Analyzing a Painting

First become an OBSERVER.
"Never overlook the obvious"
" Don't assume that WHAT you think is WRONG."
"Justifying what you think is critical to your opinions."

*Look at the painting, top to bottom, side to side. Make notes of any responses or emotional cues.
*Note color and light, light source, value, shade and shadow.
*What type or school are you seeing, the period, materials, techniques, or thick or thin paint.
*Look at the objects, the things. They may be the content, focal point, subject matter, the story. Are things grouped together, over lapped or linear. Make a note if something seems to mean something to you, stirs a feeling or emotion. Then if this should change make note of that always explaining why.
*Make note of composition. Is it rule of thirds or rule of odds, over all composition or the Golden Triangle?
Go now to the Elements and Principles of Art and Design. Identify line, shape, color, form, value texture,pattern and space. Describe their characteristics and qualities. For instance are shapes organic or geometric or neither? Is color intense, does it have a scheme, is earth color warm or cool, can you feel it?Is there space in the painting and what is it doing? separating creating distance, is there a reason for the space emotionally? Van Gogh's,"Crows in a Wheat Field" some are close some way above. Does this stand for his detachment from the world or just the way birds command space?
*By doing this you are breaking the painting into small parts that should or could be inspected and then understood. Now you start asking how was this done? what was the purpose if any? Did Van Gogh just paint flowers or was there a reason? A field of blue Iris's and one white one appears. Does this suggest anything? Which flower is Van Gogh? What story is he telling or which story do we read?


  • 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, so these should be defined with in the context that you see them.

  • The Principles of Design will help move you through the painting leading you to the focal point or guiding you to the emphasis of the painting. What is contrasted, why?


*Is there a rhythm to the painting, a sense of movement? How is symmetry and balanced used? As just balance in the composition or is the piece asymmetrical? How much variety or contrast does the artist use? Or is there any as in Minimalism? 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.


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  • Make a list for each item. If you are comparing two paintings start with three columns. One for comparisons, one for contrasting and then I like a middle column for those things that fit in each painting but do not really have a compare or a contrasting element.

  • Be as descriptive as you can be. Be objective, nonpartisan, detached, unemotional, take no sides and take no prisoners. Do not get personal. Forget whether you like or dislike the painting. Just observe it without being judgmental. Keep your thoughts positive. Being negative never yields good results. The painting will stop talking to you. "Really"!

  • Thumbnails can be extremely helpful in finding elements or principles like contrast. A simple positive /negative thumbnail can point out space, the 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?

  • Starting with stating the obvious can clarify the painting especially if there is action. It is sort of a lining up of who's who and who is doing what. It can also explain what the focal point and subject matter are. If Every picture tells a story and every picture is worth a 1000 words then tell the story and the best way is to state the obvious.

  • Ask yourself, What do I now know? What can I infer. I have X, Y, and Z. What do they tell me? Coming from everything begins with a question start finding your answers. 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. Any port in a storm right?

*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. Whats 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.


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  • We should discuss fear. It is a factor that creeps up on us and stifles understanding and learning. It is in some cases a reason for not understanding. This was the reaction to Surrealism and Cubism, Abstract Expressionism and most new art ever. No one understood the work so it was dismissed. Imagine dismissing Monet's work. There needs to be some education, some learning curve for new work. The game has changed a lot now with social media etc.

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*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?

*So like any art, you ask the same questions, What Am I looking at, Is there a content or subject matter? What is the paint doing, the lines, are there shapes, forms, space, scale? Is there anything you can recognize? and finally does it do anything for you emotionally. Does it help you see the world better? Has it enlightened you?

I admit openly that there is a lot of work I just do not like.

It is not that I do not understand it, but mostly the work is uninviting. It doesn't grab me and frankly there is so much stuff out there, if it does speak to me when I first see it, I don't speak back. There has to be dialogue and some one has to make the first step, the first hello. Shock art, the flavor of the month, the current rave usually does not want to talk to me. What is a pictures purpose? Does it give me joy?

Picasso's "Weeping Women" is a case in point. I tried to like Picasso. I mean "He was Picasso" and I understood Cubism. I just didn't like it. It was labored looking and had no emotional content. It did not touch me or TALK to me. Then, I was looking at a print of "Guernica" in an empty class room. It was quite and the painting spoke to me. I understood. Picasso had a reason to be political, to say something, to have an opinion, an emotion. He had crossed a line and I had followed. I was ready to understand and I did. The "Weeping Women" then became some of the most powerful paintings I know.
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