How to Study a Painting - The Basics

How to read and interpret art

This post will hopefully equip you with some of the basic ideas to apply when trying to study a painting:
Boy with a Basket of Fruit by Caravaggio
Click to enlarge 
  • Identification- e.g type of object, materials, period and school of painting.
  • Authorship- Artist's name, patron's name. Finding these out are key to developing your interpretation
  • Subject Matter- What is shown in the painting? What is the artist trying to convey?
  • Function- What is the artworks use or purpose in its original location. e.g. was it intended as a devotional piece- a devotional aid?
  • Context- At what point in the artist's career was the work painted? Social situation, any historic precedences, the artistic customs of the time.
  • Style- The use of specific visual forms, or the ways the artist creates their images (fluid brush-strokes, a vibrant colour palette ect.)
  • Treatment- The decisions that the artist made when composing their composition; any narrative devices employed by the artist in presenting the subject? Especially to help guide the viewers' reading of the subject matter.
  • Provenance- Similar to context, just a nice word to use.
Ticking each one of these off as you go through a painting will help you in your interpretation, they're useful when going around a gallery, writing an essay or just to test and develop your interpretative skills. (Read more after the Break)

Here are some good terms to use in your analysis, there in a random order:

  • Composition
  • Space
  • Recession
  • Three-dimensionality
  • Linear-perspective
  • Light source
  • Warm/cool colours
  • Gestures- how is emotion conveyed
  • Illusion
  • Illusionary lighting effects
  • Picture plane
  • Aerial-perspective
  • Chiaroscuro
  • Complementary colours
  • Sfumato
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