League student and Seattle Art Museum Educator Lauren Kent to tell me about the SAM’s art tours for the blind. Art Beyond Sight Tours Art Beyond Sight is a program at the Seattle Art museum. This program provides monthly tours of the museum’s collection to visitors with low or no vision. The docent descriptions are similar to the process we do in critiques. The docent has studied the artwork prior to the tour, and is ready to verbally articulate every last detail to the guest. At first, this sounded absurd to me, but now that I think about it, it sounds quite beautiful. Thank you to Lauren Kent for telling me about this. I think I’d like to go.