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How to Analyze a Painting

One doesn't have to be an important person in the art world to comment about a painting. You don't even have to
be an art scholar to make a rather intelligent analysis either. Simply saying, "I like this painting because of its vibrant
colors and creative use of shapes and varied patterns." is already a form of analyzing the painting as you're describing
some of its elements such as colors, shapes, and patterns. This does not, however, mean that you can just blurt out why
a painting is not good. Remember this; because paintings can be very personal items, what you say more often than not
reflects something about you rather than the painting. You see, there¶s nothing difficult about analyzing a painting.
Reading reviews about an artist and his works may be educational and helpful but they should not dictate your personal
perception of an artwork. Just make sure that you keep an open-mind and be receptive of other people's interpretation of
the painting you¶re looking at. Remember that art in itself is a very social and human experience. It affects each and
every one of us in various ways and at many different levels. In general, there are two ways to analyze of an artwork ± the
tangible (what I see) and the intangible (what I feel). We can ask several different kinds of questions about every art work,
some very factual in orientation, some very general.
1.m Basic Facts (full pedigree): We mean by that the artist's name, the medium or material (fresco, tempera on panel, oil
on canvas, etching, drawing, bronze sculpture, etc.), the title (see below), the probable date of the work, its location
now, its condition, and/or provenance. Sometimes this information is known through documentation, the art
historian's best friend, but sometimes the art historian's purpose is to determine a likely artist or date in the absence
of any documentation. In the case of Greek art, for example, where almost no documents exist, a very accurate
chronology of artworks can be worked out nevertheless using the principles of stylistic development and relative
chronology. In fact, paintings were rarely signed before the eighteenth century.
2.m Critical Judgment: This is not really a historical question. Whether we like or dislike a work of art does not in the
least affect its significance to the people who made it. However, the art historian does often ask whether the artwork
succeeded in its intended purpose, which is to judge it on its own terms. Moreover, it is true that art historians tend to
be attracted to works of art, which have stood the test of time, and they are still regarded as "masterpieces," because
we think they can tell us more. In addition, we can admire the way an artwork embodies a particular value system
without admiring that value system. Generally, art historians find that it is fruitless to argue whether, say, Leonardo
was a "greater" painter than Picasso, since they lived at such different times and places. Nevertheless, once we
have tried to do justice to the historical context of a work ± and assuming that we are not missing anything crucial (a
difficult assumption to make--see above on iconography) ± we are justified in asking whether a particular painting
pleases us. Most students of art history find that they more they study, the more they like.
3.m Formal Qualities: Line, color, tactile values, volumes, modeling, proportion, perspective or special construction,
and composition are all ways to talk about the way the artist has conveyed his subject and given his personal
interpretation. If he is a good artist, his choices will always reinforce and give impact to his original point of view.
Artists loath copying; they want to see problems in fresh ways and find new solutions. An analysis of any artwork
just in terms of these formal qualities is called Formal Analysis.
4.m Historical Context: What does this painting tell us about the time (when) and place (where) it was made? Can we
deduce anything about the human values of this civilization? What was important to them? What did it mean to be a
human being? What did they think art ought to be? These are important questions, and art historians believe that
artworks offer unique windows into the past, that is, that they can show us intimate details about life that no other kind
of historical evidence can. Nevertheless, the art historian is a historian, and is interested in the same kinds of
questions that historians are interested in. He simply begins with different kinds of evidence. For example, the
artworks of the seventeenth century can tell us much about the political and religious arguments going on at that time.
5.m Iconography: Iconography is a word art historians have invented to talk about subject matter in artworks. Often the
exact subject of a work will be obscure, or the text it is based on will not have been identified. For example, a dog
may stand for Fidelity, or he may be just a dog, just as "a cigar may be just a cigar.´ These kinds of "hidden
meanings" in paintings were common in the Renaissance, but have largely gone out of fashion, so they must be
recovered ± a kind of detective work ± if we are to do the painting justice.
6.m Interpretation: How do we know if we are "reading" an artwork properly? What do artworks say and how do we get
at the meaning of artworks? A Historical approach would hold that it is desirable and possible to see the artwork
from the point of view of the person who made it and the people in the particular time and place to which it was
directed. This view holds that we must therefore reconstruct the historical, political, social, religious, psychological,
and technological context of the artwork as completely as possible in order to understand what the art "meant".
Unfortunately, such reconstruction is never completely possible, although this method can often keep us from
making horrible mistakes. For example, we can state with fair assurance that Michelangelo's David probably
represented "the defiant will of the city of Florence against its powerful adversaries," and we can infer that it stood
for some kind of ideal human beauty to Michelangelo himself, but we can never really "know" this. Art history aims
to understand art through historical knowledge and history through artistic evidence, but there is a point at which
"true" or exact "meaning" of any artwork must elude us. At that point, we are justified in asking what the work
means to us in interpreting it. Interpretation is an art, and its means is language. There are no right or wrong
interpretations, only poorly expressed or uninteresting ones. Another word for interpretation is "criticism", which is
really the art history of the present. The critic aims to clarify and judge recent artworks for the modern public,
because, unlike some other kinds of history which use persisting events to understand the past, art history uses
artworks, which are presumed to have quality ± that is, they are either good or bad art. Making a judgment about
artistic quality is often the proper job of the historian, who then becomes a critic.
7.m Patronage: This issue is often more important than the name of the artist, especially in the Renaissance. Who
paid for the work, and why? Was the patron a Pope, a King, or a private individual? Is there anything special
about the subject or style of the work, which the patronage might help to explain? How did the patron react to the
finished work?
8.m Physical Location: It is an aspect of patronage. Where was the work originally designed to be displayed? What
conditions of that location might have influenced the design and meaning of the work? What other artworks were
there also? How did the viewer actually approach and see the work? Where was the original light source?
9.m Style: Every work of art has its own style, that is, it is completely different from every other work of art. Every good
artist also has a style, which can be differentiated from that of other artists. In a broader sense, every country, city,
century, or decade has a style. Thus, one can speak of the style of the Florentine Renaissance. The art historian
develops his eye so that he can see these differences. People who have developed this skill (talent) to an
extraordinary degree are called connoisseurs. Any good art historian can look at a painting he has never seen
before and place it exactly as to the time and place it was made. This fact ± that art changes, and that these
changes are recognizable ± is the central mystery of art history, because, after all, why doesn't all art look alike?
10.m Subject Matter: What is happening in the picture? Who are the people in the scene (if it is a narrative)? Stories in
history painting often come from literary texts like the Bible or Greek and Roman Mythology. Try to find the text and
read it carefully. How has the artists interpreted or "staged" the story? What does he include or leave out? What
decisive moment has he chosen? Good artists often seem like the directors of a film or drama, and have a clear
and personal feeling about the meaning of a story, since they are students of human nature. Scrutinize (examine)
the characters in your painting and describe their actions and attitudes. Some recent paintings do not tell stories at
all because they are abstract or non-representational, but remember that subject matter can be anything from a
place to an emotion. Finally, other artworks are often alluded to in painting, because artists look at other art ± both
of the past and the present ± at least as much as they look at "nature".
Some Types of Interpretation
1.m Ekphrasis: the poetical description of the artwork and its story or subject
2.m Hermeneutics: attempts to explain the artwork by understanding the personality of the artist (risky business)
3.m Divination: No interpretation can ever be proved right; the study of art is a humanistic discipline, not a science.
Some Art Terms and Concepts
Style (set theory) formal analysis, form, material, medium, space, perspective, proportion, area, plane, mass, light,
modeling, volume, composition, three-dimensional, two-dimensional, perspective, aerial perspective, taste, judgment,
schema/correction, making/matching, artistic tradition, artistic personality, patron, subject matter, text, story, iconography,
symbols, historical context, chronology, period style, personal style naturalism, realism interpretation, expressive content
balance, equilibrium, symmetrical, asymmetrical outline, flatness picture plane, picture surface linear, painterly color, hue,
value, intensity, complimentary colors harmony, movement, oblique motion architecture, use, site, function, decoration,
firmness, commodity, and delight, structure, use, beauty art, craft, handicraft fine arts ("les beaux arts"), mechanical arts
workshop, studio, circle, atelier, guild treatise, theory, academy avant guard, and canon
How to Read a Textbook
Read Art History at a regular time and place just before and after lectures is best, and read at least twice a week.
Find a quiet corner in the library to read--anywhere you will not be disturbed. Relax for one minute and focus your mind
on the last art history class. Now open the table of contents and review the course up to the present. Memorize the
chapter titles: they are important signposts about the course content. What do they mean? Now skim the new chapter
quickly for key names, dates, and artworks. What countries and centuries are featured? Does the art in the new chapter
look different from previous art? How? Now read the chapter carefully, stopping often to repeat the text in your own
words with book closed. Underline sparingly--only names, special terms or key words. Mark questions to ask me about.
Now review. Look at the illustrations again very closely. Say names aloud. Consider how the new chapter relates to the
previous ones. Write down new shoptalk words. Close the book and try to remember what you read. If you cannot do
this, you have not read the material. It is just that simple. Make this procedure a habit in all your courses.
The "art reading" process is divided into four steps: Description, Analysis, Interpretation, and Judgment.
Step 1: Description
„m What is the name of the artist who created the artwork?
„m What kind of an artwork is it?
„m What is the name of the artwork?
„m When was this artwork created?
„m Name some other major events in history that occurred at the same time this artwork was created.
„m List the literal objects in the painting (trees, people, animals, mountains, rivers, etc.).
„m Consider the significant art elements that are present in this artwork and describe them (LINE, TEXTURE, SHAPE,
COLOR, FORM, VALUE, SPACE, & PATTERN).
Step 2: Analysis
In this step, consider the most significant art principles that were used in the artwork. Describe how the artist used
them to organize the elements (BALANCE, CONTRAST, EMPHASIS, HARMONY, VARIETY, UNITY, GRADATION,
MOVEMENT, RHYTHM, PROPORTION, DEPTH, & COMPOSITION).
Step 3: Interpretation
Based on what you have learned so far about the artwork, what do you think the artist was trying to say?
Why did the artist create this artwork? What do you think it means? What feelings do you have when looking at this
artwork? Do you think there are things in the artwork that represent other things - symbols?
Step 4 ± Judgment
Do you like this artwork? Do you think it is a good artwork? Do you think it is an important artwork? Would you
display this artwork in your home? Is this artwork good enough to be put in a museum?
Justify your opinion: Explain why you feel the way you do about this artwork based on what you have learned about
it.
The Student Art Critic
After going through the process individually or as a group (group response is recommended), each student will write
a four-paragraph critique about the artwork using the information that was recorded.
„m 1st paragraph: Describe the artwork
„m 2nd paragraph: Analyze the artwork
„m 3rd paragraph: Interpret the artwork
„m 4th paragraph: Make a judgment about the artwork and back it up with good information.