How to Analyze Works of Art


Have you ever visited an art museum with the sheer realization that you don't really understand what the heck the artworks mean? If you answered yes, don't fret because you're not alone. Analyzing artwork is arcane, but once you acquire the skill, it's actually pretty fun. It gives you greater global and cultural perspectives, too. And so, if you want to be a Renaissance man, Renaissance here meaning a person with many areas of knowledge, keep reading. 

You should know, I am by no means an art historian or expert, but I hope what I have learned in my art history course interests you and lets you look at paintings in a different light. Additionally, these are only a few (not all) things to think about when studying the exhibits. 

1. History Matters. 

Typically, the artwork you're viewing reflects the broader historical and political events, even religious values of a time period. Therefore, you'll want to take note of what century and country the artwork is from and ask yourself, "What is going on at this point in history?" For instance, the French Revolution had a great effect on 18th-century works of art. 

2. Art Movements Matter. 

There have been numerous art movements dating back centuries. Museums arrange their galleries in chronological order from earliest collections to contemporary works. This is great for the viewer because you can compare and contrast the artworks as you move through the galleries from one century to the next. 

More importantly, the art movement in that particular century matters because it helps you identify the deeper meaning of the painting at hand. Some major movements include the Renaissance, High Renaissance, Rococo, and many more. We could move into a discussion of what each of these movements entail, but that could take hours.

Pro tip: look on the wall as you enter the gallery. Each room will have signage that gives you more information about each respective art movement on display in that particular room. They will have iPads or a listening device you have the option to borrow in order to learn more than what's listed on the walls. Google is also your friend. 

3. Formalistic Qualities Matter.

When analyzing a painting, you'll want to look at its formal qualities. These include the light, brush stroke, composition, color, etc. Examining these qualities helps you pinpoint the art movement this work belongs to (without looking at the signage on the wall), and it helps you understand the message the artist is trying to convey. This is something that takes a lot of practice, so don't worry if this doesn't make sense at first. And again, explaining each of these qualities and how the artist is employing them in a particular painting could take a minute. 

The cardinal rule here though, is to realize qualities, such as light, do have deeper meanings. As one example, if there are violent contrasts of light and dark in a painting, the artist is depicting high drama and emotion. You can also visualize this example of strong contrasts on your favorite TV dramas; it carries the same underlying meaning. 

Even the frame of the painting can give you hints to what century and art movement from which the painting comes. If the frame is elaborate, luxurious, and ornate, this might just be a Rococo painting. Why? Because this movement typically features excess and indulgent elements.

And so, as you learn more about the world and the art movements through the ages, you too will gain a greater appreciation for past and contemporary works as you peruse exhibits in the future. 

Sam Campbell