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Art Analysis: How to Understand a Masterpiece through Elements

13.08.2021
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how to analyse artwork

Those who first came across the analysis of any masterpiece almost immediately have natural questions: “Is art analysis necessary at all? Doesn’t it kill the emotional perception of work? “. We would even say that it is necessary to appreciate an art piece at its true worth. But only if you evaluate a work of art correctly.

A clear interpretation of art does not interfere with emotional one but helps to reveal new sides of the work, showing the deep meaning. For this, the analysis should not stop at a simple statement of the presence of an object or character on the canvas or on retelling the plot but go deeper into the meaning of the picture.

But the meaning is expressed through the external form. In the work, we are not directly given meaning, but only a certain form. And we must “read” it, see the meaning behind it. Moreover, the artist builds the form of works so that it better expresses the meaning they need. Today we will tell you how to analyze artwork and what you need to pay attention to.

How to Analyze a Work of Art

How to Analyze a Work of Art

Each piece of art has several levels. These are the emotional, subject, context, symbolic levels, and the level of the internal structure of the work. Our understanding of paintings starts with emotion.

Emotional Level

The first thing that we “catch” is the emotional structure of the work. It is needed at the beginning of describing artwork to try to capture the emotions that arise from communication with the artwork.

Moreover, this first impression must be preserved and maintained in every possible way throughout the analysis. Gradually, we begin to see how the artist achieves this or that emotional impression. The conclusion of the analysis should also be emotional. In the end, it is necessary to return once more to the holistic emotional experience. Only now the emotion is backed up by the knowledge of meaning.

Example Questions for Painting Analysis on an Emotional Level

  • What impression does this work make on you?
  • What mood does the author want to convey?
  • What sensations does the viewer experience?
  • What is the nature of this piece?

How does the scale of the work, format, vertical, horizontal, or diagonal arrangement of elements, the use of architectural forms, the use of colors in the painting, and the distribution of light help the emotional impression?

Subject Level

It reflects what is directly depicted. From this level the analysis begins directly. Any subject, any character or phenomenon, is extremely significant in the interpretation of an artwork. There are no random things in the pictures of good artists. Therefore, even a simple enumeration of what is on the canvas already forces one to think. How to describe a painting in detail?

A person’s attention is selective and for a long time, we may not notice any important detail on the canvas. Therefore, you need to make it a rule to start “reading” a picture with a thorough clarification for yourself of the meaning and purpose of all things placed on it. The object world of the picture is the words that make up the “text given to us”. Already at this level, you may quickly notice that all objects and faces are not chaotically scattered across the canvas, but constitute a kind of unity. And you involuntarily begin to comprehend this unity, taking the first step towards the composition of the picture. As a rule, it is immediately clear that the most important elements form simple and clear shapes (triangle, circle, pyramid, square). These forms are not chosen arbitrarily by the artist; they create a certain emotional structure. The circle and the oval are calm, complete. A square or a rectangle creates a sense of stability and inviolability. The pyramid and triangle give the viewer a sense of striving. At this stage of the analysis, the main and the secondary in the picture are easily distinguished.

Sample Questions for Analyzing a Masterpiece at the Subject Level

  • What (or who) is shown in the picture?
  • What does the viewer see when standing in front of the picture?
  • Who do you see in the sculpture?
  • Could you highlight the main thing from what you saw?
  • Try to explain why this seems to you as the main thing.
  • By what an architect highlights the main thing?
  • How are objects arranged in the work (subject composition)?
  • How does the work compare colors (color composition)?
  • How do volumes and spaces compare in an architectural structure?

Context Level

People often ask: do all the canvases have a plot? In a genre or historical picture, it is most often obvious. And in a portrait, landscape, still life? And in an abstract painting? Everything is not so obvious here. The plot appears before us as causal relationships built by the artist on the canvas. In a historical or genre picture, these connections are related to historical or everyday events. In the portrait – the relationship between the personality of the person being portrayed and who he wants to appear. In still life – the relationship between things and the person “behind the scenes”. And in abstract painting, the artist builds the relationship of lines, spots, colors, figures. And this ratio is no less significant.

Sample Questions for Analyzing the Work at the Context Level

  • Try to tell the plot of the picture.
  • Try to imagine what events can occur in a given piece of architecture.
  • What can a given sculpture do (or say) if it comes to life?

Symbolic Level

At the symbolic level, you seem to be returning to the subject content of the picture, but at another level. Still life objects suddenly begin to show meaning. The clock is the passing time, empty bowls are a devastated life, the remnants of a meal are a life path that was suddenly cut short. And although a painting is an arrangement of a plane, artists always strive to master the depth of space. The depth of space can be revealed in different ways. And each of them is symbolic. Near objects obscure distant ones. Depth is built using architectural structures. And architecture begins to actively influence the characters – to elevate or crush them, hide or flaunt them.

Sample Questions for Analyzing a Masterpiece at a Symbolic Level

  • Is there in the work any objects that symbolize something?
  • Are the composition of the work and its main elements symbolic: horizontal, vertical, diagonal, circle, color, cube, dome, arch, vault, spire, tower, gesture, posture, clothing, rhythm, tenor, etc.?
  • What is the title of the piece? How does it compare with its plot and symbolism?
  • What do you think the author wanted to convey to people?

Further, we rise to a new level of comprehension of the picture. Here, the individual aspects of the analyzed art should unite into a single world of this particular masterpiece. At this final stage of the analysis, there should not be a single detail in the picture that somehow falls out of the whole. But how to describe composition in art? Drawing analysis is based on the technique of formal style analysis. What is a formal analysis?

Formal Analysis Art Definition

Formal Analysis Art Definition

Formal analysis art as one of the ways to analyze art is aimed at studying the aspect of form in individual works and stylistic phenomena of art history (styles, trends, individual manners).

Describing an artwork is usually considered breaking down artwork by its components. In certain contexts, such an analysis is spoken of as imagery, expressiveness, visual information, a plane of form versus a plane of content. Formal analysis has some visual elements called building blocks.

The main building block is the line. It can be used both to create more complex shapes and to shift the eye from one composition object to another.

Value is the degree of dark and light in design. In other words, it is the contrast between white and black and all the shades in between.

When lines are combined into a circle, square, or triangle, Shapes are created. They can be both geometric (with clear angles and lines) and organic (forms that are found in nature).

Shapes are various three-dimensional figures that have length, width, and depth. For example, cylinders or pyramids.

The area between and around objects in space. Decreasing or increasing the space around objects influences the way we see that object.

Color defines shapes, lines, and space. Even black and white images have a large number of shades of gray.

Texture refers to the quality of a surface that can not only be seen but also felt. Textures can be hard or soft, smooth or rough.

Some say that formal analysis can be done only on paintings, but not on sculptures. But this is not the case, because such an analysis can also be carried out on a sculpture.Thus, analysis in art means a lot. Making a good analysis is not as easy as it might seem at first glance. This process requires the ability to separate the “single organism” and link all the elements into a unity composition. It is important to remember that you do not need to look for something in the picture that is not there and think out, as well as set the goal of adjusting a living work to a certain scheme.

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