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How to Understand a Painting

Art is practically a foreign language, and we’re here to be your personal translator for how to understand a painting.


  • Step 1: Pick a painting Pick a painting that strikes your fancy, either in your art history book or in the museum.
  • Step 2: Study for subject and composition Carefully look at the painting, studying it for subject and composition, or how the elements are arranged.
  • Step 3: Determine color and tone Determine the color and tone of the painting.
  • TIP: Color, tone and brushstrokes are the primary ways an artist will signal mood.
  • Step 4: Find any common threads Look for anything that the objects or subjects in the painting have in common.
  • Step 5: Look for puzzles Be on the alert for anything logically puzzling about the objects—do they make sense? Are they contradictory?
  • Step 6: Look for illogical aspects Extend your alert to the whole painting; is it entirely logical, or, at least, not illogical?
  • TIP: Paintings that don’t make logical sense are best explained by reading up on that particular artist.
  • Step 7: Question the location Ask yourself 'Where in the museum is this painting located?' and 'Where was it supposed to be located before it ended up in a museum?'
  • Step 8: Find out when it was made Find out when the painting was created by reading the title card.
  • Step 9: Memorize and research the artist Memorize who created it, and find out information about the artist.
  • Step 10: Make a conclusion Use all of the details you’ve gathered and try to make a conclusion about the meaning behind the painting.
  • Step 11: Read the art history book Read sections of the art history book on specific painters, regions, movements or techniques.
  • FACT: When asked to explain one of his paintings, Willem de Kooning said, 'I’m not an ornithologist; I’m a bird.'

You Will Need

  • A good art history book
  • Access to an art museum

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