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HOW TO LOOK AT A WORK OF ART
Adapted from How to Look at Modern Art by Phillip Yenawine
The following ideas do not require that you understand the historical background behind each work of art. They
are a suggested framework you can use to look at familiar or unfamiliar pieces of any art form or performance, or
video. Try using these tools with an open mind. You might be surprised at how much you already know.
• How big is it and how does its height relate to its width?
• What did the artist use to make it?
• How did the artist apply or assemble the media?
• What texture was created?
• Is the work 2-D (flat) or 3-D (relief or in-the-round)?
• Is it wall-mounted or free-standing?
• Is it framed or unframed?
• Is it on a pedestal or on the floor?
• Does it have any apparent function? (Some art is meant to be used.)
• Look at the image. Is it real, symbolic, abstract, non-objective, or figurative?
• Does the title allow you to understand the work or does it give you no clue?
• What visual devices are used?
• Does the artist use overlapping?
• Does the artist use perspective?
• Does the artist vary the proportions or scale?
• Does the artist effectively use shading?
• How does the artist play with space?
FORMAL PROPERTIES (ELEMENTS OF DESIGN):
• How does the artist use line?
• What shapes or volumes, real or implied, does the artist use?
• Does the work use color or not?
• What kind of texture does the artist use?
• What other compositional devices or tricks does the artist use?
• What psychological elements affect you as a viewer?
• How do the physical dimensions affect you?
• Does what you see make you think or feel–or both?
he Big Picture
Art History is confusing to first time art historians. The subject requires you not only to
think in a different way, but it involves “looking at” something in a new way. No work of
art can be fully understood or appreciated simply by looking at pictures in the text or
watching slides and videos. You must see art in an appropriate setting, make your
observations, and trust what you see. Then you educate yourself by reading about art and
listening to lectures by experts.
We will set about developing some tools for understanding and looking at art. HOW TO
LOOK AT A WORK OF ART offers some suggestions for looking at the physical
properties of art. In THE BIG PICTURE, however, are some questions you might ask
yourself as you read each chapter. The art history instructors at Houston Community
College designed these questions. They are what we see as THE BIG PICTURE of art.
• What is art?
• Why is art made?
• How do the following affect a work of art?
Who made it or was allowed to make it?
Who supports the making of art?
What is the historical context in which art is made?
Why did the artist choose one form or material over another?
• What does each culture borrow or pass on?
• What is the evolution of the iconography and the content (or meaning) of the art?
• How is the interpretation of a work of art affected by the artist’s stated or assumed
intent, the historian’s bias, or the viewers personal response?
• What is the evolution of style?
Return to Art Dept.
Critical Analysis Worksheet: Fill in while at the museum
Identification: Museum, Title of artwork, Artist
Technical Information: Material, Size, Date
Subject Matter: Portrait, landscape, still life, Religious / Spiritual, Mythological, Historical, Art
Formal Analysis of Painting
Subject and Content: Every work of art depicts a particular subject and meaning.
What is being shown? If there are figures in the work, who/what are they and what are
Briefly state what you think the painting is about or the story it is telling?
Is it a straight-forward depiction of a scene or is there a double meaning?
If what is shown is a mythological tale or biblical story etc, be sure to provide a short
summary of it.
Composition: Use elements of design to describe the artists’ composition.
How is the composition balanced? Explain (symmetrical, absolute symmetry, bilateral
symmetry, asymmetrical, radial)
Where is the focal point and how are you being led there?
Where is the vanishing point and the vantage point?
What is the rhythm of the work and how is the work unified? (repetition, rhythm, unity,
What type of line is the artist using and what feeling does it express? (expressive,
Is the composition made up of horizontal, vertical or diagonal lines and how does that
affect the composition?
Do the lines have direction? Explain how the lines move your eye. (implied lines, line of
Is the illusion of space shallow or deep?
How is the illusion of space created? Or is it denied? (perspective , overlapping, light and
shadow, volume or mass, scale) Explain how.
Light and Color
How is the artist using color? Is it arbitrary, local, perceptual, optical? Is there symbolism
in the color?
Is the work high key or low key (value)? Talk about the intensity and saturation of color.
(tint, shade, bright, dull etc.)
Is the artist using a specific color scheme? (analogous, complimentary, contrasting,
How does the color work emotionally?
Where is the source of light coming from and how does it highlight and shadow? Is the
artist modeling using chiaroscuro / tenebrism? How?
What kind of texture is the artist using? (actual, perceptual)
Is the brushwork visible? Is the paint thick or thin? How does the brushwork relate to
texture, light, color, rhythm?
Personal Connection (2-3 sentences)
How do you relate to this piece of art? What does it represent to you on a personal level?
Do you like it? Do you like it more or less after spending time with it?
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