How to write about a work of art when you don’t know how to begin

academics art history College

Writing about art, especially abstract work, can be intimidating! However, at some point in your life as a student, you will probably have to analyze a painting, a sculpture, an installation, or even a creation that you don’t  know how to categorize.  

The fastest way to get started is by simply describing what you are looking at.  You may find that if you begin by writing down your observations, you will begin to “get” what the piece is about.

Here are three questions you can ask yourself that will get you thinking deeply, and that may help you enjoy yourself more the next time you go to a museum or a gallery.   

1. What is it?  

A museum or gallery almost always provides details about what a work of art is and what it’s made out of by providing the piece’s Medium. If you’re looking at a painting, what kind of painting is it?  Is it an oil painting, a watercolor, an acrylic painting, mixed media (which usually means that the artist used more than one type of material on the same surface, or even that they used something that isn’t usually considered an art material on the piece).  

There is often a lot you can think about by simply learning what a work of art is made out of. For example, Robert Rauchenberg  actually included a pillow and a blanket when he made his painting Bed (1955). Why would he be interested in including the actual parts of a bed instead of rendering it with paint? We connect with an artist in a very different way when we see the things that he touched or possibly lived with instead of a series of marks made by his hand meant to represent those objects.  

After you think about the medium, you can ask yourself...  

2. How was the object made?  


 The Ghanaian artist El Anatsui made wall hangings out of small pieces of metal, sometimes bottle caps, which are attached one by one with copper wire. Even without doing any research, we already know, just through observation,  that his work indicates a specific process.  While you’re looking, imagine the object being made. Attaching many tiny pieces of metal together one by one tells us that the object had to be touched many times, and possibly by more than one pair of hands. The effect is very different from, for example,  the effect created by Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog sculptures, which were made by casting stainless steel in a mold, which is a manufacturing process. The first implies the work of hands, and in the second we can imagine the work done in a factory.  

And finally…  

3. What is the subject?  

The subject of a work of art refers to its content–just like the subject of a book or a film. Sometimes, the subject is clear. Alice Neel painted portraits of her neighbors in New York City, her family members and her friends. We can get a sense of who she saw in her daily life when we look at an exhibit of her paintings.  

However, the subject of a piece of art can be a complicated or subtle aspect of the work. Some works of art need context to be understood. On Kawara made paintings of dates, called the Today paintings, written out in white letters on a solid colored background. Without knowing anything else, it isn’t easy to glean the subject matter or concerns of his paintings. However, when we learn that he completed every Today painting by midnight on the date he painted on their surface, we get a sense of the way the artist’s life and experience of time was a part of his work.  

In Conclusion… 

Doing research will definitely help you when you are writing about art, but looking at the piece and writing about what you are looking at will get you further because you will be interacting with the art itself, which is what the art was meant to do in the first place–connect with a viewer. Think of your engagement with the piece the way you would a “primary” source when you’re writing a history or research paper–it’s more valuable information.  And don’t forget that your observations are yours–not everyone notices the same exact aspects of a work of art, and not everyone describes them in the same way. By simply paying close attention and describing your impressions, you may be surprised by how much you understand! And if you’re ever stuck and you need help with a formal analysis or an art history paper, I would be happy to help you out.  

Sarah graduated from Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design with a dual degree in Comparative Literature and Painting. After earning her MFA in Painting at Yale, she went on to teach first grade at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn.

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