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How to Understand a Painting

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Uploaded on Nov 19, 2009

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Art is practically a foreign language, and we’re here to be your personal translator for how to understand a painting.

Step 1: Pick a painting
Pick a painting that strikes your fancy, either in your art history book or in the museum.

Step 2: Study for subject and composition
Carefully look at the painting, studying it for subject and composition, or how the elements are arranged.

Step 3: Determine color and tone
Determine the color and tone of the painting.

Tip
Color, tone and brushstrokes are the primary ways an artist will signal mood.

Step 4: Find any common threads
Look for anything that the objects or subjects in the painting have in common.

Step 5: Look for puzzles
Be on the alert for anything logically puzzling about the objects—do they make sense? Are they contradictory?

Step 6: Look for illogical aspects
Extend your alert to the whole painting; is it entirely logical, or, at least, not illogical?

Tip
Paintings that don’t make logical sense are best explained by reading up on that particular artist.

Step 7: Question the location
Ask yourself 'Where in the museum is this painting located?' and 'Where was it supposed to be located before it ended up in a museum?'

Step 8: Find out when it was made
Find out when the painting was created by reading the title card.

Step 9: Memorize and research the artist
Memorize who created it, and find out information about the artist.

Step 10: Make a conclusion
Use all of the details you’ve gathered and try to make a conclusion about the meaning behind the painting.

Step 11: Read the art history book
Read sections of the art history book on specific painters, regions, movements or techniques.

Did You Know?
When asked to explain one of his paintings, Willem de Kooning said, 'I’m not an ornithologist; I’m a bird.'

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