How to Judge Art: The Habits of Mind

How to Judge Art: The Habits of Mind

“One aspect of appellate judging is we have to give reasons for all of our decisions and when you sit down and try to write it out, sometimes you find that your first judgment wasn’t the right one!” – Ruth Bader Ginsburg

I should start by saying that none of us is truly qualified to judge the creative work of another person, beyond the judgement that they, themselves, can place upon their own work. In other words, you are the only judge of your work that really matter.

But, with an understanding of the creative process that went into a piece, the amount of time and level of mastery of the skills used to create the work, as well as the dedication and passion involved, we can often gain a much clearer perspective of the purpose of the work and the intent of the artist. 

Sometimes, there is no point or the piece was created by someone with very little skill. And that’s when our judgement of the work is cast aside by the emotion the piece draws from us and whether we simply like the feeling it gives us or dislike it because it turns us off.

But, ask yourself…

Have you ever looked at someone else’s artwork and thought to yourself, “Wow, that is just awful?”

Maybe it was at a friend’s house, at a museum or gallery, or even on social media? But, wherever it was – there was just something the artwork that you didn’t like – not at all!

Maybe it was the colors? Maybe it was the subject matter? Or maybe it was the skill level of the artist who created it.

I know it’s happened to me, more times than I can remember.

But, in contrast, have you ever looked at someone else’s artwork and thought, “Wow, that is just awesome!”

So much so, that you took a picture of it, saved it to your computer, or maybe even tried to recreate it, yourself! Again, was it the colors? The subject matter? Or, maybe it was the skill that went into it.

And for me, I can’t remember how many times this has happened, too. 

Artwork has the powerful ability to move us and trigger our emotions.

Sometimes positively and of course, sometimes negatively.

Oddly enough, most of the artwork we see, on a regular basis, actually has no affect on us at all! That’s right – this kind of artwork offers nothing to stir our emotions or leave a lasting impression on us.

We usually see this kind of artwork on social media, where we scroll right past it, onto the next one. Or we see it in a museum or gallery and walk right on by it, without giving it a second thought. It’s the new song we hear and immediately change it before it has a chance to develop.

So, what could be so uninteresting about this work that it didn’t even measure up to our lowest standard? Was it the colors? The subject matter? Or again, maybe it was the skill of the artist?

These are the three typical reactions we have when we experience new art, music, fashion or ever performance art.

When we’re ATTRACTED, we’re drawn to a piece. When we’re REPELLED, we withdraw from it. And when it does absolutely nothing for us, we take a PASSIVE DISINTEREST in it and usually along past it.

For me, whenever I see new art, I can usually gauge how much I like a piece by how much I actually dislike it.

Let me explain…

What I’ve found throughout my life, is that the majority of art that I like when I first see it, is usually because it connects with me on some level which I can relate. Again, the colors, subject matter, or skill put into it.

Even more, I’ve found that the majority of art that I don’t like forces me to think harder and examine it more deeply to try and find out why it turns me off or makes me want to dismiss it.

Judging artwork can be done looking at the basic fundamentals and principles of art. Shape & form, Color & Value, Perspective & Composition, and Anatomy, for example.

Most of us look at a drawing or painting and measure how much we like it by simply “how good it is.” When the basic fundamentals do not stand out as being flawed or disturbing, then we usually judge the art as good.

However, when those basics begin to abstract, obfuscate, or look incorrect, that’s when our eye picks up on it, right away. Whether consciously or subconsciously, once our eye picks up on flaws or something disturbing or distracting, it’s difficult to let it go as our opinion of the piece forms and our judgement of it stands firm.

This is how most of us judge the artwork we see, based on initial impression and how much our brain can make sense of what we’re seeing – and yeah, sometimes it may take a few minutes to click.

For me, I tend to look at things like the confidence in the work – the lighting, brush strokes and line work; whether it’s a unique subject that makes me think or if it’s cliché and done a thousand times before.

This is what I respond to and in many cases, I’ve come back to a piece that I didn’t like, initially, only to find that there’s something there worth appreciating, that I may have missed before.

In particular, I think of the 1992 painting by Peter Halley called “Kirk.”

I first saw this painting shortly after it was created when I was an art student, years ago.

It’s a large, acrylic and day-glow painting that reflects the style of the Bauhaus movement of the 1930s and the linear abstract work of Piet Mondrian and Theo Van Doesburg.

However, it was not nearly as inventive or interesting.

When I first saw it, I though it was kind of boring and easy. Yellow bars on top of gray fields. I watched my contemporaries at school doing work that, to me, was far more impressive and engaging. 

I couldn’t understand how “Kirk” qualified to be in museum exhibition and I walked away from it, scratching my head.

But, as I toured the rest of the exhibit, my mind kept going back to the painting. I kept asking myself, “What was I missing?” It bothered me! 

So, I went back to give it another look… and I stood there, staring at it, to see what I missed for nearly 30 minutes!

And after looking at it for so long, my mind went into that meditative state where I wasn’t really looking at it anymore. I tuned out the sounds around me, could sense my heart beating, and let the painting sort of wash over me. And that’s when it happened.

Suddenly, as I was gazing into the center of the painting – in the middle of the yellow bars, I began to notice an incredible optical effect that hit me like a rogue wave! 

The most amazing haze of purple began to appear around the day-glow yellow bars and the more I looked at it, the more intense the purple became!

It was wonderful! I would even suggest pausing the video right here, and trying it yourself – just stop, stare into the center of the painting, and let the effect happen in your eyes.

So, why did this happen? 

Once I caught onto what was going on, I realized it was basic color theory! An optical effect I first read about when I studied the work of Johannes Itten. Now, if you know about this, pardon my explanation.

For those who don’t know, the effect happens when we place a primary color on top of a neutral field – our eyes take in the light information which is limited to just one primary color: Yellow 

Our brain tries to fill in the missing information, the other two primaries – red and blue – by assigning them to the neutral field around the yellow. Red and yellow, together, create the purple haze.

Except, it’s a really intense version of purple that is created only in our brain – it’s not really there and to me – that’s really, really cool!

That painting has become one of my personal favorites, even though I still feel much the same way about the rest of the artist’s work. 

The artistic epiphany I had with this painting made me realize I should never judge a work of art on first glance without knowing more information about it – like, what went into it, the history behind it, and what was it that either attracted me to it, repelled me from it, or made me take no interest in it all.

Because, frankly, who am I to stand here and judge someone else’s creativity or work of art?

And that’s what this discussion is all about. How we judge artwork – both other people’s and our own –  and how to properly and intelligently develop an informed, educated opinion of our experience when looking at.

In the court of law, a judge relies on his or her years of education and experience to be able to assess a case. Along with that knowledge, though, a judge must also rely on personal intuition to form their opinions.

Funny, we’re taught early on not to “judge” other people, yet our legal system is based solely on judging people. In my opinion, the same can be said for art, movies, music, or any of the creative fields.

When we hear a new song for the first time, we immediately form an opinion based on whether it appeals to us or not. When we see a new movie or art exhibit, we’re easy to come away expressing our opinion on what we saw.

It’s perfectly normal and what is known as our “Subjective Perspective.” It’s how we measure the song or art based on our reactive emotions.

How many times have you said, “I hate that song because they put too many effects on the singer’s voice!” or “I love that movie because the special effects were unbelievable!”

Subjective Perspective is how we personally relate to an experience, event, person or thing.

Now, when we have to rely on the absence of reactive emotions, it’s known as “Objective Perspective.” This can be more credible because it’s based on facts, not feelings.

Saying a song is terrible because the instruments were completely out of tune, or that a movie was great because it was based on a true story that kept true to the actual events can usually have more weight than just saying, “I thought that movie was dumb.”

And like an experienced courtroom judge, it’s wise to apply both subjective AND objective perspectives in presenting a well-informed opinion on something.

But, what exactly are the facts involved when assessing artwork?

I mean, how do you look at a drawing or woven quilt and develop a concrete evaluation?

When I was young, the grades for art were either Pass or Fail, which bothered me because I took art seriously. Other kids would do the bare minimum and get the same grade as me. The only time someone failed was if they just didn’t show up!

These days, evaluating students is much different, especially in art.

Teachers must evaluate student work based on specific criteria to provide a justified grade.

When I taught at the college level, I used a list of SUBJECTIVE criteria to grade students by, like In-class work, Home-assignments, Participation, Conceptual Understanding, and Final Projects.

I only failed one student in my years of college teaching, and only because they didn’t do the work.

At the high school level, evaluating student work requires clear objective criteria combined with an informed subjected perspective. There’s no more Pass or Fail and  parents, students, and administrators need a concrete evaluation that makes sense and clearly shows work ethic, development, and progress.

This is where we used a set of criteria called, The Habits of Mind.

This method of evaluation is based on Teaching, Cultivating, Observing, and Assessing students within the learning environment.

The original Habits of Mind were 16 life-related, problem solving skills developed by authors, Bena Kallick and Arthur Costa.

In the classroom, they can be refined to 9 specific habits, broken down into percentages and along with a final grade, allow teachers to evaluate student artwork accurately and fairly.

What’s even better, is that we can also apply these same habits in evaluating our OWN artwork, as well as the work of others with a more informed understanding of their process.

So, what are these “Habits of Mind?”

Well, in this context, a HABIT is a pattern of intellectual behavior that can lead to a productive action.

Understanding these behaviors and the actions they may produce help us understand an artist’s creative process, while also being able to apply both our Subjective and Objective perspectives.

These “The Habits of Mind” can help track progress, keep students on-task and focused, measure their abilities to see skill improvement, and help assess their involvement and intent throughout each phase of a project. 

Again, these Habits of Mind can be applied to our own creative process, as well.

The following “habits” are the criteria I used when teaching at the high school level. And like I said, these can be used in assessing student work, but can also be a valuable tool in considering the work of other artists, as well as ourselves, to have a better, clearer insight as to what went into the work.

So when we say, “Wow, that painting is just awful,” perhaps applying these Habits of Mind can help us rethink that subjective perspective and get us to look at the piece more objectively, with an open mind to understanding what we’re really looking at – not just a picture on a wall or a song on the radio.

Let’s discuss these Habits of Mind and how they can help us when evaluating artwork – both our OWN work and the work of other artists. The first is habit is:

1. Persistence (10%): 

This deals with the amount of time, energy, and focus put into our work.

It’s about how we stand firm and forge through challenges, despite all factors. In most creative projects, a point comes when we feel overwhelmed or that we’re “out of our depth.” Being able to see our way through that point and figure out how to make the project work is “persistence.” This accounts for 10% of a grade and is evident in any piece of work where it’s clear there were challenges.

2. Experimentation (10%): 

This is how we move through the different conceptual options in approaching a project. It’s how we explore different materials, mediums, and techniques in how we’re going to execute the project, without limiting ourselves and seeing all opportunities as available to us.

Experimentation also accounts for 10% of a grade and the result is evident in a piece in how fluid the piece looks, especially among other pieces in a collection.

3. Purpose (—): 

This is the realization that we’re going into a project for a specific reason – not just because we have to or we’re bored. Having purpose is to have intent to satisfy a goal or directive, whether in a class, for a client, or just for ourselves. Purpose is a subjective perspective, so it isn’t factored as a percentage; it can, however, help influence other HABITS.

4. Planning (10%): 

This relies on how capable we are to plan out a project and having a clear scope of how it will unfold, before we even start. I’ve had other discussions on the importance of planning, like The Importance of Planning a Color Palette and The Power of Pre-Sketching. I’ll put links to those videos down below, if you’d like to check them out.

For me, Planning can actually be the most vital step in any project, from Fashion and Decorating, to Illustration and Design. Having a complete plan will not only save time in all areas, but will open the door for more confidence and a more intelligent approach to a project. We’re all tempted to just grab our materials and tools, and just get right to work. But, without a good plan in place – from conceptual studies, swatches, or a written outline of expectations, a project can easily drift off course or fall apart, very quickly. And while Planning accounts for 10% of a grade, it’s usually evident in a final piece that is tightly cohesive to a collection, or extremely well executed.

5. Expression (10%): 

The ability to develop well-formed conceptual ideas and communicate them, whether to a teacher, our peers, or even to ourselves, is essential in working through road blocks or solutions that may lead to problems, later.

Communication skills are vital for most creative people. Being able to express ideas AND be open to the ideas of others is important to the development of a project. I’ve worked with students and colleagues who sometimes had difficulty expressing their ideas. Then, when left alone to develop their projects, would run into problems they weren’t able to work out. The result was often a project that was unrealized, that didn’t follow the original plan, or was weak in its execution. 10% of a grade goes to Expression, which can be seen in a project that communicates clearly and effectively.

6. Reflection (10%): 

Reflection is the element of introspection – looking soulfully inward – that we exhibit through the duration of our projects. A brutally honest self-evaluation of critical feedback we share with ourselves to recognize potential flaws, shortcomings, and even successes in our work. It’s also the ability to take critical feedback – from our teachers, peers, and contemporaries – and sort through to find gems of truth to help improve our process and our work. Again, it’s 10% of a student’s grade, but shows in the time and consideration we put into our work.

7. Craft (10%): 

Craft is simply the way we execute our projects effectively, on-task, and with our own abilities. Most students learn from copying the successful work that inspires them. Whether its basic woodworking projects, creating fun crafts, or drawing intricate Zentangles.

For me, I copied everything from comic books to catalogs, finding everything to be a worthwhile resource. But, nowadays, unfortunately, the internet allows easy access to so many images, that many times people think it’s okay to just copy someone else’s work and call it their own.

There’s a big difference in learning a craft or skill by practicing, and just replicating what someone else has done and

putting our name on it. So, 10% of a student’s grade is in their craft. Yet, when we go to a gallery or museum, or even look through a magazine, we can see how important CRAFT is to a piece by how well the artist utilized materials, executed their project, and whether the piece retains a unique sense of style that is different from anyone else.

8. Observation (10%): 

Much like Reflection, OBSERVATION is one of the hands-off HABITS that is more concerned with our intense examination of our work and process, AND those around us, making constant mental notes which we apply toward our our work. One thing I teach almost every student is to step back about 10 feet from their work in progress and look at it. Then, to turn it upside down and look at it some more. To observe our work surroundings and see where we are getting lazy, need improvement, or taking short cuts. Observation isn’t as critical as REFLECTION. It’s based more on the evidence that occurs DURING the creative process.

In my professional career, I have to literally walk away from my desk or computer, go get something to eat, wash up in the restroom, or even go home and sleep on a project. This allows me to break the connection I have with a project, look at things around me that are completely different, and then come back to my project with “fresh eyes.” While it’s not something noticeable in our artwork, 10% of a student’s grade is earned from their observation which I evaluate by observing them, myself.

9. Maintenance (10%): 

For me, MAINTENANCE is a big part of my own work. It’s the way we treat our workspace, materials and tools, and it’s the attitude in how we prepare for a project AND the clean up, afterwards. I have a hard time working if my space is disorganized. Even on my computer, if I have too many files on the desktop, I usually put them all away before starting a new project to make sure I don’t overwrite anything.

Once I get started on a project, that’s when things get messy – and that’s normal. Brushes, paints, pens, inks, devices, cables – they all litter my space. But, a personal habit I developed many years ago was to maintain my space and keep my tools in excellent shape. Materials and tools cost too much money to be left out, abused, or damaged. For a student, this affects their grade. Maintenance accounts for another 10%. For a professional or a hobbyist, it can affect the production or quality of their work, or even the attitude of potential clients. 

Many artists prefer a space that’s messy and cluttered with tools and materials – and that’s how they like to work.But in assessing a student’s work, that clutter and messy attitude can often come out in their work.

And lastly…

10. The Final Project (20%):

The final project is worth 20% of a student’s grade and is the culmination of ALL the habits, applied together and exhibited in a final presentation, performance, or piece.

A final project doesn’t fully exhibit ALL the aspects that went into a work, much like a car doesn’t exhibit all the individual components under the hood;  A final project reveals everything that went into it AND if there’s a deficiency – it’ll show.

In my experience grading students, there have been plenty of high grades, but no one has every received 100%. Because in every evaluation, there’s always been something that needed improvement, attention, or some adjustment. 

Nowadays, when I visit a show or a museum, I try to use these Habits of Mind when looking at a piece of art or hearing new music.

  • I think about how persistent the artist was in coming up with the initial ideas and working through them.
  • I consider the experimentation they did to see what materials or techniques they could’ve used.
  • I look for the purpose of the piece, to see what message it holds, function it has, or emotion it tries to evoke.
  • I question the planning that went into it and whether it looks rushed or well-thought out.
  • I ask myself whether the piece expresses the artist’s views, ideas, or thoughts clearly or are the obscured.
  • And often, I’ll step away from the work and reflect on how my experience with it was, good or bad.
  • I regard the craft that went into the piece, seeing what confidence there was in each line, phrase, or stroke.
  • I observe how the piece looks in its environment, as well as within a body of work – and if it makes sense.
  • And I examine the work to see how well maintained it is, whether it’s defective, not well-made, or cared for.

Like I said, I can apply these Habits of Mind to my own work, seeing how well I adhered to each of them throughout my own projects. 

And when I do, I’m able to go from looking at my work with a Subjective Perspective to a more Objective Perspective and make adjustments where I need to. Of course, it doesn’t always work and often I’ll see areas that are flawed or need improvement after the piece has been finished or published. Sometimes, I kick myself because while no one else may notice it, I notice it.

And that’s what this is really all about – being able to create work, understand the purpose behind it, and give ourselves a fair and honest evaluation to help us improve and become better at what we love to do.

Also, it’s important to remember that while using the Habits of Mind to better evaluate artwork to understand an artist’s process, it is by no means a way to judge the work of other artists or to hinder the creative spirit from being expressed.

To me, I would much rather see an untrained expressive work of art that’s all over the place, than an over-thought, over-produced body of work that draws no emotion or inspiration, no matter how good it looks.

I hope you enjoyed this discussion and it was meaningful to you.

Thank you so much for reading and I look forward to bringing more content like this in the future. As always, I’m grateful for your time – thank you again and God bless!

~ Mark