How to Describe Art

Gallery visitors examing and discussing art.
Gallery visitors examing and discussing art. (Image: Michael Buckner/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images)

The experience of seeing a work of art is subjective -- art exists to express an idea or emotion of the artist, and it elicits a personal reaction from each viewer. But a description of a visual work of art is most useful when it reaches beyond the purely personal to evoke a sense of the artwork for the reader. Art criticism includes description, analysis, interpretation and evaluation, and description is the introduction to a work of art that can make it come alive.

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Begin with the Basics

Good description is specific but not esoteric. Piling on technical terms is less helpful than identifying in accessible language what a viewer can see and know. Providing the name of the work, the artist, the type of work -- oil painting, marble sculpture, woven textile, line drawing -- when and where the the artist created the piece and the school of art it belongs to helps orient the reader. A museum piece has a title card bearing this information, near or next to the artwork; galleries use the same system to identify works on display. A simple statement about the subject of the art, or what it is about if it is an abstract piece, helps to make a picture in the reader's mind.

Size, Scale, Steel and Salt

Point out what someone viewing the art could see in person. Detail its presentation, size and scale -- a framed miniature, a wall-size paper collage, a two-story rearing wire stallion displayed in a grand atrium, a drawing meticulously inscribed on a grain of rice. Share specifics of the medium. A sculpture, for example, may be glazed, raku-fired, copper wire, fine porcelain, red clay, soapstone, alabaster, zebra wood or a mix of materials. The colors may be muted or vivid; the work may show obvious linear perspective or a jumble of juxtaposed images. A performance piece might employ unusual lighting or restricted viewing angles to convey the artist's intent. Richard Serra's massive torqued steel panels create a giant rusted maze that dwarfs a wandering observer -- the artist sprays the steel with salt water to achieve the weathered finish.

Techniques and Secrets

Dig deeper to explain how the artist made the piece. Explore the brushwork of an Impressionist painting by Monet, the way Jasper Johns layers impasto to catch the light, or the drawings, clay models and plaster casts that led to Rodin's bronze sculptures. Point out anything original or unusual the artist used to create a particular piece, how long it took, favorite tools and under what conditions she created it. Every schoolchild knows about the years Michelangelo spent lying on a scaffold to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. A reader might not know, however, that the young Michelangelo agreed to sculpt his marble "David" from a secondhand block of stone that two previous artists had already hacked at.

Context and Canon

Place the work in the canon and discuss the artist's context if it's available. Rembrandt, considered the master of chiaroscuro, did not invent that Renaissance painting technique of light and shadow; he adapted it to his own vision. Lee Bontecou, acclaimed 20th-century sculptor who fled the notoriety of art-world celebrity to create a life's work in the barn on her farm, accidentally discovered she could make soot drawings with her welding torch. Expressive painter Edvard Munch repeated his hallucinatory, angst-filled painting "The Scream" in two pastels, a number of prints and two oil paintings, both of which were stolen from museums and only one recovered. Modernist Georgia O'Keeffe painted dramatic close-ups, surreal fantasies and abstract forms from the minutely observed life around her. Why a particular work stands out in the history of art adds to the experience of seeing or learning about it.

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