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Breaking The Code

A Beginner's Guide to Looking at Painting

My very first visit to the art museum was a journey through a maze. I was on a school excursion intended to foster art appreciation amongst students, yet I quickly found myself losing concentration and drifting off to sleep whenever I couldn’t make sense of the abstract brushstrokes or strange imagery used by artists in paintings.

This doesn't look like anything!” I remember exclaiming to a schoolmate, still trying to associate the elements of painting with familiar everyday objects.

When my efforts to put the work in perspective were futile, i scurried away with my friends to view the next most eye-catching work, often paying no attention to the ones that were less colourful or striking.

There were always those questions of "What the paintings meant" and "How one could search for these meanings", that we, non-art students, had no answers to. I was sure however, that there was more to art than visual appeal alone.

After all, famous documentary maker John Grierson once described art as a hammer, not a mere reflection of reality ;He believed that art had the potential to evoke emotions and bring to light to issues men have buried in the unconscious. Hit by the same questions again and again after I visited a painting exhibition in San Francisco recently, I embarked on quest to learn from the experts.

Getting Started

#1 Physical Properties

Consider the dimensions of the painting, it's size relative to the environment and how it's displayed. (i.e: framed, unframed or freestanding)

Some artists intend for their work to be extremely large in scale to create a certain kind of impact or to evoke a certain sense of awe.

Look closely at the painting and examine what types of medium the artist had chosen to use. (i.e: acrylic paint, oil paint, watercolour paint, charcoal, metal) Observe how the paint has been applied. (i.e: with a brush, fingers, sponge).

How has the artist used his or her tools to create a certain feeling and what would change if it were substituted for something else?

Is there a certain texture that has been created (i.e: rough, smooth, edgy) that causes you to cringe, feel like touching it or respond to it in a certain way?

Also pay attention to elements like lines which may affect the way your eye is being directed and the use of colours to create a certain mood.


#2 Subject

In most paintings, there should be a focal point or a central element that captures your attention and draws your eye to it first. This may provide you with clues concerning the theme or issue the artist may be trying to shed light upon.

For example, in Blue Clamp (1981), a masterpiece of American artist Jim Dine, the eye is first drawn to the blue clamp central to the heart in the painting. The physical properties combined with the clamp evoke a strong sense of pain, as if one can picture another bleeding,

When looking at a painting, consider whether you can associate any imagery with past experiences or symbols that may signify particular events/issues.

Is the work abstract or something that breaks boundaries and fixed notions about beauty?

20th century artists often experiment with different ways of creating art, questioning expectations of what art should or should not be.

#3 Viewer's Perspective

Finally, pay attention to where the artist has positioned you as a viewer and what perspective you have been forced to undertake.

Are you looking into a house, looking from above or below a subject?

Does the gaze of the subject (i.e: a man) invite you to look closely at him or does he seem disconnected from the viewer because we cannot see his face?

The artist makes deliberate choices about what he wants to reveal and what he wants to hide from the viewer, and we can derive meaning from these choices

For example, if a subject's face is not being shown, it could imply a lack of status or identity, depending on the associations one makes.

While some pieces of work are more abstract than others, the meaning of any painting is open to your interpretation. There are no right or wrong answers, so don't be afraid of speaking your mind!

Try talking about a painting with a friend and you’ll be surprised how different his or her ideas could be!

Note down what runs through your mind the next time you step into an art gallery and look at paintings with a whole new light!

The writer would like to thank her art teacher Miss Bonnie Begusch for the insights provided for this article.

Miss Bonnie is a fine art instructor at the University of California, Berkeley.

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