Understanding Art

  • Have you ever stood in front of a work of art and wondered, quite frankly, what all the fuss was about? Well, you’re not alone and you need not feel guilty about it.

 

  • There are many aspects to art — many things that appeal to, or repel, those who view it. However, looking at and analyzing art doesn’t have to be frightening task. The first step it to come to terms with your feelings. This can be as simple as deciding, “I like it.” or “I hate it.” By breaking down a work of art we can begin to gain some insight into the reasons why the art was created.

 

How to Look at and Talk About Art

  • Stop, Look and… Look Some More
  • Looking at and analyzing art need not be a frightening task. The first step it to come to terms with your feelings. This can be as simple as deciding, “I like it.” or “I hate it.” By breaking down a work of art we can begin to gain some insight into the reasons why the art was created.

 

  • The following ideas can be used to help you understand and share your feelings toward works of art.
    • * Look at a few paintings and literally talk about what you see. There are no wrong answers here so feel free to say anything.
    • * Discuss the color(s) Ask yourself why the artist might have chosen the colors he/she did. Do they make sense?
    • * Have a look at how the paint was applied and try to determine if a brush was used, or maybe a palette knife, or perhaps even fingers. The texture of the paint will help you to determine this.
    • * Talk about the kinds of lines you see. Are they straight or wavy? What shapes do you see?
    • * Look closely at the work and see if there are any areas you are particularly drawn to. Talk about why that is.
    • * Ask yourself if the painting makes you think of things in motion. Think about how or if the artist is trying to show movement… is this achieved with line or color?
    • * Does the painting look flat or do you feel as though you could ‘walk right in’?
    • * Discuss where you think the artist might have been standing when he/she created the painting. This can give you some clues as to why the work might have been created.
    • * How do you feel when you look at the painting? Talk about it… remember, there are no wrong answers.
    • * Ask yourself why the artist might have chosen the subject he/she painted?
    • * Talk about how the artist might have felt about the subject matter.
    • * Choose a painting that you really, really like and talk with friends about why is it interesting to you. Listen to their opinions and get a dialog going.
    • * There is no rule that says you must love everything you see. If there is a piece of art you really dislike, try to vocalize why or what in particular you dislike about the work. Sometimes you might even find some small aspect that you do enjoy.
    • * Don’t feel discouraged when looking at or talking about art. Remember, the more you look, the more you will see.

 

  • Don’t feel intimidated when looking at or talking about art. Never be afraid to share how you feel, because your opinion is a valuable one.

 

  • Simplify
  • When talking about, here are a few things to keep in mind…

 

  • Purpose: Why was this work of art made? Is it a piece of pottery used to hold oil? Is it a painting intended to tell a biblical story? Is it a building constructed to house a great ruler? Was it created… just because? Trying to answer the question, why was it made, is the first step to understanding or “reading” a work of art.

 

  • Style: How did the artist or crafts-person execute his/her work? Are the figures in the work flat? Do the trees look three-dimensional? What colors were used and why? Looking into the style of a work will help you to better understand the artist’s point of view.

 

  • Iconography: The word iconography comes from the Greek words meaning image and write. Don’t mistake the word to mean images of a religious nature – iconography is simply what the artist is depicting or trying to depict.

 

  • History: When was it made? An image of Christ painted 500 years ago has very different meaning than one painted last year. Knowing the context surrounding a work of art will give you many clues about its existence.

 

  • When is a Tree not a Tree?
  • Sometimes artists throw us a curve ball by incorporating images and items in their art which appear to make no sense… at first. These items are called symbols and learning about symbols in art is very helpful when trying to understand or read paintings, drawings and to a lesser degree, sculpture.

 

  • * Think about what a symbol is. Simply put, a symbol is something that appears in a work of art that represents something else.
  • * Look at some examples of art and see if you can find a potential symbol.
  • * A representational piece might contain people, objects or actions that are actually symbols.
  • * A non-representational piece will more likely contain symbols in the form of line, color or even composition.
  • * Historically, the same symbols or variations of the same symbols are used in art. This is especially true in Religious art.
  • * A cross can represent suffering; The sun can express heat and life; A river is often a symbol of change and the color red gives the feeling of anger or passion.
  • * Now, all objects or colors that appear in a painting or drawing are not necessarily symbols. Sometimes an acorn is just an acorn while other times the small seed of the oak tree is a symbol of potential.
  • * When deciding which elements in a work of art are symbols and which ones are simply as they appear, go with your first instincts… they are usually correct.
  • * Attend art shows and ask the curators or gallery assistants to help you decode symbols in art.
  • * Visit your local library or search the Internet for books and articles about symbols in art.
  • * Make notes of your findings and see if you can apply your knowledge to the creations of your favorite master artists.
  • * Talk about your feelings towards a work of art with friends or family, see if they have the same reactions as you do to certain elements that appear in paintings, drawings and sculptures.
  • * Some contemporary artists make the process of finding symbols difficult because they develop their own set of symbols. In that case, you can ask for interpretation or you can even try decoding the symbols yourself.

 

  • Gut Feelings
  • When analyzing art it is really important to accept the fact your gut feelings can tell you a lot about what you are looking at…

 

  • * If a painting, drawing or sculpture makes you feel angry, frightened or sad, try to figure out why. Generally, when a work of art makes us feel uncomfortable, we don’t always work through those feelings. However, its important to note that in most cases, the artist wanted us to feel that way. Ask yourself why the artist might have wanted to evoke those emotions. Think about what issues arise from those feelings. Remember that confrontation is not an unusual occurrence in art and it is not something to be afraid of.
  • * Allow yourself the option to say, “I really don’t like this work”. Just because a painting shows up in every art history book doesn’t mean you have to adore it.
  • * Make art appreciation a part of your everyday life and discuss different works of art with family and friends.
  • * Have fun and remember that looking at and talking about art doesn’t have to be painful.
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