Critical Looking

Educators seem to agree that critical thinking skills are extremely important. Fantastic! So how do we teach it? Explicitly, I say!

Pinhole Photograph by Sharlene Abraham, art teacher
Pinhole Photograph by Sharlene Abraham, art teacher

I will say the same about creativity. We do not get credit for teaching creativity just by having students learn about a creative field like art. We actually have to teach students HOW to be creative. (If you believe creativity can’t be taught, or that it is too subjective to teach and assess, I respectfully request that you consider leaving the profession.)

So let’s look at one tiny little way to teach critical thinking – Critical Looking.

What are WAYS an artist can LOOK at a work in progress?

Whether creating an expressive artwork or designing a piece of furniture, an artist/ maker/ designer needs to be able to look critically at the work to evaluate and to make decisions for improvement and completion. This activity is made more difficult by the nature of artmaking because, so often, the artist is so close to the artwork — physically, mentally and emotionally — that it is hard for them to see the flaws that need to be addressed.

Fortunately, there are many simple and specific ways to help art students take a different kind of look at their artwork as they practice critical looking. Some approaches are very simple and old-school, and others take advantage of readily available technology.

Step Away from the Artwork
Perhaps the simplest approach is to step back and view the artwork from a distance, the greater the distance the better. View it from the opposite side of the room.

Upside Down
Even while sitting at the easel, an artist can flip the artwork upside down. This may not be possible with all artworks — consider sculpture for example — but we can use technology to help do the same for these (see below).

Mirror Image
If you have a large mirror in your classroom, a similar effect can be gained by having the student hold their artwork to the mirror and looking at it this way. The reversal of the image can help them see what they didn’t before.

Students can get a different look at their artwork just by taking a quick digital photo and viewing that on a small screen (on their phone) or as a thumbnail on a computer screen. Seeing the whole composition very small changes their perspective of the whole.

Image Editing Software
Using Adobe Photoshop or other digital imaging software, we can quickly manipulate a digital image in a variety of ways to get different perspectives for critical looking. A photo of an artwork can easily be flipped upside-down, and other effective adjustments include looking at a negative of the image, evaluating contrast by viewing a color artwork in gray scale, or flip horizontally to duplicate the Mirror Image effect described above.

There is nothing complicated about any of these approaches. They are just ways of looking. In fact, many of us probably have our students use some of these on a regular basis, but I want to make an important distinction here:

There is a big difference between a teacher telling an art student to go look at their artwork in the mirror, and an art student deciding to go look at their artwork in a mirror.

We need to teach our students a number of approaches for critical looking so they develop a set of tools they can choose from in the creative  process. As students practice these approaches, even if in prescribed ways at first, and reflect on their own thinking, they will develop the ability to select approaches that work for them and be able to transfer these skills to other activities outside of artmaking.

Ah! Meta-cognition and transfer, that’s what education is about!

2 thoughts on “Critical Looking”

  1. I think critical thinking is very important in a creative process: as you said, we need to step back and to learn how to judge our own creative artwork. It is important to look at it from another point of view. Thanks for the wonderfully inspuring post! 🙂

  2. It took a while to teach the kids to use thumbnail sketches to compose a design. I find cutting paper (drawing with scissors) and collage a good way to introduce abstract design and composition. And yes, most people don’t understand the difference between art and craft, even the adults! It’s frustrating at times…

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