The list of questions that follows is useful to ask when you look at a painting. The list was adapted from a guide written by J. S. Held, Professor Emeritus, Barnard College and appended by Dr. Thalia Vrachopoulos, John Jay College
— Who is the artist?
— What is the subject or title?
— Where and when was the work painted?
2. Subject matter:
— What type of painting is it?
d. Scene of everyday life (genre)
e. Still life
h. Architectural view
i. Abstraction (abstracted/ abstract)
j. Combine (additional media added to painting)
— If the painting seems to belong to two categories, does one dominate?
3. Frame and pictorial area:
–What is actual size of picture? Is it horizontal or vertical? (Height precedes width)
–What is the proportion of height to width? (Example 2:1 or 2:4)
–What is the relationship of the shapes to the frame? Harmonious? Discordant? Is the canvas format appropriate for the subject?
–Does the frame cut the shapes? (The area inside the painting considered as borders)
–What materials are used for support: wood, canvas, cardboard, paper?
–What kinds of colors are used: oil, tempera, watercolor, pastel, charcoal, ink?
–How is the paint applied: thickly or thinly, with a fine or coarse brush, by other means? Palette knife or fingers?
–Are colors transparent or opaque?
–Have other materials been used such as paper collage?
5. Composition (arrangement of the parts that form the whole):
–Organization: is it simple or complex? Meaning geometrically ordered or free and seemingly accidental? Do some forms dominate others? Is there symmetry? Is the painting crowded or spacious? Do the shapes vary or do they repeat?
–Individual units subjects or objects: are there many or few? Are they large or small (in relation to both the outside world and to the picture area)? Are the shapes regular or irregular? What kinds of overall patterns do they form? What is the proportion between solid and backgrounds broken areas? What is emphasis on center or marginal areas (borders inside)? How ornate are the shapes? Are forms building or flat? How are marginal areas treated?
–Lines: are lines clear or obscure? Subservient or assertive? Angular or curved? Are there lines at all?
–Colors: are they bright or subdued (‘saturated’ or ‘low-key’)? Plain or rare? Are there many colors or few (‘wide’ or ‘limited’ palette)? Does any color dominate? Are the dominant colors warm (reds, oranges, yellows) or cool (blue, grey, greens)? Are there moderate or extreme contrasts? Large areas or small patches?
–Light: is there a consistent light source? Is the source inside or outside the picture? Are their strong or muted contrasts? How much shadow? What is the function of shadows: to clarify form or space, emphasize certain parts of the picture, create mood?
–Space: is the space shallow or deep, open or screened? Is the emphasis on solids or voids (i.e. intervals)? What kind of perspective is used (linear (renaissance), aerial)? Is the main interest near or far? Is space suggested by planes (planar) in depth or recession? Overlapping (in registers)? What is the degree of illusion (use of chiaroscuro)?
6. Function: what use was the work intended for?
–Religious? Is the painting an altar piece, a devotional image, a private use cabinet picture, etc? Was it made differently because of the intended functions? If so, how? How might function affect form?
In addition to the previous questions please feel free to use the following if they apply.
Considerations For Different Types of Subject Matter
–How much of the figure is shown?
–How large is it in the frame (how much pictorial space does the figure occupy)?
–What is background or setting?
–Is the figure in action?
–Is there any indication of the figure’s trade, profession, class, etc.?
–What is the figure’s relationship to the spectator (intimate, aloof)?
–What kind of clothing is the figure wearing: rich or plain, tight or loose-fitting,
formal or casual, etc?
–What is the proportion of face to figure?
–How does the portrait deviate from the norm?
When you write about a portrait, remember that the primary object of your analysis is not the historical personage who is the subject of the portrait, but the character the artist has created in the picture. Always remember that what you see is the artist’s interpretation, which stresses aspects important to him or to the model or to their time.
2. Figural scenes:
–What kind of story is depicted? (religious, mythological, historical, allegorical, scene from everyday life)
–Is the action calm or dramatic?
–Are there many figures or few?
–Are the figures small or large in relation to the size of the picture?
–What is the setting? (Indoors, outdoors)
–What role does the setting play?
–Is the main action stressed or obscured?
What was the original function of the picture? Was it done for a public or private place? Is it complete or a fragment? Is it possible to make a reasoned statement about the artist’s aim? Does he wish to elevate the spirit, instruct, moralize, entertain, and satisfy his own need for expression?
–What is the size of the area shown?
–What is the spectator’s viewpoint?
–How far can we see into the picture?
–What kind of place is shown? Cultivated fields, woods, riverbank?
–Can the season or time of day be determined?
–What kind of human activity is shown, if any?
–What kind of architectural elements appear and what are their thematic and spatial relationships to the site?
–What is the proportion of cloud to sky? Plain to elevation? Water to land? Open to closed areas?
–What is the general character of the scene: attractive, forbidding, calm, turbulent, spectacular, intimate? What elements determine the effect: lighting, color scheme, spatial organization?
–What consistent is the structure of the whole?
–What is the degree of variety or sameness?
–Does the work seem spontaneous or calculated?
–How do the formal elements convey theme, mood, and visual interest?
1. Identification on museum label:
–What is title or subject?
–When and where was it made?
–What medium was used?
2. Subject matter:
–What is shown?
–Does subject come from Pre-Christianity or 60AD, Post-Christianity or 60AD,Old or New Testament, from 500 BC Greece classical literature, from the lives of the Post-Christian saints, Renaissance 15&16th centuries literature, everyday life?
3. Formal analysis:
–Technical means: carved from stone (what kind?), wood? Molded in clay and then cast in bronze or glazed? Welded metal? Construction in mixed media? Assemblage in wood or metal?
–Volumes: what kind of three-dimensional masses or forms are basic to the sculpture: geometric (conic, cubic, pyramidal), or irregular (jagged, smooth, organic)? How are these forms organized? Larger at top smaller at bottom, symmetrically?
–Line: does work have an open or closed silhouette? Does statue have extremities open or closed? Are the lines around the figure or on its surface? What is the relationship between linear and volumetric elements? (Is it 2:1, 3:1, etc.)?
–Space: how open is the form or how contained? To what degree does the figure displace space? Do the forms and space interpenetrate? Is the piece a relief, which creates the illusion of space within it (2D)? Is the sculpture frontal? Does it turn in space? Was it meant to be seen from one point of view only, or from many? Is figure finished on all sides?
–Color: is color or gilding added to the sculpture? Is the color of the material have special importance? Does the color have a thematic significance? Does it have a descriptive (true to life), expressive or subjective function?
–Light: has the artist considered the effect of light upon his work? Are the forms arranged so that a particular effect of light and shade will be attained? Shiny figures deflect light, dull surfaces absorb it.
–Material and form: are some of the forms inherent to the carving or modeling process?
4. Iconographic analysis:
–Is the subject treated the same way in several contemporary works? Check gallery with works of same period to see this.
–Has a tradition been constant or varied over time? Check galleries with works from period before and after to see this.
–Is the subject new or is the treatment of an old subject new?
–Was the work part of a larger decorative program?
–Was it intended for public or private viewing?
–How might the function have affected the form?
–How do the subject, theme, form convey ideas, values, sentiments, perceptions of artist?
–What does the work of art say about the period and culture in which it was created?