A fundamental overview of terms and concepts to help you look at, understand, evaluate, and speak about art with confidence.
Art feels daunting to many of us. I frequently hear from my decorating clients that they just don’t know where to begin with buying and hanging art. If you’ve ever felt intimidated walking into an art gallery or museum, you are not alone.
Personally, I’ve been mesmerized by art ever since my parents first took me to the High Museum in Atlanta as a young girl. I’ll never forget the feeling of being transported to new worlds as I climbed up and up that white ramp. Or the way certain paintings just captivated me and called me close. I could have stared at the lush color and sweeping brush strokes of the American Impressionists for hours!
So when I arrived at college I was determined to study art history and learn all I could. That passion quickly snowballed into almost a decade of interning and working at art galleries and museums.
But if the art bug didn’t bite you while you were young and you breezed through art history classes or skipped them altogether in school, then you missed out on the fundamentals. This means you probably weren’t taught the tools to look at, understand, evaluate, and speak about art formally.
That’s not to say you aren’t visually perceptive! You still know what you like and can enjoy the aesthetic pleasure of beholding a work of art. You can still form an opinion and ascribe meaning.
As Benjamin Ives Gilman said:
To appreciate a work of art is to see it with the eyes of its maker when he looked upon it and found it good. In appreciation a beholder receives into his own spirit the secret treasure of another’s heart, gathered by an observant eye, wrought by a fertile fancy and conveyed by a cunning hand. Artistic production is imaginative utterance; appreciation its understanding.*
But appreciation can be deepened to a fuller understanding and perhaps greater enjoyment when one investigates the context of a work of art, the techniques of creation, and the artist’s aim or thought process.
Art is symbolic expression and communication. It is visual language. It is “imaginative utterance.” In order to recognize and interpret the artist’s language it can be very helpful to know some basic art terms.
These terms will help you make sense of what you see, better understand art criticism, and then be able to speak about your experience more fluidly and with more precision!
Original Work of Art
A work created by the artist’s own hand.
Historically, scholars and critics have distinguished between “art made for art’s sake” and craft that has aesthetic qualities. Fine art are endeavors like painting and sculpture, while decorative arts are pottery, textiles, and other design related crafts that have a functional component.
This division has been used to keep women and minorities out of the “official” art canon and deny them access to formal educational opportunities. 20th century modernism broke down much of this division, introducing new mediums and acceptable ways of expression.
The physical material or technical means that an artist uses. Examples: painting, drawing, printmaking, mosaic, ceramics, collage, performance art, sculpture, photography, video.
This can refer to either the personal style of the artist (how she or he uses formal and compositional qualities in distinctive ways) or the style of a time period (the characteristics and tenets commonly used by artists in a certain period of time). For example, the Renaissance.
A particular style of a group of artists who share similar ideals and techniques. Often, the name of a movement ends in an “ism.” Think Impressionism or Surrealism.
An artist’s body of work.
When viewing art, one of the first questions that comes to mind is “what am I looking at?” This is the subject matter of the art work – the identifiable ideas and/or objects depicted.
Categories of Subject Matter:
Historical – Depictions of historical events, people, places, etc.
Portraiture – Depictions of a person.
Landscape – Depictions of natural views, particularly the countryside.
Biblical – Depictions of subjects, stories, lessons from the Bible.
Mythological – Depictions of Classical myths.
Genre – Depictions of everyday life, portrayed realistically.
Still Life – Depictions of things, usually in an arranged interior setting, portrayed realistically.
In an art work, the identifiable ideas and/or objects may not be the ultimate point. Instead the artist is often trying to communicate something specific. As you look at art, you will probably find yourself asking “What does this mean”? Answering this question often requires deeper probing. Sometimes the title of the art work is a good starting point otherwise identifying the movement, time period, country of origin, and/or artist’s cultural, social, and political background can shed light on the meaning.
Not every artist creates with a lofty or moralistic goal in mind. Sometimes a painting might be an exploration of color and shape or the meaning may be totally tied to the interaction between the art and its audience.
Meaning is fluid and very much depends on what you bring to the work of art. It is not absolute! There is a very valid and real interchange that occurs between you and the artwork, and what you take away from the piece maybe very different than the artist’s intended meaning.
Literally, this means “image or symbol writing.” This is the use of symbolism in art to convey meaning. These symbols can be overt or hidden, and may greatly depend on a shared knowledge or cultural association.
This type of art portrays its subjects as they look in the natural world.
This type of art “abstracts’ the essence of a subject, so that the thing or image may not actually look exactly like it would in the natural world. Often the thing or image is simplified or distorted in form, color, and composition. This makes us look at the subject with new eyes and see things from a new perspective.
This type of art takes abstraction further to make no reference at all to how things look in the natural world. Instead, the artist relies on style and compositional devices to express him or herself.
Technically, a line is a mark made by a moving point. Lines can create patterns, move your eye through a work of art, and/or convey emotions. Lines can be depicted in a variety of methods – thick, thin, long, short, etc. – and they can be expressive – agitated, calm, etc.
The 2-D or 3-D quality of a work of art. Ask yourself, “does the work have depth or appear flat?” In painting, a 2-D medium, some works attempt to convey 3-D space by using certain techniques: linear perspective, aerial perspective, foreshortening, overlapping.
Often this is the most expressive and arresting component of a work of art. Color choice is extremely important in a work of art, and you should consider intensity, tone, pairings.
The varying degrees of light and dark. Useful to create drama and contrast.
This is an area that stands out from the space around it due to the use of line, color, value, and/or texture. Shape can be actual or implied.
This is another element in the third dimension, in which the artist attempts to convey movement and speed.
This refers to the tactile aspect of the work whether actual or perceived. Some artists apply paint in a smooth manner where the brush is barely detected, while others use thick, painterly brush strokes and the surface of the painting is varied (technique is called impasto).
The organization of the formal elements within a work of art. An artist selects not only which visual devices to use (line, color, value, etc.) but also how to put them together.
This is the distribution of masses with in the work of art. Think about whether the areas of a painting feel balanced or unbalanced. How does this affect your perception of the work?
A sense of oneness, which in an art work makes the composition feel coherent. This is best done by repeating formal elements throughout the composition.
Size of an object in relation to other parts or to the whole.
Size of an object in relation to others of its kind.
This is the repetition of identical or similar formal elements throughout the composition. Often this helps create unity and movement through a work of art.
Questions to Ask When Examining Art:
What is it?
What is it made of?
How was it made? Did it take technical skill?
What choices did the artist make to create this?
What is the artist’s background? Do you know something about the artist?
How is it presented? Why is it placed here?
What is the title? Does it help you understand the work?
What would you title it?
What time period is it from?
Does it speak to events from when it was made? What about current events?
How would you describe the texture, color, shape?
How do the colors, lines, scale, shapes, etc. used make you feel?
What do the visual qualities say about the artist’s mood?
Does the work feel pleasing to you or is it jarring and unattractive?
Would you want to display it in your home?
Is there a story here? Are the subjects doing something, emoting something…?
Does it connect to literature, pop culture, or mythology?
Remember you don’t have to like it to appreciate it or attempt to understand it!
Additional resources for expanding your art knowledge:
“Three Simple Steps to Understand Art: Look, See, Think” by Kit Messham-Muir
The Art Assignment from PBS Digital Studios with Curator Sarah Urist Green – Some of my favorites:
How to Understand Art by Janetta Rebold Benton
Art: The Definitive Visual Guide by Andrew Graham Dixon
*Benjamin Ives Gilman “Aims and Principles of the Construction and Management of Museums of Fine Art” 1909. His line about “his own spirit the secret treasure of another’s heart….” was paraphrasing Albrect Duerer in “On Human Proportion”