Analyzing a Painting
How do we analyze a work of art?
Where do you start?
The following should help you.

First, become an OBSERVER. (observe and report)
"Never overlook the obvious" (take note of all you can see)
" Don't assume that WHAT you think is WRONG."
"Justifying what you think is critical to having your opinions taken seriously.
Now,
*Observing is - Looking at the painting, top to bottom, side to side. Make notes of any responses or emotional cues. What does the artist want me to notice? Wheres the Focal Point or what is the artist trying to say? (Emphasis, Infer, Guess)
*Note color and light, light source, value, shade and shadow, atmosphere. Where is the light coming from, who is it shining on? Who or what is in the shade or shadows? The atmosphere in the painting is moody, hazy, heavy, light? What can that tell you?
*What type or school are you seeing, the period, materials, techniques, or thick or thin paint can tell you about expressiveness as in Van Gogh or what time period it was made and how. Before the 1500's artists material were made by them and much of the painting was done on wood panels.
*Define the objects, the things in the picture. They may be the content, focal point, subject matter, the story, emphasis. Are things grouped together, over lapped or linear. Make a note if something stands out seems to mean something to you, stirs a feeling or emotion or if something is repeated.
*Make note of composition. Is it rule of thirds or rule of odds, over all composition or the Golden Triangle?

*Second, Go to the Elements and Principles of Art and Design. Identify the Elements - line, shape, color, form, value, texture, pattern and space/depth. Describe their characteristics and qualities of each element. For instance, are shapes organic or geometric or neither? Is color intense, is there a color scheme? Is it warm or cool are there earth colors? Can you feel it, the color? Is there a color scheme? Is there space in the painting and what is it doing? What kind of space is it, physical or psychological? Is it separating or creating distance, is there a reason for the space emotionally? List them. If comparing, list them in each picture then compare or contrast them.

van-gogh2-1.jpg
van-gogh2-1.jpg

Try listing the elements in Van Gogh's," Crows Leaving a Wheat Field"
Line, the brush strokes and direction descriptive lines, the roads are line, there is an implied line between sky and earth
Shape, There are no shapes that dominate the picture but the area of sky and field could create a shape, organic or geometric, depending upon point of view, the roads are roughly shaped as arrows
Forms, the clouds become forms, round and growing, reflecting light
Color, color and value are simple, blue and yellow, brown, then white and maybe black. the color seems to be more metaphorical than anything. aside from the fact that it is a realistic color, stormy sky differing color in field showing the wind as the sky does also. Movement and volume
And this is how that is done. the next step is to list the principles. it may help to start with composition. This would help place the focal point should there be one.

ALWAYS BREAK INTO SMALL PARTS UNTIL UNDERSTOOD, then REASSEMBLE INTO A WHOLE.

*By defining Elements and Principles you are breaking the painting into small parts that can be inspected easier and then understood. Now, you start asking how was this done? What was the purpose if any for this painting? (INFER, GUESS)
Did Van Gogh (below), just paint flowers or was there a statement he had to make about himself? This statement could be planned or just be read that way.
We have a field of blue Iris's and one white one appears. Does this suggest anything? (ALONE, OUTSIDE) The use of complements and separation? (OPPOSITES) Could the white Iris be Van Gogh?
are the lines of blue leading us to the white flower? Is the white flower surrounded but not part of the blue and orange flowers? What story is Van Gogh telling or which story do we read? What is our justification.s By inspecting small bits of the art work you are interpreting the work. And when you start to put them back together, the painting's message should be clear. All you did was start by stating the obvious, then you asked some questions and sought some answers.

gogh.irises.jpg
gogh.irises.jpg

  • Color maybe the best clue to emotion. Describe it, bright intense, faded, hazy, pastel? How you read the color may be a major factor in unveiling the mysteries of the painting.
  • Color can be symbolic and value can set a mood or create atmosphere, foggy -spooky, early morning quiet, erie, so these should be defined with in the context that you see them.
  • The Principles of Design, focal point ,emphasis, contrast, variety, scale size, balance unity and movement will help move you through the painting, will show you the theory the artist used to put the Elements together.
  • Is there a focal point or just an emphasis on something?
  • What is contrasted, why? Is there a variety of things, color objects , concepts? In Van Gogh's painting the background and for ground contrast with the middle ground, the White Iris with the Blue.
andrew_wyeth01ba.jpg
andrew_wyeth01ba.jpg


andrew-wyeth-1351796321_b.jpg
andrew-wyeth-1351796321_b.jpg


  • Is there a rhythm to the painting, a sense of movement? Do you see it fast or slow?
  • How is symmetry or balanced used? Is the piece asymmetrical?
  • Is there a minimalism about the painting, a sameness to everything? Some minimal or tonal painting has minimal color, monochromatic almost, but lots of objects as in the work of George Innes.

Some Principles have Psychological effects. They create a tension and all "good work" needs tension. As balance is calming and peaceful, contrast may not be.

Finally, make a list for each Element and Principle. If you are comparing two paintings start with columns. Do one painting at a time. then maybe, one column for comparisons, one for contrasting each picture. I like a middle column for those things that fit in each painting but do not really have a compare or a contrasting element.

George_Inness_002.jpg
George_Inness_002.jpg

George Innes

George Inness.jpg
George Inness.jpg

George Innes
  • Be as descriptive as you can be.
  • Be objective, nonpartisan, detached, unemotional, take no sides, but take no prisoners.
  • Do not get personal. Forget whether you like or dislike the painting. Just observe trying to keep your thoughts positive. Being negative never yields good results.
  • Thumbnails can be extremely helpful in finding elements or principles. A simple positive /negative thumbnail can point out space, a focal point, value or lack there of. They may also help you get into the mind of the artist. Why, because it is more than likely they started off using thumbnails so?
  • To summarize, ask yourself,
  • What do I now know?
  • What can I infer.
  • I have X, Y, and Z, the small pieces. What do they tell me? What do I know? This is what I know?
  • What is useful is your personal baggage, which is stuff you already know, your history. You share this with the painting. It "will" talk to you if you are receptive.
  • There is no right or wrong, but like any train, you can get off the track. Logic and reason may help.
  • Going formal, or using the Elements and Principles will give you something concrete. Guessing based on these things will also give you some credence.
  • But what about abstract or non- objective or Cubism or Surrealism?
  • There is no difference. What's the first thing you see? What grabs you? A color, a shape, a brush stroke, lots of brush strokes? Is anything recognizable? Subject matter or content might be the paint or act of painting. It may even be something out side the painting or even something inside us. Rothko was like this as he worked towards the sublime. This is where looking at the painting or letting it look at you is very important maybe even mandatory.

Mark-ROTHKO-02.jpg
Mark-ROTHKO-02.jpg


Fear maybe a factor in writing about art.
Do not be afraid, write what you think and be truthful.


220px-Duchamp_Fountaine.jpg
220px-Duchamp_Fountaine.jpg
Marcel DuChamp

*There is shock art, cool art, outsider art, primitive art, fake primitive art, culturally misunderstood art And on it goes. Some work is created just for the act of it. It has no historical significance and if it is just for shock value, after the shock what is left?
hirst1.jpg
hirst1.jpg


  • Sowhen dealing with any art, ask the same questions,
  • Is there a content or subject matter?
  • Does it help you see the world better?
  • Has it enlightened you?



picasso-girl-with-mandolin1.jpg
picasso-girl-with-mandolin1.jpg

Picasso, Girl with Madolin
It is not that I do not understand Cubism, but mostly the work is uninviting to me. Why? It doesn't grab me (Color) and the subjetc matter does not invite me in. ( The subject matter is distorted) There has to be dialogue and some one has to make the first step, as the viewer, this is me. So how do I obtain an invitation. How do I invite myself in to the painting? Simply, I go through the same steps I started with up front. I state the obvious and go from there because basically all art is made with the Elements and Principles. The rest is conjecture, inference and guessing. Then I summarize by trying to make sense of all this new information.
guernica_alexiev.jpg
guernica_alexiev.jpg

Picasso, Guernica

Picasso's, "Weeping Women" and Guernica were an awakening. I tried to like Picasso. I mean "He was Picasso" and I understood Cubism. There are two types analytical and synthetic. I just didn't like it. It said nothing to me. It was labored looking and had no emotional content. It did not touch me or TALK to me on any level.
Then one day, I was looking at a print of "Guernica" in an empty class room. It was quite and the painting began to speak. I understood. I got it. I saw what he was trying to show me. Why because I dropped my guard and was just looking at the painting. I started seeing stuff. Then I decided to look up the painting to see what had been written about it. It seems Picasso had a reason to be political, to say something, to have an opinion, an emotion. Me, I was ready to understand and I did. I looked at the obvious. I looked at the Elements and the Principles. First question was the color, next came the stretched figures then, the history lesson from my research. I then understood "Guernica".
The "Weeping Women" then became some of the most powerful anti war, anti violence paintings I know. Why? for the same reasons that Guernica works for me. Picasso is looking at the moment of sadness. He is not just showing you crying. He is trying to take you inside the tears, inside the reason for the tears. When I understood how he was working and what he was trying to do. I was floored. Look at what I had been missing.
How did this make me look at the world in a different way? Yes like monet and his "Impression Sunrise", I started to look at emotions harder. My own and others had been uncovered.
7d5ad939ef2b1a9d0247314c797d460f.jpg
7d5ad939ef2b1a9d0247314c797d460f.jpg


These are not just weeping women, they are the act of weeping, uncontrollably. They can not stop. This is the act of feeling all the sadness in the world. Everything taken for granite has been realized and the quilt for that and all misgivings, every thing has come home. Weeping is the result.
the_scream3_gallery__463x550,0.jpg
the_scream3_gallery__463x550,0.jpg

pablo-picasso-weeping-woman.jpg
pablo-picasso-weeping-woman.jpg