Most of us have been there at some point, wandering through an art gallery and desperately trying to think of something to say. And yet one need not have studied art history in order to make thoughtful and interesting observations. All you need is a little time and effort.
What to Look For
First, a word of caution. If you do not like or understand a piece of art, be honest. Few traits are so irritating as pretentiousness. Better to say “I don’t understand” than try to bluff your way through. People are not fools. If you do not know what you are talking about, they will soon sense it. Above all, do not show off. Even if you do know a little about a certain statue or painting, there is bound to be someone who knows more.
Also, do not dismiss a work just because you don’t understand it. When people do not understand something, they often feel belittled, even humiliated. The temptation is to then sulk and announce that it’s garbage. But when you do that you simply make a fool of yourself. If the object has been placed in a gallery, then smart and insightful people agree that it is valuable. To dismiss such things as worthless is staggeringly arrogant.
Artists do not set out to confuse. They are human beings, and their art is drawn from human experience: love, hate, pity, tragedy, fear, humor, pain, ecstasy, beauty, etc, these are their great themes. Take Rembrandt, for example, a Dutch painter born in 1606. Rembrandt is most famous for his self-portraits. If you line them up in chronological order, the whole arc of life is there: the fresh-faced innocent, the bumptious 30-something, the grieving and troubled old man preparing for death.
Let’s begin with the basics. The foundation of a painting is the line, and this varies a great deal. A painting may be filled with short, jagged lines, for example, or a handful of long, smooth ones. Great painters, like great poets or actors, know what they are doing. The painter may have agonized over the kind of line to use, and may have even re-started when he got it wrong.
Different lines suggest different things. A curved line, for example, suggests tranquility, while a jagged line (like harsh words in a poem) suggests turmoil. When someone paints an adored lover or child, he or she may use lots of smooth, curved lines. Some paintings are filled with vertical lines, straining up and away from grief or pain. Horizontal lines, on the other hand, are often used in peaceful, rural scenes.
A painter who combines the two usually does so for a reason. Imagine a scene of beauty and tranquility. In the foreground lots of smooth, curved and horizontal lines depict the French countryside on a Summer evening. But off to the top right a mountain range composed of jagged, vertical lines – why? Perhaps to suggest some coming disaster? Or the fact that nature is harsh, cold and indifferent?
And note how clear and distinct the line is. Sometimes, the painter will sharply separate one object from another, using a solid and obvious line. Others allow the various shapes or figures to blend into one another by making the lines thin and faint. Again there will be a reason. If you were to paint a group of seductive nymphs, for example, you would probably opt for such a line. These are mythic, other-worldy beings. They are also feminine and delicate. A thick line suggests solidity and strength, which would not work.
The line is also used to draw the viewer in. A long, unbroken line leads the eye in a certain direction. For example, you may have a painting of a muddy track leading up a hill. Is the line of the track broken by bushes and trees? Or not? In the 1930s, the British artist Stanley Spencer painted the footpath that led into the English village of Cookham, where he grew up. Spencer was a First World War veteran, and the painting represents the path back to his lost paradise, the place millions of soldiers yearned for as they huddled in the trenches. The right side of the path is painted with a long, thick, unbroken line – deliberately so. Nothing is halting or stopping him. This is an open road to heaven.
Then of course there is color. Painters adore color and spend their lives searching for the perfect combination. Indeed, the harmonious arrangement of color is an art in itself. Painters also tend to be sensitive to the experience of color. Van Gogh, for example, wrote of being overwhelmed by the golds and blues of southern France.
The three primary colors are red, yellow and blue. Sometimes, a painter will use these to suggest the primitive, basic and simple. Painters are aware that certain colors clash, while others complement. And they will place colors next to one another for the intensity of the effect. Also, they are aware of the color wheel, which represents the various hues. The colors facing each other on this wheel (such as blue and orange) seem brighter when placed next to each other.
As with line, color creates a certain kind of atmosphere or effect – soft or harsh, vivid or bland, etc. And they can either be separated or blended. Often, a painter will isolate one object, such as a scarf, and paint it all in one color. The intensity and beauty of that object then draws in the viewer and brings the painting alive.
Closely related to color is the use of light and shade. The technical term for this is “chiaroscuro” (Italian for “light-dark”). The contrast between light and dark, or light and shade, is often used to create solidity and volume. It can also suggest mystery or danger. Light is a major concern for painters. Of course, they are not alone in this. Most of us have stood by the sea and been dazzled by the shimmering, flickering light on the water. JMW Turner, for example, spent his whole career trying to capture the play of light. In his beautiful Mortlake Terrace, painted in 1827, he shows evening sunlight flooding the banks of a river. The light is so soft and warm you can almost feel yourself drowsing.
Then there is basic texture and brushwork. A painting can be smooth and flat or ridged and lumpen. This depends on how thickly the paint is applied. Sometimes the artist tries to conceal the process, and the result is sleek and polished. Often, they do so with thin, delicate brushes and lightly applied paint. Taken to an extreme, the brushwork will be all but invisible.
Others, like Van Gogh, use thick slabs of paint. Turner even used his thumb to apply it to the canvas. When a painter does so, he may wish to reveal these movements. Or they may have no interest in a smooth finish, seeking instead to create fizz and energy with rapid, coarse brushwork. The Impressionists, for example, were accused of incompetence because their works seem unfinished. In fact, they were trying to capture the flickering and ephemeral nature of light as it bounces off the sea, the leaves, the human form, etc.
Imagine you take a vacation to Europe with your new partner. In Rome, you come upon a Portrait of Pope Innocent X by the Spanish painter Velazquez. This is considered one of the greatest portraits in the world, so an indifferent shrug won’t be good enough! What do you say? First, notice the expression. This was painted in 1650 and is of a real Pope. You would therefore expect something flattering: a man who embodies power, wisdom and spiritual purity. Instead, you are met with a nasty, impatient, irritable little face. This is someone used to scheming for power, reflected in his wariness and suspicion. He is both scrutinizing the painter and leaning away from him. In real life, he was not a pleasant man, and that is what Velazquez gives us.
Now look at the clothes he wears. Look at the shimmering light reflecting off the silk. Allow your eyes to rest there. Comment on how beautiful it is (so long as that is how you feel). Also, note the intense block of white at the bottom of the painting and the background of lurid velvet. There is something suffocating and oppressive here. Finally, note the loose brushwork, which adds a sense of energy and dynamism.
Now you move on to France and visit the Musee d’Orsay. Your partner stops by a Van Gogh self-portrait from 1889. This was painted in an asylum following a nervous breakdown. Unsurprisingly, the face is hard and emaciated, the eyes pained, even haunted. Really look at the expression. This is a man who has suffered. It is like the face of an old fisherman, weather-beaten and chiselled. But there is also intelligence and dignity here, unlike Velazquez’s Pope.
Now look at the color: turquoise and a sickly, absinthe green dominate. But these are counterbalanced by the fiery orange of the beard. The swirling lines in the background perhaps hint at the madness waiting to break in. His right arm seems to blend with the background, and it is no coincidence that his jacket is the same color. The face, however, is solid and substantial. The eyes, the mouth and the nose are set firm.
Now let’s imagine you finish your European tour with a visit to London. You go to the Tate Gallery to see Sir John Everett Millais’ 1852 painting Ophelia. Ophelia is a character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet who drowns herself. The first thing that should strike you is the intricate detail. The background to Van Gogh’s painting was vague and indistinct. Here, however, the canvas is packed with detail. The brushwork is precise and intricate, with every reed, flower and leaf carefully drawn. Now look at the color. Green and brown dominate. And yet your eye is drawn to her pale, breathless face. Note the moment itself. Her dress is sodden and heavy, as is her thick hair. She isn’t bobbing along but about to sink beneath the surface – forever.
Then you look at La Hollandaise, a 1906 painting by Walter Sickert. Sickert was interested in the mundane, grubby underbelly of Edwardian London. Here, a chubby, naked woman sits up on a bed. Unlike Ophelia, she is far from idealized. The sole of her dirty foot is turned towards us. And whereas Ophelia’s face is neatly and carefully drawn, this woman, possibly a prostitute, has her features obliterated by thinly scraped paint. The background is also a sickly green and gloomy brown.
If you wish to sound intelligent when visiting an art gallery, you must put in the work. It simply isn’t good enough to say “I never got to study art at college.” You live in the information age. At the press of a button you can access limitless information about art and painting, and there are more books on art history than you can read in a lifetime.