Have you ever been asked what you think about a work of art and not known what to say?
Art is among the richest ways people can connect. It can activate imaginations, ask questions and elicit our values. But finding the words to communicate this can be a challenge. With this in mind, we’ve devised a toolkit for busy people who want to talk about art, without getting a fine arts degree. Here’s how to talk with confidence about art.
Describe What You See
It sounds simple, but consider - what do you see? Sure, art can be more than aesthetics - but it's also bound to them. No matter how esoteric a work is, the clue to understanding it lies with how it looks. So, when encountering any work of art consider what is portrayed and how. A picture of a house that looks hyper-realistic tells a different story than one made of chaotic, brief brushstrokes.
Step one, even if it’s an abstract painting, tell us, what do you see?
Describe How it Makes You Feel
How a work of art makes you feel is a combination of your own point of view and the object itself. No work has a single meaning and no meaning is invalid. Using your description of the work, consider how it visually affects or relates to your experiences. Maybe you’re reminded of your childhood house, or the phenomena of homesickness. Colours activate the senses, creating feelings of warmth or coolness, joy or empathetic sadness. Observing how a picture makes you feel is an intelligent step toward understanding.
Step two, be sensitive to your feelings, tell us, how does the art make you feel inside? Remember to express yourself too.
Naturally, analysing fine art is about more than description and feelings - it's about history. If art isn’t your vocation you may be fresh to this subject. In this case, ask questions. Discover how your own interpretation of the work connects or denies its cultural context.
Finally, some useful questions to ask about the work of art:
- When was this work of art made? Knowing the year helps places it culturally
- Where was this work of art made? All culture has origins and comes from somewhere.
- What was going in on in the world when it was made? Nothing happens in isolation. Take art out of its vacuum seal.
- Who made this work of art? Not just the artist name, but also the personality behind it. This is can be the fun part!
- Why was this work of art made? Even divine inspiration can be a reason, but usually the story behind why a work of art was made is the most fascinating.
If you are interested in understanding the movements that shape art history, there are some stellar resources available. Ernst Gombrich’s esteemed book The Story of Art for example offers a concise, accessible and accurate handbook. Tate Modern and The Art Story also offer online summaries of art historical movements.
Art is a dialogue between the viewer and object - so no matter your expertise, there are ways to intelligently engage. Art may be complex, but through colour, line, form and subject matter it leaves clues for you to figure it out.