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How to Talk About Paintings When You Know Nothing About Art


There are many instances in life where you can find yourself ill-at-ease. Some of these instances are completely unexpected and there could be no way to plan for them. Other times the instances were bound to happen, and you find yourself ill-prepared for them. In regards to finding yourself in front of a painting, trying to find words to describe what you like or don’t like about it, this is one of those situations that are bound to happen. Paintings are everywhere; in offices, on the street, in coffee shops and high–class restaurants. Maybe your boss acquired a new painting for his house and she/he pulls you over to take a look at it. Or maybe you meet an artist at a craft fair who wants to get your honest opinion. There are many instances where the ability to express yourself about art could come in handy.

If you have ever felt lost when discussing artwork with another person, or (heaven forbid!) the artist who made it, It is often useful to have a few of these rules of conduct, and handy terms and phrases tucked away in your head in order to maintain an air of intelligence.

Rules Before Analyzing a Painting:

1. Take a long look at the painting. Look at it even if at first glance you think it is trash. This will give you a little bonus time to come up with the right words for what you want to say, and also give your opinion more credibility when you voice it.

2. It’s all right if you don’t like it. Artwork can speak in different ways to different people, and sometimes, it just will not do anything for you. That doesn't mean its not a good painting. Often times the artist’s intention is to not make eye pleasing, pretty art. The intention is sometimes just to make you feel something when you look at it. So it’s OK if you feel confused, disgusted, or just put-off. Just remember, there is no need to make personal statements about it. If you find the need to be polite about a painting you don’t like, focus on the colors or the style (we will get to the topic of styles later) and move away from the subjective “like” or “don’t like”.

3. Read any text/title that might be under the painting, labeling it. The information there might be very useful. For example, a painting that you first thought to be a striped picture of tangled pink lines might have the title: “My Battle with Breast Cancer.” Ahh…now I get it. Titles often help to explain and even create more value to an art piece. You may also find a description of the materials used in the painting, for instance, “Oil painting”. Details like that can save you from asking any redundant questions. If the painting does not have a title displayed, it’s not a bad idea to ask the owner or artist if it has one. They would be impressed with the question, and happy to answer if they know.

4. Speaking of text, it is also a good idea to read the artist’s bio, if available. Sometimes you can find it on the wall with the paintings displayed, other times in the invitation or on a pamphlet. This can give you amazing insight on where the artist comes from, their motive and method of making the art, and why they are so fascinated with painting Chihuahuas.

5. If you know absolutely nothing about art, steer away from using words that label a painting. You don’t want to be the one that admires “that glorious watercolor” when it is actually a chalk drawing. Instead admire the color, the contrast of light and dark, the subject matter, or the composition and balance. These things don’t label a painting, they describe it.

6. Keep your comments short. Remember that people love to talk, and it’s just as valuable to sit back and listen to other people discuss a piece as it is to join in. It’s sometimes better to say one thoughtful statement and end it there than to go on and explain your reasons behind it, and it’s an old idea that the less you say, the wiser you seem.

7. If you still have no words, after you have done everything to find some, be honest. Deflect the question. Say, “I don’t know. What do you think about it?”

Example: Symmetrical Balance

Example: Symmetrical Balance

Useful Words to Know:

1. Balance. This is a pretty easy one to remember. Think of walking a tightrope. Balance is referring to the artist’s arrangement of the elements of the painting in order to make it symmetrical/asymmetrical. Most paintings are asymmetrical. Symmetrical paintings involve the idea that if you put a mirror halfway down the middle, both sides would perfectly mirror each other. It can also mean that one side is the perfect balance for the other side.

2. Brushwork. It is the characteristic way that each individual artist “brushes” paint onto a canvass.

3. Composition. In music, and in art, composition simply means the arrangement of the elements; in the case of paintings, line, color, and form. It’s a sweeping term that be applied to many things. Doesn't it sound better to say, “I like the composition,” of a painting than to say, “it looks nice”?

4. Contrast. This is when you put two things opposite each other and see how they react. This is Light vs. Dark, Smooth vs. Bumpy, color vs. gray scale, big vs. Small.

5. Medium. It has a technical definition, but most people use it in conversation to ask or comment on the “medium” used to make the painting, such as oil paint, acrylic, watercolor, chalk, pastel.

6. Repetition. When you see the same lines, colors, or themes etc. over and over again in either a single painting, or a collection of paintings. You could say, “I really think the repetition of the snake bite in all these paintings is over-done.” Though people might argue that statement, everyone would respect you for it.

7. Rhythm is like a drum beat in a song. Anything that shows up with regularity in a painting is rhythm. Like the lines of a fence or the even polka dots on the bathroom wallpaper.

9. Texture. Always remember texture. Bumpy, rippled, grainy, or cracked textures, among others, are almost always worth making a comment about.

Example: Impressionism

Example: Impressionism

Example: Surrealism

Example: Surrealism

Some Common Styles of Paintings:

You do not have to memorize these in order to talk about a painting with people, but they may help you understand a little better the paintings that you see. When you look down the list you will probably find that you already know many of the types of paintings. But a few may be new to you.

1. Abstract: a non-traditional style of painting that does not seek to represent objects and subjects in any realistic or recognizable way, but rather explores the relationship between lines, colors and shapes.

2. Cubism: a painting where "boxy" or geometric shapes are used to convey the object, such as you would see in the world of mine craft.

3. Expressionism: is about leaving you with an impression of the artwork. This painting also may not resemble anything distinctly recognizable.

4.Impressionism: a painting about the impression something gave the artist. May not look like the actual subject. Basic shapes and colors without much detail are common.

5. Landscape: a painting of the scenery.

6. Pointillism: a style where the artist uses dots to make a picture.

7. Pop art: stands for "popular art," and is inspired by ads, popular music, celebrities, and comic strips. Picture everyday items in bright colors.

8. Portrait and self-portrait: a painting of another person or of yourself.

9. Realism and photo-realism: when a painting of a cat looks like a cat its realism. Photo realism is just a step up from there, where the painting is so detailed that it looks like a perfect photo of the object.

10. Still life: a painting of a stationary object.

11. Surrealism: think of dreams painted on a canvas.

There are more, but I only want to touch on the common ones. If you want to know more styles, check out the website here.

Last Thoughts:

Knowing just a little about art can open up a whole new world of events to attend. Art openings, where an artist debuts his/her newest work, can be a very fun, relaxed events, with wine and hors d'oeuvres, music and soft lighting. These are great date-nights and also wonderful places to meet smart, interesting people. Its not hard to make a good impression in the art world, just be friendly, enjoy yourself, and who knows? You may find out that you really like to discuss a painting.


Peter on November 25, 2017:

There are many valid works of art, however Impressionism is lazy art, only for those who do not have the talent to paint the real thing and most Modern Art is not art at all, there's no challenge in painting a series of multi-coloured vertical lines, you might as well hang a deck chair, it is after all a form of canvas.

Agathe L on May 27, 2017:

This article is cool, I like the types of the art description because I've been wondering since I read Vincent Van Gogh's bio. It's easy to understand as well.

djad on April 13, 2017:

pliz Im artiste and i need to represent my art work an oil painting so plz i need to show me how i can talk about it step by step i look for somthing simple plzzz

Zedong on June 28, 2016:

Hi there

Cheryl Levyno on September 04, 2015:

Thank you so much found this very informative.

Colin Neville on April 16, 2014:

Enjoyed this article, thank you; very useful information. It would be good if more art galleries had information sheets like this to help people look at paintings in a more understanding way.

Daena B. (author) from Wenatchee, WA on March 12, 2013:

My pleasure.

adeel on March 12, 2013:

thanks for the info.

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