How do you know if artwork is good?

I know I am wading into dangerous waters. 

I know, because this has been a debate in the post-modern art world for many decades. Many will say that everything that people produce is "good" because they created it and if they think it is good, then it is.  Instead of focusing on the philosophy aspect of art, I'm going to focus on the aesthetic qualities and help unpack how to look at an art piece. 

This is an example of what an art critique looks like- lots of sitting

This is an example of what an art critique looks like- lots of sitting

What I am NOT going to do is publicly bash other artists or their work. I don't feel like this is a place for that because artwork is personal. When you create something that you feel confident enough to put out there, I feel that it only needs to be critiqued in a small setting; where there is both positive and constructive feedback -- and other artists can support you and provide a community for you. This network and community for artists is HUGE! Just like a chef can be critized by many, it's the voices from her close culinary community that hold the most weight. It's the same with artists.

I don't pretend that my art is the best out there. Because there are MANY other artists who's work is waaaaay stronger than mine. I'm on a life-time journey to produce work and I want and need other artists to push me to make better work.  

What I AM going to talk about it is what I, personally, look for in art: What I think about when I view a piece and what I want others to be encouraged to look for as well. Because, really, how do you look at art?!

Detail of "Lemon and Lime" 

This post could go on FOR DAYS. So I'm just going to focus on a handful of things to emphasize. And it's a lot easier for me to explain (and hopefully for you to understand) if I go through examples. 

1. Analyze what I'm looking at:

Ask yourself what you're looking at. Pattern? Movement? Landscape or City Scene? Does it remind you of an ocean? Of the sky or a child's artwork? Asking yourself these questions helps you understand the piece better and is the first glimpse into what the artist wants you to see and think. 

"Those Blossoms you gave so freely #2" by Bobbi Burgers

I'm throwing a soft ball here. This gorgeous painting by Bobbi Burgers is easily discernible as flowers. But notice that there is almost an "atmosphere-ic" quality about it- like you're floating in clouds and these flowers are cascading towards you. I also really like that there is one red drip on the bottom...why did she do that? 

I think it was because if she didn't the purple color in the top of the page would look "stuck". Like they were trying to escape but couldn't. And I think it highlights the other drips on the bottom. If she didn't let a drip of something other than yellow or green run down, we might not even notice those drips. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself! And this leads me to my second point...

2. Interpret the piece:

What you see in the piece, depends on your interpretation. Abstractions are the hardest pieces to interpret, because you're not looking at a bowl of fruit. You are looking at colors and line and texture. However, some things to think about when looking at abstracts are: Does your eye move around the piece and stay within the border?, Is it "playful" or "serious"? Do you feel like the way color is used is pleasing or do you feel like there 

"Elements #2" by Hans Peterson

Like this piece.

"I could do that piece" you might say. And my response is- go for it! But I can't promise you that you'll be able to. Let's start intrepreting it. Why is it good?

  • See how the bright orange stripe on the right is repeated through the painting?  Your eye naturally moves with it. He does that same thing with the light neutral color. 
  • And orange and blue are compliments (opposite on the color wheel) so they naturally intensify the other. The neutral colors balance out the colors and help your eye "breathe" before they look at another stripe. If it was only orange and blue stripes, your eyes would have to strain in order to continue to look at it. 
  • I would say it's a fun piece and judging by the title, Peterson was focusing on the simple element of a line and how it's defined by other lines or shapes. Which I think he achieved! 
  • This piece also has a lot of texture. There are lots of markings (I think in colored pencil) that make the lines more blurred and less "serious".  

3. Decide if I like it: 

"Merz 410 Something or Other" by Kurt Schwitters

This is a collage done by one of my favorite artists of all time. And I love it. It doesn't have a major focal point. It doesn't show anything that you can necessarily recognize as a certain magazine clipping (although I do like the feather on the left side). But if step away a slightly squint- where do your eyes go? The bits of black make your eye go to one edge of the piece and then back into the piece to the other side. The texture makes sure it doesn't look "flat" and the contrast between color and natural, plan and patterned and straight edge and curved is all balanced out. It looks like it's all connected and the colors are weaving in and out all over the piece. And I just like it. 

Certain art just makes you excited, you know? It's the best part about art. Sometimes you can't always analyze it or interpret it, but you know you just love it. And you love it even if you don't know if it's "good". 

I would encourage you to spend a little time thinking about why you like a piece of art. And the more you are able to articulate why you like something, the more you start to understand your own preferences. And the more you understand your preferences, the easier it will be to see art and interpret if it's good.