When to give critique
Someone has asked you to critique their work? Wow! That must mean that they think you are talented, intelligent, and all around wonderful. Good on you!
But hold on! As flattering as it is, don't automatically say yes. The person asking you for critique is someone actively looking to improve their work. They may be committed to practicing to improve in the problem areas that you point out. If you say yes and then can't think of anything useful to say, so you just talk randomly to try and have something to say, you could send them on a wild goose chase of wasted practice. Worse, you might get negative, and create an even bigger waste by discouraging this studious soul.
Only agree to offer a critique if you are ready to accept the responsibility of saying something useful. If you can't think of something useful to say, just excuse yourself.
Another important rule of thumb on when to offer critique: Don't offer critique if it hasn't been specifically asked for. Yes, the artist may be doing absolutely everything wrong and you know the perfect way to fix it, but if they aren't mentally prepared to accept critique, all you will do is surprise and anger them. The harder you try to get them to see your way of thinking, the more closed off, defensive, and incapable of hearing your advice the unwilling recipient will become. I know it's hard to watch other people blunder around, but don't waste your pearls of wisdom. There are plenty of people in the world who do want your help.
What makes critique useful
As we discussed last week, useful critique is:
Let's examine each of these in greater depth.
Saying "I love it!" or "I hate it!" doesn't give an artist much to go on. Find specific areas of the images that demonstrate either good or bad artistic habits that they have, and point those out.
Even if you have a specific problem in mind, simply saying "You don't use a wide range of values" may not mean anything to the artist you're speaking to. Perhaps the reason that they don't use a wide range of values is that they have not yet encountered this concept in their studies. Instead, try saying something like, "It looks like the light source in this image is coming from the right, but your pencil values are the same on the left and right side of the face." There! Now you have identified a specific problem, and a specific example of where it appears so the student can orient themselves to what you mean.
Once you've identified a specific issue, you're going to want to offer some specific advice about how to go about fixing the problem. Sometimes, the issue will be too big to cover in just one response. In that case, offer a starting point.
It might be specific to the image, "Try adding highlights to the right side, and deep shadows to the left side of the face."
Or it might be about a general skill, "During your next practice session, set up a desk lamp and point it directly at some objects, and really spend some time observing and drawing highlights and shadows. This will help you get a feel for how light interacts with objects, and help build your confidence to use the darkest values that your pencil can produce."
When I say that critique is positive, I don't mean that it is all praise. Sometimes it includes praise, as it can be helpful for an artist to know what they are doing right or where they are showing improvement, so they can keep doing what works. But a critique that contains no praise at all can still be positive -- it just needs to assume that the artist is capable of learning and improving and be given with the intention of helping, rather than attacking the person behind the art.
The overarching theme that runs through all of these requirements is respect. No matter how green the artist you are critiquing is, no matter how many mistakes, they are doing a ballsy thing by putting their work out there, and taking a major step toward improvement. Give that the respect it deserves and make a genuine attempt to help.
Now that you know how to give useful critique, I hope we'll see you offering your knowledge in our critique forums!