How to read a painting

What happens when you look at art?

Do you intellectualise or go straight to the feels? Do you like to know who made it before you engage? Do you read the blurb next to a painting in a gallery, or on an artist’s website, or do you prefer to have a ‘pure’ experience without any extra information?

I recently received the following question along these lines in my inbox:

“Quite often I look at paintings and think, I really like that, but I don’t know why. What criteria do you typically use for determining whether a painting works or not, especially in abstract art?


Of course there is how it feels. But can we become more explicit – why do we like or dislike a painting, why does it look and feel right or finished, what kind of things would your [creative] thinking muscle be checking out?”

… and in today’s post I’m sharing my response.

I think there are facets to experiencing art. Of course each of us brings a unique experience to viewing a single work, so no two people will ever be looking at exactly the same thing, even when they’re looking at the same thing.

Our beliefs, preferences, histories, and how we feel in a given moment will all have an effect on how we experience a work of art. We might even respond to the same piece differently at different times.

One part of ‘reading a painting’ is about the technical language and skills used by the artist. Their choice of palette, marks, subject matter, composition and so on all weave together to create that initial impact.

So the first touch is with the eyes.

Eyes like to roam and brains like to make sense of things. If they can be kept occupied doing this, the soul can simply enjoy the experience of looking at a piece of art.

As much as the soul wants to and must connect, it most often happens through the eyes first. {Especially since you’re not usually allowed to touch the art!}

So a skillful painting will show the eyes where to go, and help them to truly see, so the soul can connect.

As a sidenote, being able to read a painting makes it easier to create one, because you can cultivate the work to help the viewer with the experience of engaging with it. {Which is not the same as painting what you think people want, or controlling what they see! Because good luck with that. ;)}

Among the artist’s main tools are colour, values, marks and composition. An artist might use one or all of these to express themselves.

Colour can be used not just for an emotional response, but also to direct the eye. In this still life by Diebenkorn, colour creates a frame around the main ‘action’ in the painting, guiding our eyes towards the cups:

Diebenkorn still life

Colour isn’t everything though. A monochrome piece can be every bit as powerful as a boldly colourful one. Look at Franz Kline’s chair paintings, for example.

Likewise, leading lines can guide the eye to the main story of the painting – its focal point. Photographers use this compositional device a lot, but painters too can use it, as in this painting by Van Gogh, called The Sower.

Van Gogh - The Sower

The focal point itself might be a detailed image or a splash of colour or even an empty space.

James Turrell’s Skyspaces, while not paintings {but art is art}, have as their focal point an opening to the sky. {You can see leading lines in this one below too.}

James Turrell Skyspace

Highlights in a painting help the eye to travel around it, again, keeping it busy and amused and sending messages to the soul about it. {Obviously this is all rooted in science and years of research. ;)}

The types of lines and marks an artist uses – swirly, sweeping, jagged, stop/start, luscious and thick, stark and thin – will also serve to connect eye to heart/soul.

Emily Ball’s paintings do this for me. I find her mark making absolutely exquisite.

Emily Ball Swim, Shimmer and Float

Emily Ball – Swim, Shimmer and Float


Look out for repetition of shapes and colours for emphasis, and other visual links around the painting that help to hold it together.

If these various elements are not immediately obvious, squint, and you’ll see the bones of the painting – the key elements the artist used to express themselves.

So there are all these technical, surface elements working together, and once you have some language for them you can start to see not just what they are, but how they’re working together in some kind of harmony to give you an experience.

And then there’s THE FEELS.

All of these things can make an impression so fleetingly you don’t even realise, because as soon as you look at the painting, all you’re aware of is the emotional impact it’s having on you.

Mark Rothko’s colour field paintings often do this. On screen we might find them powerful or beautiful, but standing in front of one many times your size is an altogether different, all encompassing experience.

One element of the feelings aspect of experiencing art is the subject matter chosen by the artist.

It might resonate because it reminds us of something, be it a feeling, a person, a memory, or an experience. How we feel about that thing will affect how we experience the painting in front of us.

Same for colour palettes and marks. It all generates a feeling response that connects in with our uniqueness on the inside.

But there is one element of experiencing a painting that can’t be pinned down by technical details.

There’s the invisible alchemy that is what makes art, art. {And yes, this is entirely arbitrary and a whole other discussion!}

It’s the part we can’t explain or describe, the part that makes us lost for words standing in front of a certain piece of work, so consumed are we by feelings and emotions – a visceral, wordless response.

For me, understanding the technical side, the surface visuals, is like a scaffolding for, or a doorway into, the full body experience of art.

A skilled artist can guide and suggest, and then after that it’s for us to jump off the cliff of knowledge and let go into the wordlessness.

Does this resonate for you? How would you answer the reader’s question? What does it mean to you to ‘read a painting’? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


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