How to "Read" Visual Art

Nice painting but what does it mean?
Artist, designers and people who work in art related fields see art as a visual language but not everyone who looks at art comes from this background.
In our society art is often not taught very well in school – although this is changing.  What if you didn’t take art as a subject at school?  You may feel  less than confident about your ability to “read” art. Most people have the ability to understand art and talk about it, but they just don’t trust themselves. If you are someone who goes to an exhibition but says nothing about the art, for fear of embarrassing yourself read on…
Think of a picture like a poem or a piece of writing there are things that are spelled out or told to you as the reader and other things that are implied or suggested.  There is more in the way of connotation in a painting or visual artwork.

"Unfold" commissioned oil painting by Shana James
"Unfold" commissioned oil painting by Shana James

This is a painting I did for a commission, see previous blog entry. It has an abstract feel but is actually taken from a plant, a succulent, with a strong structural feel.  In my sketch book I wrote the word unfold under the sketch I did for this painting. I was interested in the way the leaves curled around and the feeling of movement created by this.  Like one of those fast-motion films of a flower opening.  To me this painting is like a still from the growth of a plant.  So what is  it about? On one level you could say its a picture of a living growing plant.  But to me art has to be more than just illustration of an object, however skillful, good art says something more.
This painting also functions as a metaphor about growth and change.  Light is also an important aspect of this image.  Light and shadow are universal symbols, in this painting the shadows are warm and red, how would the feel of the image change if the shadow was blue or black?
The rhythm of repeated shapes in the composition give the feeling of movement and growth. The composition takes a slice of the plant so we know we are viewing a section of something more. The scale of a picture is also important.  This painting takes  a small thing and makes it big, how does that change your perception of it do you notice it in a way you wouldn’t if it was painted its actual size?
So when you look at an artwork ask yourself.
How does the colour make you feel and why? How does the composition and scale make you feel and why? Do you like or dislike the subject matter? How about the brush marks or texture, are they busy and energetic or smooth and serene?
You know the answers.  All opinions are valid especially if you can back them up with why you feel that way.
While you are here,  have a look at my artwork. I love to get your comments too.

3 Replies to “How to "Read" Visual Art”

  1. Shana, an important and well-articulated principle! Thank you. Just as people claim to listen and do not hear, we need to learn to see. “The rare moment is not the moment when there is something worth looking at but the moment when we are capable of seeing.” Joseph Wood Krutch in “The Desert Year”!
    And, great work!

  2. Thanks Randy
    Its very heartening for me to know that you are reading my blog all the way over on the other side of the world. Interesting quote, the way we look at things is so important. I know that artwork I didn’t particularly like as a student, years later looking again seemed to have so much more, of course its me that has changed.
    When I’m teaching beginners drawing I find that the first lesson is spent on looking and seeing exercises rather than drawing. Its amazing to watch people as the door opens to a visual world which up until that time they had not been privy to.
    I’m glad you like the painting.

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