Cracking the Code: My Approach to Looking at Art

Art conveys messages, shares stories, and inspires emotions. Through the ages, people have turned to visual art as one of the most powerful forms of cultural communication and personal expression, creating paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, ceramics, textiles, and many other forms of art. Today, new forms of visual art invade every aspect of our existence through film, photography, advertising, and the internet.

With so many different media, styles, and subjects, the field of art can seem quite daunting. So if you want to get a grasp on all these different forms of art, you may rightly wonder: where do I start?

I have found it useful to develop a general strategy for looking at art, starting with broad, critical questions that you can ask of any type of art, no matter the form, the medium, or the style.

The most important ideas to think about when looking at a work of art can be divided into three categories:

  1. Form – What do you see?

Literally. Form is all about the physical work: the use of color, lines, light and shadow, the arrangement of objects in the work, etc. Form is the fundamental basis of meaning and emotion in art. It creates the image that we can then begin to interpret.

Every artist makes deliberate choices about the way they craft each image. Often, two artists can take the same subject and portray it in radically different ways based on their choice of formal elements. On the other hand, a particular combination of formal elements characterizes specific styles, time periods, and artistic movements, like the sharp light/dark contrasts of the Caravaggisti or the disrupted shapes of the Cubists. If you begin to recognize how artists use formal elements, you can understand how a work’s message is conveyed.

Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew, 1599-1600 — Caravaggio and his followers were known for their dramatic use of light and shadow, often for spiritual effect, as seen here with the rays of sunlight pouring into a dark room.

2. Content – What is the work about?

Works of art often portray stories, legends, poems, dreams, historical events, cultural references, or scenes from everyday life that the artist or the patron (the person who commissioned the art work) wanted to address.

Renoir, Young Girls at a Piano

Renoir, Young Girls at a Piano

Content may be obvious based on what you see in the painting, like Renoir’s Young Girls at the Piano. But content can also be obscure and uncertain, as with abstract art. Sometimes a single work may contain multiple references, combining stories or making allusions that complicate their content. In many cases, as with Pablo Picasso’s Guernica shown below, you can often find clues in the title of an artwork, which is usually the best place to start.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937 — Picasso, best known for his development of Cubism, painted a harsh, rugged testimony to the suffering of the Spanish people under the rule of Franco with this painting, named after a Spanish village mercilessly bombed during WWII.

3. Context – Who produced the work? When, where, and why was it produced? What was the audience’s response?

Context deals with the original sociocultural setting of the work as well as the history of the work’s reception and interpretation until the present-day. It is arguably the most complex component of the three-pronged approach, but it is a crucial lens through which you should view each work.

For instance, it would be difficult to understand the significance of Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s Self-Portrait With a Straw Hat if you didn’t know that: (1) she was Queen Marie Antoinette’s court painter, (2) she was one of the few women in the French Royal Academy of Fine Arts at the time, and (3) she was known as a portrait painter despite her aspirations to create history paintings. All of these facts influenced the formal choices and the content of her self-portrait, and they gave her work a deeper meaning.

Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat, 1782

Hopefully this introduction gives you an idea of the three most important ideas to watch out for when looking at a work of art. By asking a few simple questions, you can unlock incredible secrets not just about an artwork, but also about its original social setting, its purpose, and its message. You will also learn a bit about your own perspectives by analyzing your reaction to a work…and keeping your eyes and your mind wide open.


Next: Check out my example post analyzing Johannes Vermeer’s Woman with a Balance


3 thoughts on “Cracking the Code: My Approach to Looking at Art

  1. Pingback: Cracking the Code: A Series | The Art of Looking

  2. Pingback: A Dutch Cleopatra | The Art of Looking

  3. Pingback: A Balanced Judgment | The Art of Looking

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