How to analyze a work of art?
The analysis of a work is a work of observation and reflection. It is a question of looking well and to make work its sensitivity and its logic. The analysis of a work of art is a personal exercise which must be adapted to the work presented.
The proposed method explains the most important points to deal with.
1. Identification: it is a question of explaining what is put in front of your eyes and to make the identity card of the work.
- What is the document presented? The reproduction of a work of art in color on paper or on a slide? Have you already seen it? In reproduction or real? Does this one seem to me faithful to the original?
- What is the nature of the work represented? Painting – Sculpture – Assembly – Installation – Drawing – Collage … composite work?
- Is it presented in whole or in part? In what environment? Does it have a frame?
- What indications are provided? (Legend) :
- The author – The title (always underlined) – The date of production – The format – The technique and the support (example: oil painting on canvas, bronze sculpture, charcoal drawing on paper, etc…) – The genre (example: still life, portrait, landscape, battle scene, abstract work, etc…)
2. Description: be as precise as possible, as if you were describing the work to someone who does not see it. A two-dimensional work (painting, drawing or photography) will not be described in the same way as a three-dimensional work (sculpture, installation).
- The subject: what is the general subject of the work?
- The space: the framing or point of view (close-up, wide shot, dive, counter-dive, etc…) Is it a realistic space (perspective)? The place of the elements in the space? (right, left, foreground, background….) Are there any guidelines that draw attention to an element of the work? (vanishing line, gestures of the characters…)
- Colors: what are the main colors? Are there correspondences? (light or dark shades, warm or cold colors…) What do they emphasize? What feeling do they convey?
- Light: natural or artificial light? Where does it come from? Is an element brighter? Are there shadows, contrasts?
- Expression of the character(s): If the work shows characters, describe their posture and facial expressions.
- The plastic treatment: in painting (touch, flat tints, modeling, modulations, etc…), gestures, apparent or not, in drawing (circle, blur, sketch, etc…), in photography (silver or digital photography, grain, pixel).
- The relationship with the spectator: who is the work intended for? What is the place of the spectator in front of the work? What do they feel in front of or in the work?
If it is a 3D work:
- The space and the point of view: By definition a three-dimensional work with a multiplicity of angles of view. When we study it, we base ourselves on one or more photographs that will only show us a limited aspect of the work. We will have to bear witness to this and try to describe even what we don’t see on the document. How is the work shown? Is the work shown in a specific space, in situ, integrated into a monument or adorning it, on a neutral background? Is there a base?
- Color and light: The color of a sculpture or installation depends very much on its material or texture and the environment in which it is perceived. These interactions will need to be studied.
- The place of the spectator: is essential. These works belong to the real space in which the spectator moves and can act. Can the spectator turn around, enter inside, have an action on the work? Does the work have a direct influence on his perception or emotions?
3. Interpretation: Based on your observations, the question is to guess what the artist wanted to express.
- The message of the work: why did the artist make this work? What information does it bring us? What you have noticed in the description should allow you to make hypotheses. A work of art is never free and all formal choices make sense. You can also question the title of the work and its relationship to the work.
- The work in the artist’s career and in the history of the arts: the idea is to show that the work is part of a more general context and that it leads us to ask ourselves questions. What are the artist’s ideas? Is he part of a known artistic movement? Are there any other works that deal with the same subject? Can the work be related to an important historical, social or artistic theme?