The Milk Maid, Johannes Vermeer

Art Appreciation For Beginners.

Great art has dreadful manners. The hushed reverence of the gallery can fool you into believing masterpieces are polite things, visions that sooth, charm and beguile, but actually they are thugs. Merciless and wily, the greatest paintings grab you in a headlock, rough up you composure and then proceed in short order to rearrange your sense of reality.

Simon Schama ‘The Power of Art’ (BBC Books 2009) Page 6.

Here is some handy information for inexperienced art gallery visitors. There are no ‘rules’, only advice, but make this directive number one, ‘don’t launch into a criticism of an artwork until you have seen it in actuality.

Size and scale. Yes….size does matter. As a general rule, big paintings and sculptures are made for two reasons. One, to fill a space where a small work would be lost or two, to make an impact on the viewer. Often both reasons prevail in really big artworks.

Shape: Does the shape of the canvas suit the subject matter? For example, a very narrow canvas can add drama.

Framing. Here is my number one tip to impress your companions next time you visit an art gallery. Last year I took a group of adults to a gallery in Murcia. One woman exclaimed, “Ooh what a lovely frame!” Well, it’s OK to say that if you want to but it’s better to say that a painting is ‘sympathetically framed’ or indeed ‘unsympathetically framed’. Does the frame enhance the painting it surrounds? Is it of the same period?

Artist’s Statement: Has the artist produced any information about the work? Do you agree with their statement, bearing in mind that what the artist intends and what the viewer sees isn’t always the same thing.

Title: What does it tell you about the painting and how does it guide your interpretation?

Subject: What is the painting of? Does it belong to a school or genre? Is it unusual, unexpected, controversial or intriguing? Does it lend itself to comparison with other artists? Do you understand the symbolism or allegory in the painting? Who is doing what to whom?
Composition: How have the elements of the painting been placed? Does your eye flow across the whole painting or does one element dominate? Is there anything that draws your eye into or across the painting or are you forced to look at the focus. Look out for compositions where heads or bodies are placed in triangular groups. Diagonals can also create drama.

Skill: What level of technical skill does the artist display? An artist at the start of their career may not have been technically skilful in every element of their painting, but there’s usually some aspect that’s worth highlighting for the way it was dealt with and the potential it demonstrates. Be careful, contemporary art can be deceptive in this respect.

Medium: What materials were used to create the painting? Try to distinguish between oil paint and acrylic paint. Has the artist used pastels or pencil? How does this change the overall effect of the picture?

Colour: Has colour been used effectively? Are the colours warm or cool or hot and fiery and do they suit the subject? Has a restricted or monochrome palette been used? Is the picture ‘high key’, (light colours) or ‘low key’, (dark colours)? You might find that most paintings of saints in Spanish churches are low key, this suggests dignity and gravitas.

Texture: It’s extremely hard to see texture from a book, but it’s something that should be considered when looking at a painting in “real life”. Rough, (impasto) or smooth, does it say something about the subject?

Response: Most importantly: does the artwork generate an emotional, visceral reaction in you? Love it or hate it, both are equally valid. But, can you put into words exactly what provokes a particular reaction without being boorish or dismissive?

Finally, I want to kill a myth that has been hanging around for years.

What is a conversation piece’?

A ‘conversation piece’ absolutely is not a work of art or an unusual object that could be the focus of a conversation amongst a group people. (I think that particular myth was started unwittingly by either Ken Dodd or Les Dawson in the 60’s).

A ‘conversation piece’ is an 18thC painting depicting two or more people having a polite conversation. It was a very popular way of painting families or groups of friends.

Paraphrase from Oxford Dictionary of Art & Artists

I hope that’s just enough to get you started, good luck and enjoy your art.