Updated: Dec 15, 2021

by: Sabrina Pachla (click here to follow her on Instagram!)

To admire art, you do not need a degree or even really an understanding of what you’re viewing. The artist’s intention for creating an art piece becomes irrelevant the moment it enters the public sphere. The artwork needs to be able to speak for itself and stand on its own without a lengthy explanation. The viewer then decides what it evokes; what feelings, actions, and ideas it distills. There are ways to break down art pieces in order to talk about them and figure out their true meaning.

For example, Art Historians and critics use Formalism to break down a piece into line, color, and shape. These elements can be found in both two-dimensional pieces as well as three-dimensional. By breaking down what the artwork is at its root, you will better understand what the piece is intended to represent. Sometimes there are objects that can be clearly depicted like a boat or a woman. In more abstract works, however, it is ok to talk about the brush strokes being loose and organic or hard lines that clearly define the shapes. Look at the colors the artist has picked: are they warm or cool tones? Notice the color saturation and/or vibrance as well as if the colors are primary, secondary, or complementary. The light source is also an important factor to consider. The painting can be flat or have depth thereby creating more space or less. While an artist is assembling a piece, they are thinking of all these formalist ideas of space and shape. On the other hand, the viewer is also thinking about the same things but in reverse.

Subject matter can be a little bit more complicated. There are no right or wrong ways to think about how a piece of art makes you feel. Artwork is very subjective as well as relative. Never feel inadequate because people don’t agree with you; as long as you can explain yourself you are never going to be at fault. Reading the title of the artwork and the year can give you a good inkling as to what you are looking at. Likewise, the longer you stare at the actual piece of artwork, the more it may show you colors, details, and brushstrokes that evoke emotion. No artwork is straightforward. Not every piece will speak to you, but try to understand why you don’t like it. What is working and what isn’t working?

When all else fails, research. For example, Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica.” Without reading a history book, you couldn’t just walk past it and know why it was created. After digging a little further though, you will discover that “Guernica” shows the tragedies of war and is today viewed as an anti-war symbol. But in reality Picasso saw first-hand how a civil war hurt his people. The painting was created because of a Nazi bombing during the Spanish Civil War. If you only walked past the 11 foot tall painting, you’d still feel the sadness and see the cold colors, but research can open your eyes to historical cues. Depending on when the artist was working, you can also take a guess of what they were living through. Artists since the dawn of time have reflected society and what is going on in the world. Think of world events during an artist’s life that could have impacted their work. Artists also typically reference pivotal artworks as homage. If in a description, they list a name or art piece, look it up and see if you can draw a connection. When viewing a piece, listening to other people talk about it is also a good way to learn.

Art is not created in a vacuum.


After reading Sabrina’s piece out loud as a class, here are some questions for break-out groups to discuss:

  1. How is the piece presented?

  2. Is it framed on a wall and well-lit?

  3. Does the space help highlight the work?

  4. Are other artworks around it similar?

  5. Does a sculpture on the ground or on a pedestal evoke two different responses?