Working in museums and galleries I've see people run past artwork or look completely confused as they stare blankly at a piece. I've reflected on the conversations I've had with these viewers and the experience guiding groups through exhibitions. I've found that when you really break it down reading art can be done by asking yourself three questions:

  1. What do I see?
  2. What do I know about these things from my experience?
  3. Why would the artist put this together?

Let's try it out:

1. What do I see?

  • I see this is a painting
  • There's limited colors
  • The subject seems to be middle age
  • The face has a lot of details but the rest of the picture is unfinished.
  • The way it's drawn looks peaceful not piles of paint and colors. It looks calm.

2.  What do I know about these things from my experience?

  • I know that blue and orange are complementary colors so they energize each other.
  • I know that profiles are seen as a recognizable way to identify a person.
  • I may not know a bunch about the history of fashion from the time this was painted but her attire neither seem elaborate or disheveled. 
  • She's clean and put together.
  • While her expression doesn't seem overjoyed to me, her eyes do seem wide open.
  • She is sitting tall.

3. Why would the artist put this together?

  • Given that there's a lot of detail on the face and I know profiles are a recognizable way to identify people I think this is someone the artist knows.
  •  The person is depicted as sitting tall and is rendered in a peaceful way. So, I think the artist not only likes this person but admires them.
  • The eyes are wide and there's detail there. I think the artist may respect this person's opinion of their artwork. 

As you can see question 2 pulls from your own experience and knowledge that's why art is expected to have many different interpretations. Let's try again with a contemporary piece.

1. What do I see?

  • I see a swing.
  • It's a contemporary swing that I would find at a playground today. It's not a tire swing or wood swing etc...
  • It's a black swing and the cement is grey. So the entire piece is black and white.
  • The swing is stuck in a block of cement.
  • The cement is perfectly boxy. It's not crumbling away. 
  • The piece is in a blank space.

2. What do I know about these things from my experience?

  • Swinging as a child on the playground.
  • Swinging involves a lot of movement.
  • It's like you're flying in the air.
  • I enjoy swinging on the playground as an adult. This swing is the exact style as the one I swing on while my kids play at the park.
  • In regards to the cement. Because it's next to the swing and I'm thinking of those associations, I can't help but think of the alternative place to sit at my children's playground...the cement bench.
  • Also because of it's placement I'm reminded of drawing on the sidewalk. Which I enjoy.

3. Why would the artist put this together?

  • Since the piece is monochromatic (just black and white) and it's out of context (being in a blank space instead of outside) I don't think this piece is referencing childhood memories.
  • I think instead it's dealing with opposing forces. The object that should move and the strong stable cement.
  • The cement is taking over, stopping movement from happening.
  • Reflecting on my personal experiences and the decision I make at the playground: Do I watch my kids play from the swing or the cement bench? Do I choose to move or stay still on the bench. 
  • The swing being stuck by the cement is sad but to me (given my own personal interpretation) this piece is a reminder to break free from the still blocks of cement in life and instead choose the flowing swing.

Asking yourself those three questions should get you started in reading artwork. As you can see so much is your own personal experience and artists realize that so don't be intimidated thinking that your interpretation is different than what was intended. Most artists, if not all, want to hear a variety of interpretations that can start thoughtful conversations between people.

Cover image by Faith