Talking about Art Seems Hard — But it Doesn’t Have to Be.

Charles Hanna

May 11 · 6 min read

Drawing some meaning out of art confounds even the most intelligent people. For many museum-goers, browsing a collection of paintings and sculptures can be interesting, but nothing more. The inner world of the art and what it expresses is lost upon them, because they lack a vocabulary to think about it and discuss it.

Have you had that type of experience? You spend a few hours in a museum, and by the end of it, all the art has blended together. If someone asked you what your favorite piece was, you might be able to pick something, but having a conversation of greater depth than that could be difficult.

Which is a real bummer if you’re dating someone into art, or if you just want to sound classy and educated.

Well, that’s all about to change right here, right now — because I’m going to give you 9 different things to think about when you look at art…especially painting (though it works for sculptures and architecture as well).

9 Things to Think about When Looking at Art:

  • Composition
  • Movement
  • Unity and Balance
  • Color and Lighting
  • Mood
  • History
  • Biography
  • Symbolism

In order to try this out, I’m going to bring in a painting by the French artist Géricault, who painted “The Raft of the Medusa” in 1818. Here it is:

Quite dramatic, right? So let’s take a look at these nine points and come up with something to say about each of them.

Composition: Look carefully and you’ll see two overlapping triangles. One is formed by the ropes of the raft, which meet on top of the sail. The other is formed by the fellows on the right side of the raft, reaching upwards — and at the apex of that triangle is one fellow waving a red flag. The triangle on the left (formed by the ropes) seems to be darker, and the bodies and faces indicative of death and hopelessness. The triangle on the right is lighter, the people seem to see something in the distance (a ship, perhaps), the overall mood is one that is more hopeful.

Movement: The churning waves and billowing clouds create a sense of dramatic movement in this painting. The raft is tilted upwards, and a wave off to the left threatens to swamp it. Our eye is drawn toward the red cloth and the figure who holds it, in part because many of the bodies, faces, and hands on the raft reach in that direction.

Unity and Balance: Though is is obviously a scene of some chaos and despair, and certainly invokes a feeling of tension in the viewer, there is something that seems to be balanced about it, even if you can’t quite put your finger on it. I’ll tell you: those two triangles we mentioned earlier overlap each other. The one on the right is darker and more hopeless, while the one on the right is lighter and more hopeful — but the space where they overlap is mixed with greater variety of light and dark moments; for example. at the bottom of the pyramid of human hopefuls there are a few bodies lying face down. Look carefully and you’ll also notice the two triangles lean away from each other (the mast and the fellow with the flag). This overlapping and mirroring creates an underlying sense of balance.

Color and Lighting: The different skin tones and alternating regions of light and shadow create a mix of hope and hopelessness. The dark sky above the clouds in the upper right corner and the grey waves — interspersed with choppy, white foam — threaten the raft, and both serve to highlight the lightened region of the horizon upon which all hopeful eyes lay, implying that some rescue might be seen there (look carefully and you can see what might be a ship).

Mood: The writing bodies, the waves, the billowing clouds…it’s all very turbulent and anxiety-inducing. We wonder what has happened here, and what will happen. We’re practically waiting on the edge of our proverbial seats to see if these people get rescued. Even though this painting is around 200 years old, it still evokes a sense of excitement punctuated by trepidation.

See how a lot of these really just involve stating what you see? There’s nothing fancy about it. The above five points can yield some tremendous discussion with anyone, even if they’re not an art historian.

These first five points were from an incredibly helpful book by Carol Strickland called The Annotated Mona Lisa. But in looking at art, I like to add a few more that provide a little bit more depth beyond the painting itself.

History: The story of this painting is as dramatic (if not more so) than the painting itself. A ship called the Medusa was sent by the French government to colonize Senegal. the ship sank, and the colonists were piled onto a raft to be towed by the captain and crew. Eventually they cut ties with with raft to save their own skins (presumably) and the raft floated along — turning into an unspeakable zone of starvation, death, and cannibalism, with only 15 survivors. It was this story that Géricault captured in his painting.

Biography: An artist’s personal story will always contribute to their unique and distinctive style. Géricault’s painting is dramatic and full of tension, reflective of his own fiery Romanticism (a movement that championed emotion over reason). Géricault investigated this story like a reporter and scientist, at one point even lashing himself to the mast of a small boat in the middle of storm in order to get a better sense of how to capture the store in painting. Amazingly, Géricault only showcased three paintings in his career, but this was one of them — and it pretty much kicked off Romanticism in French art.

Symbolism: This consideration is my favorite part of analyzing this particular painting. Consider the context in which this painting was created. France was the most centralized monarchy in Europe, with the king wielding absolute power. Then there was the French Revolution, and the king lost his head (literally). Then the revolutionaries turned the country upside down and started killing each other. Then Napoleon took power, and France rose to its greatest power as he swept across Europe and conquered the world. Then he was defeated and exiled. Then he came back. Then he was exiled again and didn’t come back. France had just had a very tumultuous few decades. The French people must have felt like everyone on that raft, wondering — what’s next?

One can even go a little more mythological with the symbolism. This painting reminds me of the Greek Myth of the Minotaur, and how Theseus was supposed to raise up a white sail when he returned home — I don’t know why, but something about the idea of a raft at sea hailing for help with a red piece of cloth reminds me of that myth — perhaps some food for discussion…any folklorists among my readers?

So again, to recap, the 9 things to think about while looking at a painting are:

  • Composition
  • Movement
  • Unity and Balance
  • Color and Lighting
  • Mood
  • History
  • Biography
  • Symbolism

I hope that next time you have the opportunity to visit a museum, look at some art, or impress a friend (or date) you’ll have more food for thought. Please make sure to follow my posts, because I’ll be writing more on these 9 points as applied to different pieces of art throughout art history.

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