As artists, analyzing and appreciating art can be just as important as making it. Viewing art through a critical lens gives us insights that go deeper than just what's painted on the canvas.
Analyzing art gives us a glimpse of its historical and cultural context as well as the symbolism and emotions the artist seeks to evoke. By better understanding the artist's message, style, and techniques, we learn new ways of expressing ourselves, marking new milestones in our artistic growth.
Learning to analyze art can be enjoyable in itself as it gives us a closer appreciation of the beauty of our world and human expression.
Evaluating an Artist's Expression
Evaluating a piece of art requires a systematic approach if you're to truly appreciate it in its completeness. Follow these steps and learn how you can form a complete and cohesive art analysis of your own.
1. Observe Before You Analyze
Before analyzing artwork, you first need to observe it in its entirety. This lets you take in the artwork as a whole before diving into the nitty-gritty details. Taking time observing an artwork gives context and perspective as well as lets you form an initial impression of the piece's impact.
There are certain factors you need to look for when observing an artwork. These factors include the following:
- Composition - This is how the artist organizes the elements of art according to artistic principles. Look for how the artwork is arranged. Where is its focal point? How does the artist make use of negative and positive space within the piece?
- Color - Color in art is made up of three properties: value, hue, and chroma. Observe the artist's choice of colors. How bright or muted are they? What emotions or feelings do they evoke as you look at them? What are the chosen colors spatial relationship to each other?
- Technique - This is the artist's method of using the medium to finish their artwork. Look for how the artist created the artwork. Does a particular painting style or technique stand out?
- Subject matter - The subject matter is the essence of the artwork. It is what the piece depicts. Does it lean more towards being realistic or abstract? What particular idea or message does it seek to portray?
- Mood - These are the emotions that the artwork elicits in the viewer, either intentionally or otherwise. Identify the emotions that the piece seeks to evoke. Do you feel happiness or sadness? Is it calming or chaotic?
Observing an artwork first, while taking note of the above factors, gives you a better understanding of what you're trying to analyze and will help you develop a more refined evaluation down the line.
2. Determine Subject Matter
As mentioned before, the subject matter is the essence of the artwork but that can mean many things as visuals can be endless in variety. Sometimes art can be straightforward, sometimes abstract and at other times steeped in an iconographic history that is unreadable to those unfamiliar with its symbols.
So when looking at any work we can ask some questions first:
What's the artist trying to express to the world? Is it something familiar like a landscape, still life, or a portrait? Why did the artist arrange the elements like this?
To find the answers, you may have to delve into the context behind the piece. Consider the work of art's context according to the following:
Considering the time period, cultural background, and social issues behind an artwork helps you form an understanding of the factors that influenced the creation of the work. To gain an even deeper appreciation of the piece, you can also consider the artist's background, training, and geographical location, as well as the particular style and techniques they used.
3. Analyze its Composition
Now that you've identified the subject matter, it's time to analyze the artwork's composition.
Composition in art means how the artwork is "put together". The elements of art are the visual tools that an artist can use to pull together a composition. These elements are line, shape, color, value, form, texture, and space.
Working hand-in-hand with the elements of art are the principles of art. These principles are directly related to how the artist uses these elements to create and convey the artist's intent. These principles are balance, emphasis, harmony, movement, pattern, proportion, repetition, rhythm, unity, and variety.
For example, while many artists choose to paint landscapes, one painted by Vincent Van Gogh will look and feel very different from a landscape made by Jan van Goyen.
Once you've isolated the elements, you can start analyzing them according to the principles, such as the following:
- Balance - This is the distribution of visual weight in the art piece. Does it feel stable and harmonious? Or chaotic and sporadic?
- Emphasis - Does something strike the viewer more or does it draw the eye into the work? Does anything ‘pop’ or jump out immediately?
- Harmony - or how the elements of the work relate to each other. For example, if there is a lot of texture or impasto in a work, how do those different textures relate to each other? Are they seemingly random or do they flow into each other? Are they stacked on top of each other or placed neatly side by side? This idea can be applied to color and shape too.
- Movement - A well-composed artwork leads the viewer's eye as they look at the piece. Does the artwork lead your eyes in a specific direction? Does it create a sense of motion or flow?
- Pattern - Are there elements that repeat throughout the entire work or only specific sections of it? Do these feel man-made or naturalistic?
- Proportion - How do the elements relate to each other in terms of size? Is everything about the same size or is it vastly different?
- Repetition - Do visual elements repeat? Are they consistent throughout the work? Are they in a pattern or not?
- Rhythm - How quickly do you feel yourself looking through the piece? Is your eye excited and overwhelmed to go from one element to another? Do you feel the need to slow down and take in the details?
- Unity - is when each different element fits with the overall concept of the work or how those elements relate to the final product rather than each other. So this is similar to harmony, but more about the finished work.
- Variety - How many elements are used in this work? Are they used to make the piece look uniform or is the variety used to break up the piece visually?
Analyzing an art piece's composition, through the above factors, helps you understand the artist's message through how it's constructed.
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4. Interpret the Subject Matter
At this point, you should have already taken in the artwork as a whole, identified what the artist was trying to depict, analyzed how the artist arranged the elements in their depiction, and understood the reasoning and influences behind its creation.
Now it's time to interpret the subject matter. Let's break this up into a few different categories of thought:
Artistic intention - Does the artist have a statement of intent with the piece? If not, are there other things we can draw from to come to conclusions? Are there any other interpretations that already exist and if so what can we learn from them? Do the artist's intentions change over the time it takes to create the work? What about in retrospect after the work has been completed for years?
Audience interpretation - Art by its very nature is intended to be viewed by an audience. If a painting is alone in the woods, does it have the same meaning? Ignore the artist's intention entirely; now what do you think when you look at a work? Do you recognize any icons, symbols, or themes? When you've decided the meaning, how do the elements contribute to that meaning? Are there any contradictions?
Experience instead of Interpretation - Instead of focusing on the intellectual interpretation of art, when you see a work for the first time how does it make you feel? What about the 100th time you see it? If you register an emotion, where does it sit in your body? Does it move around? What about if the piece is in a museum or if you find it online? Does that setting change the way you feel? Are you seeing the art in a set or by itself? Does the size of the work overwhelm you? Or pull you into a sense of calm?
To answer these questions, you'll need to think deeper about everything you've learned about the artwork so far. It's also worth noting that interpretations are personal to each viewer and can vary from individual to individual.
5. Make Your Analysis
Armed with the depth of your understanding and appreciation of the artwork as a whole, you can now make your analysis of the artwork. Take everything you've learned through this process and form a cohesive opinion. It’s time to share your understanding with others while also asking meaningful questions about other people’s thoughts.
We only live one life each which is inherently limiting, so the best way to get meaningful understanding is to ask people who are living different lives and see things in a different light. You might learn something you wouldn't have been able to come up with on your own.
Analyzing a piece of art involves observing it as a whole, determining its subject matter, examining how it's composed, and interpreting its subject matter before finally forming a cohesive evaluation.
By going through the whole process, we hope you gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of not just the artwork in question, but of art as a whole.