Walkthrough: How I Analyze an Artwork, by Anaika

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Preface: I have chosen to write this blog in more of an informal tone; as an Art lover, talking about how she observes art and interprets it. Analyzing an artwork is such a personal journey, I wanted to share mine with you. I hope you can take something away from this piece that helps you understand or view art in a new light 🙂

I used to think that analyzing art was a daunting task that only Art Historians and connoisseurs would/should know how to do. But at the end of the day, art is for everyone, and so it would be nice if we could “understand” it.I have always viewed art as a language, as if the artist were trying to say something to us, tell us a story, a secret, about themselves, or the world, and we need to decipher it. Not all paintings have to have a deep meaning or a hidden message, but I have fun trying to get inside the brain of an artist, using all the clues they have left for us on the canvas, it’s like an investigation!

I usually break down my “analysis” into three main layers and one additional layer for good luck;

Level 1- everything in front of me, all the parts that make up this painting

Level 2- why do I think they are there?

Level 3- The research I have done about the artist and how it ties in with the painting

Level 4- Reaction- which is super subjective

Let’s dive in, shall we?

The first level consists of all your observations. “What do I see in front of me?” (Let’s say it is a painting for this example) I like to describe what I’m looking at, making a mental note of everything I see. What is the subject of the painting, if there is one?

What catches my eye?

What other elements do I see?

Where is it set, in what time period?

How about the composition and space: how do the elements on the canvas interact with each other? Is the work a close up or is it zoomed out? Is the artist trying to hide or reveal something? What is the focal point of the painting, what are your eyes drawn to? I then look at the colour palette; what is the significance of the colours used, colours can set the mood of the painting. For me, blue is calming, yellow might be hopeful and red can be high in emotion, but then I have to simultaneously look at the textures.

I look out for the textures and lines in the artwork, textures can indicate certain themes or concepts; smooth texture or lines can depict tranquility, hazy can mean a dream-like state, perhaps rigid brushstrokes show anger? It can also be a characteristic of the medium used (watercolours can look more faded or dreamy, palette work with oil paints can seem choppy) or the artist’s style.And finally the style. The style of a painting sets the tone of the painting, it can also help set the where and the when. It gives you insights into the artist’s life and surroundings while they were creating this piece.I use these as my visual elements that serve as the foundation of my analysis, I usually build off of the first level to get to a more in depth analysis.

Next is the second level, which, simply put, is the “Why?” I run all the observations I’ve made of the painting through either of these questions, “why did the artist use this particular element?” and/or “how has it been used?” This helps me understand the reason behind the painting, which brings me one step closer to completing my analysis!The third level is the part of the process where I usually gather external information about the painting to help wrap up the understanding of the piece. Insight into the artist’s life can be a significant component, it can indicate the artist’s state of mind, the emotions they wanted to showcase, their style, the message they were conveying, and much more. I find it very useful to know more about the artist and other relevant information. The time period can solidify the art style or form in a broader way, it can also help determine whether the artwork’s message aligns with a significant event. This can be further elevated by hindsight: what effects did the painting have back then, was it well received, has the meaning changed over time, is it still relevant today, has it preserved that particular moment in time? Why did the artist decide to paint this particular subject, or in this particular style.

I like to question the elements with my new found information to fill in all the gaps.And finally, the viewer’s reaction. This part is purely for the observer, you decide whether or not you like the work. Maybe you like the story but not the style, you might like the artist but not this particular work, perhaps you understand the artistic choices but the elements are too jarring for you, this is your opinion. This part is a little easier to go through, because it is how the artwork makes you feel. Are you drawn to it? If you are looking to purchase the painting, is it something you can commit to? What does the painting mean to you? Analyzing a painting is like peeking into the artist’s soul, or going back in time. The analysis gives you tools to unravel the story and complete the puzzle, which could look different depending on who you are and what you see.Not every painting you see has to be so thoroughly analyzed, but it is something you can do if the painting draws your attention, it can help you decide on making the commitment of purchasing a painting.

In the end, remember that art is subjective, which loosely translates to: “Your opinion is valid.”Image source: drawpaintacademy.com

Artwork by Childe Hassam, The Sea, 1892

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