How to Write an Art Review

Last week I made my case for you to become an arts writer/reviewer. Judging by the comments, a number of subscribers are now on their way to starting their art-writing journeys.

Today I want to give you tips on how to write about other artists’ exhibits.

Let's start with the facts.

“Freshly Squeezed” exhibit at Pirate: Contemporary Art. Work by Matthew Doubek and Samuel Mobley.
Freshly Squeezed exhibition at Pirate: Contemporary Art. Work by Matthew Doubek and Samuel Mobley. In foreground: Krispy Kreme Delivery Guy by Doubek.

Find the Facts

Gather as much information as possible about the exhibit you’ll see before visiting. Look for answers to the following on websites, in press releases, and on social media.

Who? Who is in the exhibit? Who organized the exhibit? Who is the curator?
What? What is the exhibit about (its curatorial thesis or purpose)? What is included in the exhibit? What is the entrance fee? What do you know about the artists and artwork you’ll be seeing?
Where? Where is the venue, including the street address? Where can you park?
When does the exhibit open? When does it close? When is the best time to see it?
Why this exhibit? Why now? Why should your readers care?
How can you get a complimentary pass? How can you secure images to use in your article? How can you get in touch with the curator or artists?

Armed with the facts, you can begin planning your visit.

Plan Your Visit

Call or email the venue to make sure they’ll be open and find out when the best time to come would be. If the person answering the phone doesn’t seem to know much and it's a museum, ask to speak to the education office, curator, or public relations officer.

Some smaller galleries seem to close on a whim. I was recently at a gallery that was partially closed because of video taping. Likewise, you don’t want to look at the work when school tours or sketching sessions are going on in the galleries. You want the space mostly to yourself. You want quiet.

Plan on spending at least an hour in the galleries.

Venues with entrance fees will give legitimate publication journalists a complimentary pass, but you must be established and prove you have a significant following. Contact their press or media office.

Bring a pen, notepad, and voice recorder—depending on how you work best.

I used to travel up to an hour to review an exhibit. It was nice to have the recorder to help me process my ideas on the ride home.

Metro State Gallery - Denver
Art installation at Metro State University Gallery, Denver, Colorado.

Get the Lay of the Land

When you first enter the space, make a cursory walk-through to look at the big picture.

How is it installed? Is it chronological? By artist? By subject? By media?

What’s good about the installation? What strikes you as “off”?

Everything is fair game. You might consider:

  • Label size
  • Font selection
  • Explanatory text
  • Wall color
  • Floor color or pattern (yes! even that)
  • Spacing between the art
  • Sight lines
  • Juxtapositions of individual artworks

How has the curator made sense of the large grouping? Use this information to give your reader a sense of being there.

Select Feature Pieces

What work stands out as worthy of your attention? Select 3 or 4 pieces (depending on the space you have) and spend most of your time with them. Sit your butt down in front of each one for long periods of time. Ask for a stool or chair if you need one.

Write down every detail so you can describe it for your reader.

Don't run through an exhibit with your camera and go home to write. Your digital images can neither replace the experience you have with the art itself nor can it replicate the relationship of the works to one another.

Why do you like them? What makes them strong? How do they relate to one another and the exhibit as a whole?

I write almost exclusively about work that I like because (1) I’d rather spend more time with work that I like and (2) I enjoy the challenge of persuading readers to my line of thinking. Also, in all honesty, I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I don’t write to be critical, but to point out strengths.

Take Photos

Get permission to take photos of groupings of art to help you remember the installation.

For illustrating your article, sculpture or other three-dimensional objects, like benches, add a lot to an installation image. If there is no sculpture, single artworks might be the best choice to use with your article. Use your artist eye to frame an image that will attract more eyeballs.

Ask the venue if they have press images they prefer be used in your feature. Take photos of any labels for artwork you want to properly credit.

Ask the venue for preferred credit lines to go along with the images. Make sure all names are spelled correctly. Double and triple check the facts for accuracy.

Select 1 Thing to Criticize

If you like everything, your readers will get suspicious. More importantly, you need to use these opportunities to hone your eye. To be more discerning. But you don\'t have to be as critical as you might think.

I have been known to harp about lighting, display cases, installation, traffic flow, label text, and label styling. I’ve also knocked the way a show was organized (e.g. the juror was anonymous).

You might find fault with an artist’s technique, matting (boy, don’t get me started on poor matting!), framing, artistic choices and clichés, or craftsmanship. It makes more sense to criticize installation and curatorial choices in a group show and an artist’s individual choices in a solo exhibit.

Pull Your Article Together

Go home and put your thoughts together while they\'re still fresh. You’ll forget your brilliant ideas if you wait until tomorrow. Write What Anne Lamott calls the shitty first draft immediately.

Sit on your draft for 24 hours and then look at it with new eyes. Revise it in 2 or 3 sessions until your deadline approaches. If you’re working without a deadline, make one up.

Edit your review for spelling, grammar, redundancy, and anything that might put the reader to sleep. Be open to suggested changes from an editor. The only way to become a better writer is to get this kind of feedback.

This post was first published on May 2, 2012 and has been expanded and updated with original comments intact.

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26 thoughts on “How to Write an Art Review”

  1. wow wow wow!! is all I can say. I was just going to dig through your site this week to find information on how to write a review and here it is in my mailbox. This is exactly what I needed! How serendipitous!!Thank you!!!

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Robin: Yay! Glad it is helpful. I think if you actually start writing that you might need more info. Let me know what you’re looking for and I will try to oblige.

  2. While I am more an art fan than a sports fan, the hype is there for sports, the kids and families like to go, and it is an outlet they like. I am reminded of my personal trainer who told me that while people go to college for academics, it is the sports that support the school financially. The data for Colorado Front Range community economics says that the arts offer more new and locally circulating dollars than sports, recreation (ski) combined. I write about this often, yet the conundrum remains: why do we see more on sports than on art? Oddly, we have in our news the politics, disasters, weather, and… sports. Wouldn’t it be fun to have the arts news several times a day: “…artist Janet Sellers just made a touchdown with her brush on a new painting that will rock the world….” heheh.

  3. Marion Hancock

    Useful thanks – and Janet I like your idea of arts news several times a day! But arts coverage can be very, very bad at times. There are several arts publications local to me (I won’t name them) in which the worst excesses of ‘artbollocks’ go unchecked. If artists start to write more plainly about art, I think it would help everyone. Artists shouldn’t feel the need to dress up their work or their persona as otherworldly, in my view.

    1. Marion Hancock

      Yes, it’s as if the editors/writers have no concern for the general reader who might pick up their publication. Even as an artist, I quickly switch off when the writing becomes dense and abstract.

  4. Perhaps you could talk about the language of art, or the language used to describe art. How do you speak/write in a way that as many people as possible can relate to? Should you use technical terms? Should you explain them if you do? I have my own approach, but I’m very interested in knowing what others think about this part of writing about art.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Margaret: Yes, I need to do that. In fact, I was going to write a book called “Words for Artists.” I’m still interested in doing that, but I’m not sure how much of a market there is for that.
      I love the book “A Short Guide to Writing About Art” (which isn’t that short) by Sylvan Barnet.
      Yes, use technical terms to educate. Don’t dumb down your text, but know that you will have to explain to an extent.

    2. Thanks for the reply, Alyson – I’ll look for the book you mentioned.
      Given the approach I usually use on my blog, maybe I’ll do a series (or several series) about different terms, with paintings that illustrate them. Then link to them when I use those terms. That’s a project for the future.
      Maybe you should think about writing a book for the interested public on “Words Artists Use”, or “Artspeak for Everyone”?

  5. Describe a couple of pieces as clearly as you can. Pretend you are a detective looking at the evidence rather than a judge considering its meaning. This can allow you to slip past the “recognition of the what you already know” stage and start to discover what is in the work itself. It may also help you to represent the piece with clarity and insight. Use language that is clear and direct. “Artspeak” is often used to mask a lack of original thought. Write for the interested and informed layperson. Allow yourself to talk about where the art takes your own imagination. If all else fails, state the obvious. You may be the only one who sees it.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Excellent advice, Dana. Sounds like you know what you’re talking about.

  6. As an artist who found himself detoured into being an arts editor for many years, I learned that the kind of writing that gets good grades in art history and art theory classes is deathly in the real world. Just saying. (The teachers who gave those good grades probably never took a writing course either.) I won’t expound other than to say that footnotes are a terrible crutch. It’s worth noting that the greatest critics of the 19th century were poets and playwrights. They were probably lousy painters, but they knew how to write. Stay humble and passionate and your art writing will reflect well on you and your subject.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Steven: Absolutely! I don’t write anything like I did in grad school or as a curator. It was a good training ground, however.

  7. I like warm fuzzy reviews (of my own work!) as much as the next artist, but would like something more rigorous, too. Do we have a responsibility to form constructive critiques of each others’ work? Is there such a thing as shaping dialogue and asking hard questions that challenge us in a good way? I am not afraid of someone having an opinion, and I think artists are capable of taking an “outside” (non-artist) perspective if they wish to. We need honest responses to our work. I don’t mean savage critiques either in person or in print – those say more about the critic than they do about the art. Yet I wonder if fear of crossing that line makes us place deep inquiry off limits. Would love to see any response to this comment, thanks.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Sue: I agree! Warm fuzzy is boring. So is the “Jackson Pollock was a hack” type of stuff.
      I often criticize non-art stuff in an exhibit: exhibition design, lighting, framing, matting (She should learn how to cut a mat or hire someone to do it for her!), etc. – stuff that gets in the way of appreciating the work.
      What you’re talking about is criticism – not reviewing. I believe it takes lots of practice and training to be a good critic. I commend anyone who wants to try his or her hand at it.

    2. Hello, Sue,
      Your comment really pinpoints a crucial dilemma: how to be honest without being callous. I was recently asked to write a review of a journal on Dada art and writing. Having checked out other reviews of the same journal, they were totally positive. But my genuine response was mixed — including the fact that I’m not completely in the dadaist camp, either as it’s represented historically or in the contemporary world.
      After carefully looking at the artwork and writing in the journal, I was inspired to write about my general feelings and thoughts, and to create images that illustrate my conclusions. Within the framework of a letter to Dada, many details about the journal were included. Although it’s true that I avoided comments on specific artwork that I didn’t like at all, I hope that overall it’s a balanced perspective.
      I’m not at all sure this is what the editor was looking for, and received only general feedback. Nonetheless, I’m very glad to have had this challenging opportunity. Here’s the link:
      Your thoughts will be welcome!
      All best wishes,
      P.S. Alyson’s comment on “review” vs. “criticism” brings up a very interesting distinction that I hadn’t considered before; they’re pretty much jumbled together in my post on Maintenant.

  8. Well we here in Orlando are going to do our best to move forward and will begin to write reviews via a blog that I just set up. There’s nothing there yet but a little photo logo- that’s how new it is. I did come up with a name I like OAR. Orlando Art Review
    There are 4 people interested in writing. We are inspired by your information.
    And you know me – I will of course keep you and all posted via twitter and fb.

  9. Martha Brickett

    Sort of like all art Alyson.
    It starts with an idea, then moves on to a simple outline, then YOUR art takes over and the magic happens. We’re all artists, no matter what the medium. We all start from scratch and whatever the outcome, from cupcakes to a masters thesis, from a tiny haiku ( that only the poet understands!) to a bigger than life sculpture, it all stats with the simple moment of the idea.

  10. John Anderson

    Thank you for this introduction. It is helpful. I agree that writing about things we like is good. I think also there is a distinction between a review and a critical review. A review is primarily a description of the event. Critical comments in this kind of review are general in nature, and less technical than in a critical review. A critical review, on the other hand, is making the claim of the reviewer to have expertise in evaluating art. Both positive and negative comments in a critical review need to be supported by reasons–not just given as opinions. The critical reviewer needs to demonstrate what his/her judgments are based on. While these remain, strictly speaking, opinions, they need to be opinions supported by expertise and examples. Hopefully, when criticism is offered, it is constructive and helpful to readers, the artist and the gallery . Mean spiritism is not good criticism and is ego based. Just a few thoughts.

  11. A couple of tips from somebody who writes a lot of reviews and likes to include images.
    1) Don’t assume you can take photos in an exhibition. A lot of exhibition organisers ban photography. There’s a lot of work to be done BEFORE you even get to the exhibition if you want to take photos. You do need permission and you can’t assume it.
    2) When you take a photo of an image which you know you will use, also take a photo of the caption. I guarantee you won’t be able to remember them all when you get home! Guess who learned this one the hard way.
    I also write loads of notes for my review in the catelogue while I’m in the exhibition. That way I can annotate the entries for artists whose work has caught my eye. Plus write down the main points for the review.

  12. It’s rather easy to come up with a review when the genre and subject matter is well done, but what do you do when the bulk of the work is mostly crap?
    I don’t want to antagonize the gallery owners because I have cutivated a relationship with them over the years. I also don’t want to write a glowing review of a lot of bad art for my regular readers to peruse. I will lose their confidence.
    Is there a tactful way to handle this situation which, on the local level, is all too prevalent.

    1. Ignore it!
      I don’t comment on bad art except in a very opaque way. The only time I get direct is if it’s just won a big prize and then I reckon the size of the cheque will cushion any pointed comments from me

  13. I have a question: I’m a painter, but I’ve joined a creative writing group in my area this year (Seattle), and have been developing my skills with poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction. I’m a beginning writer, but I feel a strong call to connect my creative writing with my painting practice. All the different types of writing I’ve been doing in conjunction with my art website, artist statement, artist’s blog, etc, are becoming increasingly literary. I even wrote a poem about a Gauguin exhibit I saw recently, then turned it into a kind of experimental reflection on the artists work. I’m hoping content like this will do something to help my visibility as a painter (web crawlers will have more text to latch onto). I also hope playing with this stuff won’t hurt my credibility as a painter. I really want to be a literary as well as a visual artist. Do you feel this is appropriate? Is there a place for a more literary approach to art writing, i.e. ‘belles lettres’ form, where the line between fiction and non-fiction is more blurry?
    Here’s the reflection on Gauguin I wrote btw. I’d love to know what you think!

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Go for it, Michael! Artists who follow their creative paths are almost always rewarded.

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