• Hardik Gohil

How to read a Painting?

Updated: Nov 4, 2020

This Question has not been asked by many, as far as I have observed, who have predilections for the world of Arts.

The answer to this Question is not confined to a particular Definition or a Method.

Understanding Art is nothing but discovering the series of Emotions and channelize it through Color Contrasts, Shapes, Words, Expressions, Background, and many other factors.

The Artwork could be a vivid representation of the Beautiful and Ugly, Dark and Bright, Concrete and Abstract, Wild and the Tame, Extremity and Neutrality, Negative and Positive Emotions, and so on.


For Starters, let us introduce ourselves with a few Technical terms as under:


1) Focal Point: The spot on the painting which immediately catches the attention of the Observer as soon as he looks at it, something, that the Artist wants the Observer to focus on, where the whole central idea of the Painting is converged. However, abstract artists can deliberately create an Artwork without a focal point. It may or may not be the center of the Artwork.


2) Objects in Isolation: The Artist may use this technique by placing an Object in Isolation to create a focal point.


3) Color contrast: The Artist might want the viewer to decipher the hidden message through the contrast of colors used in the Artwork. We can find such work in the Painting "The Death of Socrates" by Jacques Louis David:

In this Painting, the color contrast, clearly, is used to focus on the main character, The Socrates himself, who had been sentenced for charges like Impiety and Corrupting the youth of the City by introducing new deities, and failing to consider the Gods that the City acknowledged.

The very center of the Artwork shows the hand of Socrates who is about to accept the Poisonous beverage as his fate, showing no fear for Death, on the contrary he looks more than ready to accept the sentence without compromising his teachings.


The other things one should keep in mind while reading a Painting are:


- If it is an epic Painting, go into the details of the Historical events that took place and get an idea of the nature of characters depicted in the Artwork.


- Scrutinize the expressions of the Objects and the Aura which it radiates through colors and the atmosphere around in the Painting, more importantly, what do you sense after taking a look at the Painting?


- Get a brief information about the Artist, his/her Personal experiences, Interests, preferred Style for the Work, etc.


- Concentrate on the minutest of the details in the Painting, for example, the Architecture of the Monuments, The type of clothes Objects wear, their postures and body language, Pattern of colors in the Painting in Abstract Art, Geometrical shapes and concepts, etc.

My Observations on The Potato Eaters by Vincent van Gogh (1885)



Description of the painting:

‌1) Dark room lit by the hanging oil lamp which in turn brings the expressions of the 4 Ladies and a Gentleman into light.

A typical attire from the early 19th Century worn in several European Countries.

2) ‌It's 20:00 on the hanging clock, usually a time for dinner.

‌3) Not an extravagant setup. Seems like they are not financially well to do. Eating Potatoes hints toward the frugal nature of the Characters in the painting. Potatoes were cheap and readily available even back in the earlier 19th Century almost everywhere around the world.

‌4) Focal point of the painting according to me could be the Oil lamp, sparkling up the dark room and unearthing the expressions of the subjects.

‌5) One of the Ladies on the extreme right is pouring not so hot tea in four cups, probably one of them doesn't prefer tea. ‌Using one Plate in common for all to eat representing a good understanding between them.

‌6) The whole setup is wooden as in the early 19th Century.

‌7) 2 Tea Kettles can be seen in the painting. ‌Signature of Vincent on the wooden chair of the lady sitting in extreme left of the painting.

8) ‌No one is paying attention to the girl on the table whose face is not visible, making that figure a little more mysterious than it seems.

9) ‌Geometric shapes like rectangular grids on the window and Parallelism can be observed in the Painting.

10) ‌The People in the painting are probably of Christian faith as a cross can be seen on a painting hung on the wall.


Is it not that insightful and interesting?

Lets have a look at another one!


The Prison Courtyard by Vincent van Gogh (1890)



Description of the Painting:


1) A lot of Grief radiating through this piece of Art.

‌2) Painted after his own experience in a mental asylum.

3)‌ Focal Point could be the man himself, that is Vincent van Gogh, in the Painting right at the center looking toward the Observer.

‌4) Patients in mental asylum are made to walk as much as they can as it enhances their mental health (Here they walk in a circular path) as ordered by the warden.

‌5) Warden watches the patients and inspecting them from a distance, with a strict posture, and the other two officials having a conversation.

6) ‌Expressions of van Gogh were melancholic as if he did not deserve to be there.

‌7) Painting shows confined spaces and triggers a claustrophobic atmosphere with huge walls all around leaving no chance for any of the prisoners to escape.

These are just examples to guide you, what to look for when one observes a Painting!

These are my Observations. It could be possible that you see it from different eyes, actually that is the beauty of Art...just as the saying "The Beauty lies in the Eyes of the Beholder!



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