Advertising
Advertising

How to Read a Painting

How to Read a Painting
How to Read a Painting

    Art is a great status symbol in modern society and because of that it can be quite intimidating to the casual viewer. For many the first impulse is to blow it off, to see it as a worthless plaything for the rich and boring. This is too bad, not only because art can be a great source of pleasure in our lives, but because even a passing acquaintance with art can enrich and deepen our understanding of the world around us.

    Fortunately, developing a casual understanding of art is not all that difficult. It is true that some people devote their entire lives to studying the minutest details of an artists’ work, but there’s no need to become an expert to have a meaningful relationship with art. All it takes is a moderate attention to detail, a little bit of patience, and a willingness to reflect on your own feelings.

    Here, I’ll show you a quick way to approach and appreciate a painting, although the ideas here can be applied to works in other mediums (sculpture, drawing, even architecture and fashion) quite easily. There’s no shortcut to understanding I can give; great art rewards the hundredth viewing as much as he first, and you can spend a lifetime pondering the decisions an artist made in one painting. Instead, I’ll try to give you a process to follow that will help you get the most out of a painting the first time you see it.

    Advertising

    While I’m on the subject, a word about “great art”. Andy Warhol said that if you want to tell a good painting from a bad one, first look at a thousand paintings. There are no hard and fast rules about what makes a piece great, mediocre, or bad; remember, Van Gogh’s work was once considered amateurish and forgettable. There are, of course, standards that matter within the professional art world, but you don’t owe the professionals anything, so don’t worry too much about what they think qualifies as “great”.

    Take a Look

    Art should appeal to you first through your senses. That doesn’t mean a painting has to be beautiful to be good, but it must grab your eye in some way. Give a work a moment to do its thing — some works are intriguing in subtle ways. A work might grab your attention through its subject matter, it’s use of color, an interesting juxtaposition of objects, it’s realistic appearance, a visual joke, or any number of other factors.

    Breughel's Tower of Babel

      Once you’ve gotten an overall look at the painting, ask yourself “what’s this a picture of?” That is, what is the subject of the painting? The subject might be a landscape, a person or group of people, a scene from a story, a building or city scene, an animal, a still life (a collection of everyday items like a bowl of fruit, a pile of books, or a set of tools), a fantasy scene, and so on. Some paintings won’t have a subject — much of the work of the 20th century is abstract, playing with form and color and even the quality of the paint rather than representing reality.

      Advertising

      The painting above, by the Dutch artist Breughel, represents the Tower of Babel. Scenes from the Bible or from classical mythology are popular in older work; since the end of the 19th century, scenes of everyday life have become more common. If you know the story, you’re one step ahead of the game, but it’s possible to enjoy the work without knowing the story it illustrates.

      What’s That All About?

      Look for symbols. A symbol, very simply, is something that means something else. The Tower of Babel is a well-known symbol in Western society, representing both the dangers of pride and the disruption of human unity. Often a painting will include very clear symbols — skulls, for instance, were often included in portraits of the wealthy to remind them that their wealth was only worldly and, in the grand scheme of things, ultimately meaningless. But just as often the symbolism is unique, the artist’s own individual statement. Don’t get caught in the trap of trying to figure out “what the artist meant”; focus instead on what the work says to you.

      How’d They Do That?

      Vermeer's Milkmaid

        The next consideration is style, which is essentially the mark of the artist’s individual creativity on the canvas. Some artists follow well-established styles — many Renaissance portraits look almost exactly alike to the casual viewer, for instance — while others go out of their way to be different and challenging. Some artists create closely detailed, finely controlled works, others slap paint around almost haphazardly creating a wild, ecstatic effect.

        Advertising

        It may not seem as obvious as the subject and symbolism, but style can also convey meaning to a viewer. For example, Jackson Pollock’s famous drip paintings convey the motion and freedom of the artist in the act of creation, despite being completely abstract. Vermeer’s Milkmaid, on the other hand, is notable for it’s incredibly fine detail and careful application of thin glazes of oil paints (which doesn’t come across in a photograph, alas) which create a luminous quality, imparting a kind of nobility and even divinity to the simple act of a servant pouring milk.

        My Kid Could Do That!

        A large part of the appeal of art is emotional — some artists go out of their way to inspire strong reactions ranging from awe and lust to anger and disgust. It’s easy to dismiss work that upsets our notion of what art could be, and any visitor to a gallery of modern art is likely to overhear at least one person complaining that “any three-year old with a box of crayons could do that!”

        Knowing that an artist may be deliberately evoking an emotional response, it pays to take a moment and question our immediate reactions. If a work makes you angry, ask yourself why. What is it about the work that upsets you? What purpose might the artist have in upsetting you? Likewise, if your feelings are positive, why are they positive? What about the painting makes you happy? And so on — take the time to examine your own emotions in the presence of the painting.

        Advertising

        This is by no means a complete introduction to art, let alone a complete course, but it should help get you started in appreciating art. The more you know, the better the experience will become, but you don’t need to know much to get at least something out of a painting. Keep in mind these 4 concepts (I’m trying not to call them the “Four Esses”) — subject, symbolism, style, and self-examination — and pay a visit to your local art museum or gallery and see if you don’t find something worth your time.

        Artwork courtesy of Nicholas Pioch’s WebMuseum.

        More by this author

        How to Become an Expert (And Spot out One Nearby) The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works) Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed Back to Basics: Your Calendar Learn Something New Every Day

        Trending in Featured

        1 Why Do I Have Bad Luck? 2 Simple Things to Change Your Destiny 2 How to Become an Expert (And Spot out One Nearby) 3 How to Find Your Passion and Live a Fulfilling Life 4 How to Stay Motivated and Reach Your Goals 5 5 Key Characteristics of a Successful Entrepreneur

        Read Next

        Advertising
        Advertising

        Last Updated on September 17, 2018

        Why Do I Have Bad Luck? 2 Simple Things to Change Your Destiny

        Why Do I Have Bad Luck? 2 Simple Things to Change Your Destiny

        Are you one of those people who are always suffering setbacks? Does little ever seem to go right for you? Do you sometimes feel that the universe is out to get you? Do you wonder:

        Why do I have bad luck?

        Let me let you into a secret:

        Your luck is no worse—and no better—than anyone else’s. It just feels that way. Better still, there are two simple things you can do which will reverse your feelings of being unlucky.

        1. Stop believing that what happens in your life is down to the vagaries of luck, destiny, supernatural forces, malevolent other people, or anything else outside your self.

        Psychologists call this “external locus of control.” It’s a kind of fatalism, where people believe that they can do little or nothing personally to change their lives.

        Because of this, they either merely hope for the best, focus on trying to change their luck by various kinds of superstition, or submit passively to whatever comes—while complaining that it doesn’t match their hopes.

        Advertising

        Most successful people take the opposite view. They have “internal locus of control.” They believe that what happens in their life is nearly all down to them; and that even when chance events occur, what is important is not the event itself, but how you respond to it.

        This makes them pro-active, engaged, ready to try new things, and keen to find the means to change whatever in their lives they don’t like.

        They aren’t fatalistic and they don’t blame bad luck for what isn’t right in their world. They look for a way to make things better.

        Are they luckier than the others? Of course not.

        Luck is random—that’s what chance means—so they are just as likely to suffer setbacks as anyone else.

        What’s different is their response. When things go wrong, they quickly look for ways to put them right. They don’t whine, pity themselves, or complain about “bad luck.” They try to learn from what happened to avoid or correct it next time and get on with living their life as best they can.

        Advertising

        No one is habitually luckier or unluckier than anyone else. It may seem so, over the short term (Random events often come in groups, just as random numbers often lie close together for several instances—which is why gamblers tend to see patterns where none exist).

        When you take a longer perspective, random chance is just . . . random. Yet those who feel that they are less lucky, typically pay far more attention to short-term instances of bad luck, convincing themselves of the correctness of their belief.

        Your locus of control isn’t genetic. You learned it somehow. If it isn’t working for you, change it.

        2. Remember that whatever you pay attention to grows in your mind.

        If you focus on what’s going wrong in your life—especially if you see it as “bad luck” you can do nothing about—it will seem blacker and more malevolent.

        In a short time, you’ll become so convinced that everything is against you that you’ll notice more and more instances where this appears to be true. As a result, you will almost certainly stop trying, convinced that nothing you can do will improve your prospects.

        Fatalism feeds on itself until people become passive “victims” of life’s blows. The “losers” in life are those who are convinced they will fail before they start anything; sure that their “bad luck” will ruin any prospects of success.

        Advertising

        They rarely notice that the true reasons for their failure are ignorance, laziness, lack of skill, lack of forethought, or just plain foolishness—all of which they could do something to correct, if only they would stop blaming other people or “bad luck” for their personal deficiencies.

        Your attention is under your control. Send it where you want it to go. Starve the negative thoughts until they die.

        To improve your fortune, first decide that what happens is nearly always down to you; then try focusing on what works and what turns out well, not the bad stuff.

        Your “fate” really does depend on the choices that you make. When random events happen, as they always will, do you choose to try to turn them to your advantage or just complain about them?

        Thomas Jefferson is said to have used these words:

        “I’m a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”

        Ralph Waldo Emerson said:

        “Shallow men believe in luck. Strong men believe in cause and effect.”

        Your luck, in the end, is pretty much what you choose it to be.

        Featured photo credit: LoboStudio Hamburg via unsplash.com

        Read Next