Being able to analyze an artwork is essential for developing as an artist and to fully appreciate what the great artists create. If you don’t understand what is going on in a master artwork, how could you expect to learn how to paint it for yourself?
In this post, I discuss how to analyze art using a series of questions which you can ask yourself. My goal is to take some of the mystery out of why the great paintings work. I suggest after reading this post you try to analyze a painting for yourself using these questions.
You may find that once you develop a better understanding of what is going on in a great painting, you may gain a better appreciation of art. It is the same as listening to a world-class violinist perform a concert by Beethoven. If your ears are not trained, you will struggle to appreciate the significance of what they are playing.
What Do You See In Terms Of The Visual Elements?
By doing this, you will be able to objectively analyze what you are seeing.
In the painting below by Childe Hassam, I have indicated how I see the painting in terms of the visual elements. Instead of seeing a lady sitting in a chair looking at the ocean view, I see...
- Clusters of circular shapes for the plants and flowers;
- Rigid shapes for the chair;
- Suggestive lines on the ground to move you around the painting;
- Lines on the dress to give a sense of form;
- Varied colors and lines to create the illusion of plants and vines; and
- Repetitive dashes of color in the clouds and ocean.
What Are The Main Focal Points And Any Other Key Features?
Have a think about what areas the artist wants you to look at. What areas are being emphasized and what areas are left vague? Where are your eyes drawn towards in the painting? Then, go a step further and analyze how the artist is emphasizing these areas.
In the painting below I see three main focal points; the busy jetty, the boats in the water and the tower in the background. My eyes seem to transition between these three points.
Claude Monet draws your attention towards these areas using value contrast and an increased level of detail compared to the rest of the painting.
What Path Do Your Eyes Take Around The Painting?
Look at the artwork and let your eyes naturally follow through the painting. This can be difficult to do when you are trying to analyze a painting. Try to relax and don’t overthink it.
The path your eyes take reveals a lot of information about how the artwork is put together. In the painting below I indicate the path my eyes take through the painting.
First, I am drawn into the painting with the dark reflections in the water. Then this leads into the lighter orange and white reflections of the buildings. Then I notice the main buildings and what appears to be a farm on the left. Then into the clouds and around to the top center of the painting. Then I follow the clouds back down into the water and along the reflections. Then I arrive at the bottom left of the painting.
How Is Everything Connected?
Most paintings seem to be comprised of:
- Elements which are connected and flow nicely together; and
- Powerful statements which abruptly stop this flow.
For example, picture you are painting a rough seascape. Your strokes follow the turbulent movement of the water. But then there is an abrupt stop as the water crashes against the rocks. This abrupt stop goes against the flow of the water and creates a powerful statement in the painting.
In Claude Monet's painting below, blues of the sky connect with blues of the water. The soft edges also connect the distant land with the sky and the water.
Where the water meets the shore in the foreground, notice how there are dashes of light blue in the dark purple shore, and dashes of dark purple in the light blue water. Also, notice the horizontal brushwork used for both areas. This all helps connect these two areas.
The fluent connection comes to a stop at the land on the left of the painting. Here the horizontal strokes are met by vertical strokes, and the blues and purples are met by greens, reds and oranges.
What Is The Dominant Color Harmony?
You will be able to simplify most paintings down to a fairly basic color scheme. Here are some color-specific questions to ask yourself:
- What are the main light sources and how have they influenced the colors used?
- What is the dominant color temperature of the painting? Does it appear to have been painted under a warm, cool or neutral light?
- What colors are pushed forward and what colors are held back? For example, maybe the reds and oranges are strong and saturated, whilst the blues and greens are dull and weak.
- How would you describe the use of color saturation, value and hue?
Here is my color analysis of the below painting by Edgar Payne:
- There is a strong complementary contrast between purples and yellows.
- The yellow sky indicates that this is painted under a warm light.
- There appears to be a theme of warm lights and cool shadows.
- Most of the colors in the painting have a weak saturation.
- The painting can be broken into two distinct value groups - the dark foreground and the high key background.
- The painting can also be broken into three hue groups - the oranges in the foreground, the purples and blues in the background and the yellows of the sky.
Is There A Strong Notan Structure?
Notan refers to the balance of light and dark elements in a painting. I wrote about notan in detail here.
If you are analyzing a painting in life, then you need to rely on your ability to translate color into value to see the underlying notan structure. But if you are looking at a photo of a painting, you can “cheat” by converting the photo to grayscale to clearly see the notan structure.
Observing the underlying notan design of a painting can reveal some interesting patterns and design features which may not be obvious on first glance. For example, it might reveal that a painting which appears to be extremely busy and active, actually has a very simple notan structure, like in the painting below by Giovanni Boldini:
Some paintings are built on a strong notan design, whilst other paintings rely more on the other elements like color and brushwork. Many paintings by the impressionists have weak notan designs but make up for it with a complex harmony of colors.
Did The Artist Take Advantage Of Visible Brushwork?
If possible, look closely at the painting to see the artist’s brushwork. Observe the thickness of the paint, the variety of the strokes and the general direction of the strokes.
Here are some questions to help you analyze the brushwork:
- Is there a common theme with the brushwork? For example, did the artist use thick and bold strokes for the lights and thin and weak strokes for the darks?
- Did the artist use distinct strokes or blended strokes?
- How did the artist paint the finer details?
- Did the artist use large or small brushes?
If you want to see virtuoso brushwork in action, then check out the paintings of Joaquín Sorolla.
What Is The Artist Trying To Say?
This is a very high-level analysis of the painting. Take a step back and think about what the artist is actually trying to say. What was the artist thinking when they painted it?
Sometimes it might just be to communicate the beauty of the landscape the artist saw. Or it might be something deeper.
In my painting below, I wanted to capture the depth of the landscape and the stunning blues of the distant mountain.
What Would You Do Differently?
It is easy to look at a great painting through rose-colored glasses. Take them off for a moment and try to find mistakes or things you would do better. This is not designed to be a negative process. It is just designed to get you to think differently about the painting.
It is always important to question what you see. That is how you learn. Even if you cannot possibly do better than the painting which is in front of you, there is no harm in pondering over it.
Other Questions About Art
- What are the secondary colors?
- What are the major shapes?
- Are there any implied lines?
- Are there any leading lines?
- How does it make you feel?
- What is the rhythm of the artwork?
- What is the strongest form of contrast in the artwork? For example, green against red; thick against thin; organic against geometric; lines against shapes; dark against light.
- Is there any directional brushwork? Think Vincent van Gogh.
- What is the big idea?
- What is the dominant value range?
- Are there any light/dark/colorful accents?
- What leads you into the artwork?
- What is the gesture of the artwork? Or in other words, if you could indicate the gesture of the artwork with a single line, what would it look like?
- Have any areas been simplified in terms of detail?
- Is there a sense of depth and atmosphere (atmospheric perspective)?
- What techniques were used?
- What materials were used?
- Are the scale and linear perspective accurate?
- Is the artwork loose and relaxed or tight and refined.
- Is there any broken color? Think Claude Monet.
- What colors were used on the artist’s palette?
- What is the style (impressionism, realism, etc)?
- Was the artist inspired by anything?
- Did the artist create any preliminary sketches or studies?
- Who/where is the subject?
- Did the artist use the subject in other artworks?
Try It For Yourself
I suggest you use these questions to analyze one of your favorite paintings. These questions might help you gain a better appreciation of what is going on.
(If you want to learn more about landscape painting, make sure to grab my free Landscape Painting Starter Kit).