4 Major Ways to Interpret Artwork

One of the fundamental aspects of becoming a successful artist is the ability to appreciate and understand the artworks produced in the world around us. Understanding and interpreting paintings of different movements enable new and emerging artists of creating artwork that will eventually correspond to one of the major artistic styles available throughout history. Understanding and appreciating artwork will, in turn, assist the artist of accurately and confidently stepping into the limelight as a new face in one of the vast traditions of the world around us.

As for those of us who don’t necessarily want to become artists, developing our abilities to interpret and understand artwork serves as a rite of passage into a more sophisticated, enjoyable, and fulfilling adulthood. Improving our ability to appreciate artwork opens us a whole new and exciting world of cultural and historical experiences which serves to hone our ability in becoming genuine global citizens. Here are four major ways to understand art, opening the door for those brave enough to explore the themes further on their own.

Understand the artist’s choices

Art is created in a deliberate fashion where every aspect of a painting or drawing is designed to carry meaning and evoke emotion. Look closely at the art piece, what is the direction of lines. Are they short and jagged giving a feeling of tension or are they long and flowing, giving a feel of serenity and peace? What about the colors? The choice of hues on a painting is designed to invoke different feelings with the viewer. One of the most famous dreamy landscapes is Vang Gogh’s Starry Night, which has resonated with viewer around the world due to its ethereal feel.

Vincent Van Gogh - Starry Night
Vincent Van Gogh – Starry Night

Next, we should interpret the artist’s choice of design elements. Is the painting balanced, or is there emphasis placed on one aspect more than the other. In The Great Wave off Kanagawa, the wave is considerably bigger than the boat, lending us to feel threatened and afraid of its power. Is there a repetitive motif, or is variety employed? In Campbell’s Soup Cans the artists used a repeating pattern of soups with small distinctions in shape to show us that not everything is as it seems in life.

Katsushika Hokusai - The Great Wave off Kanagawa
Katsushika Hokusai – The Great Wave off Kanagawa

Formal elements of art include shapes, whether it is geometric or natural; texture, including creating artwork that stands out on the canvas or creating visual texture, giving the artwork the illusion of texture; space, such as negative and positive spaces which often could be used interchangeably to create meaning; or tone, referring the darkness or lightness of the painting.

Campbell - Soup Cans
Campbell – Soup Cans

Understanding Art Styles

One way to interpret art is to determine where it falls in terms of history, region, and type. Artistic types denote particular art movements that transcend geographic boundaries but share common details. Artistic types include impressionism, expressionism, cubism, etc.

 Expressionism was an art movement that originated in the early 20th century Germany, characterized by an artist’s attempt to portray emotion and cultural context, rather than depicting naturalistic or realistic subject matters. An example of the movement can be found in Franz Mark’s Great Blue Horses, which portrays a sad yet strong bond between the creatures.

Franz Mark -  Great Blue Horses
Franz Mark –  Great Blue Horses

Impressionism, on the other hand, is closely related to expressionism, and for the untrained eye could be easily mistaken for the latter. While originating in France at the end of the 19th century, it is a close precursor of the expressionist movement. It is distinguishable however by short brush strokes, with emphasis placed on natural light. Colors are boldly placed next to each other, with little mixing occurring between them. Famous artists of this style include Monet and Renoir

Claude Monet - Impression, Sunrise
Claude Monet – Impression, Sunrise

Understanding Regional Art

Regional art refers to specific art movements that belonged to geographic locations, often incorporating elements of design specific to that particular culture. Knowing the local context an artwork was created in helps us understand the meaning behind the work. Ancient Egyptian art has visible and distinguishable elements that render it unique in all of history. In Ancient Egyptian work, the dominant figure always denoted a God figure, who was depicted as an overarching figure.Understanding Art History

 Historical events sometimes had a strong influence on artistic work, and analyzing art in historical context could help us understand the messages behind a specific piece. Major political and economic events often have a profound effect on influencing arts movements. During the high of American power in the 20th Century, artists slowly moved away from French Impressionist work to producing more urban American landscapes. A similar event occurred in Great Britain in the 1960s, when post-war calm inspired the creation of internationally acclaimed artists and saw the height of design, fashion, and music.

One of my favorite such artwork is that of Paata Tsikauri, a Georgian artist who was inspired by the brutal civil war in his home country to paint images of conflict and nightmare. This particular artist had a special place in my hear because of his use of intense colors, prominent symbols (such as the protective horse and prison-like brick walls), and his ability to invoke a strong emotional response in his viewers.

Patta Tsikauri – No 1

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