First look for the narrative, simply describe what you see. Who or what is depicted, what’s going on? If you see people and things, the painting is figurative; if you see lines and splashes – go for non-figurative. The name of the painting might come in handy, especially when it comes to Dali.
What seems to be more important for the artist – representation or expression? Compare the paintings in the styles of hyperrealism and expressionism – you can always tell if the images look idealized or expressly distorted.
Notice the feelings you get looking at the painting, the general impression produced by the entire painting and its elements – later you will dig deeper to understand what inspired those emotions. There is a reason why you like one painting more than the other. Your taste in art is as unique as your taste in food or clothes, inspired by your background, upbringing and even professional expertise.
Collect information on the artist and the historical background. To analyze “Guernica” by Picasso, you need to know that Guernica is a town demolished by the Nazi, and you have to read up on the essential features of cubism. To interpret the image of kissing people covered by a piece of cloth in Magritt’s “The Lovers”, whatever you guess by looking at the painting falls flat once you know that the artist’s mother got drowned in the river, and when found, a piece of cloth was wrapped around her head. So, don’t rely on your skills and taste too much, there are things you need to KNOW before you start making assumptions.
The historical background of the paintings itself is important. Was the artist an innovator, did he start a new trend or movement, whose steps did he/she follow? What experiments was he involved with? How was the painting perceived by the contemporaries? Claude Monet started impressionism with the painting “Sunrise. Impressions”. Malevych started suprematism as a development on abstractionism, laying out the new artistic theory of the color, the form and the composition of the painting. The rough lines and raw colors in the fauvist paintings may be traced back to Van Gogh. Do you think there is something new suggested in the painting you are looking at, or is there anything at all distinguishing about it?
This is easy. There is a limited number of genres in fine arts for you to categorize the painting: is it a portrait, landscape, seascape, cityscape, genre painting, battle piece, historical painting, religious or mythological painting, literary painting, self-portrait, animalistic painting, nude, still life, or an abstract painting?
THE STYLE / MOVEMENT
The fastest way to interpret a painting is to determine what movement it belongs to, or at least what movements and styles influenced the artist. The style influences the choice and treatment of the subject, the color, the perspective and the symbols.
Impressionists, for instance, experimented with unusual perspectives – bird’s eye or frog’s eye; their brushwork is visible and the colors are laid separately to mix in the eye of the viewer rather than on the palette. In impressionism the light is more important than the people it bounces off – quite different from romanticism.
In romanticism you have to be a poet, a revolutionary, a gypsy or a vagabond to make your way into the painting – they appreciated the bold spirit, the freedom and the people who were different.
Primitivist (naive) artists depicted objects in a solid monumental manner, as seen by a child who perceives the world as a whole, without analyzing it and breaking into unnecessary components.
In symbolism you do need to look for the hidden meaning, and it’s absolutely pointless in pop art, op art, art nouveau or hyperrealism. Each style and genre sets forth its requirements, so brush up on the movement the artist belongs to before you proceed.
Now go back to the subject and your first impressions about the painting. It’s time to analyze how the artist made you feel the way you felt using the artistic means it his/her disposal. The composition is the position and the balance of the objects and figures in the space, the interrelation of their size, coloring, shading etc. How exactly does all that impact your perception? Let’s dig in.
First consider the size of the painting. The more impressive the subject, the higher the emotions it appeals to, the bigger it is. Religious, mythological paintings are often huge – their massive energy makes you shiver. It is pretty understandable with figurative paintings like Rafael’s “The Sistine Madonna”, and more subtle with color field paintings of Mark Rothko. People are often overwhelmed with religious tremor in the presence of his artwork, and the size factors in. Also, the subject often calls for larger canvases – battle scenes need space and cannot be fitted into a smaller painting, while some subjects will get lost unless depicted in a smaller size.
Now take a look at the form of the canvas – you might take it for granted, but it does influence the subconscious feeling you get when enjoying a piece of art. Round and oval canvases produce the impression of serenity and completeness, they are often picked for feminine, soft portraits, like Ingre’s “Turkish bath”. Rectangular paintings – vertical or horizontal – are more complicated. While widely used in landscapes, the horizontal format may serve to diminish the figure portrayed, impose or convey some limits, as you can see in Vrubel’s “Demon”. Vertical format ensures monumentality and steadiness.
Now let’s proceed to analyzing the center of the composition. There is an optical center in the middle – you will notice that the center of the composition, the major element will never be placed there, otherwise the scene will look artificial. The center of the composition will always be the most striking element, and the rest will just serve to make it more expressive. The artist may use various means to achieve this effect – the color contrasts, light and shade effects, size of objects and distance between them. Secondary elements are depicted with less detail and vigor – they have to bring forward the center, not block it.
Notice the way your eyes travel the painting – intuitively you will start at the center and will proceed to the rest of the elements to refine the story.
The perspective. Do you feel the distance between you and the painting? Are you an observer or a participant? The way you feel is dictated by the artistic choice – it’s never a coincidence. An artist thoroughly selected the angle: you may look upwards, or downwards, or be at the same level with the objects depicted. If the horizon is at your eye level, the impression you will get is calm, stable. The high horizon will reveal more space, in landscapes it provides a majestic view. Paintings with the low horizon, so common with Dali, are monumental, highlighting the size of the objects and figures. The unusual views of Paris by Pissarro appeared as he painted from the hotel rooms.
THE LIGHT AND COLOR
The light and color in the painting will always be dictated by the artist’s intention, the concept of the painting. So, consider the sources of color, the time of the day, the emotional impact of light and shades.
Is the light neutral, sharp, mystical?
Are the contours rough or concealed?
What colors are prevailing – tonal or local, warm or cold?
What are the major color fields in the painting and their role in the entire composition? Is the light optically realistic or expressive as in Matisse’s painting?
Can you feel the rhythm in repeating some color or combination?
Is some color dominating?
What emotions does it produce?
Depending on the art movement and personal peculiarities of the artist, the brushwork can range from delicate and almost invisible to rough and plastic.
Once again go through the images and the story of the painting. Was your first impression different from what you see now?