Responding Formally To Artworks – For Senior Students

Sep 09, 2019

I just like it, it’s pretty cool”

Working out the “why, what, how” of responding formally to artworks for senior students

In a previous blog, we unpacked an alphabetical range of art terminologies commonly used by us, as your presenters, in our ArtEyeDeer video lessons. We’re always conscious of introducing you to language that’s rich in context, so that you not only see what we are creating, but you can understand how language shapes the way we speak about art.

You may be reading our blog posts as a home schooler, a school student, a teacher, or a parent/guardian – whoever you are, we’re hoping that you engage in art conversations in your everyday life.

Often, when we see a work of art that occupies our interest, our default comment is something like “I like that.” We might then add a supporting opinion “it’s pretty cool”.

Words such as “like”, “good”, “great” let us know that your reaction is a positive one, but there’s very little scope for developing a more insightful response when a sentence becomes “I like that, it’s good”. In casual conversation, this response may be enough; but what happens when someone wants more? How do you begin to communicate your response to an artwork with more expansive and expressive words?

When we teach, we present a simple 5-point template to assist students to speak and write formally about artworks. The 5 points are: Description, Analysis, Interpretation, Evaluation, Connections. Once you get to know this templateit opens up ways for you to respond to artworks created by others, and to expand the means to discuss your own artworks. In reality, all through the art world, writers, critics, curators and commentators will utilise variations on this appraisal process when interrelating with artworks.

Let’s look at what these 5 points entail. We’ll begin by assuming that we are going to write a formal response to a two-dimensional work of art. It helps to write under each heading; then, remove the headings when the writing is done, so that you have a series of paragraphs.

  1. Description– Always be concise. Say what is essential to giving the reader the clearest mental picture of the image without unnecessary elaboration. Description should be no more than two sentences.
  2. Analysis – This is where you examine the work as a visual construction and go more deeply into detailing HOW the image has been constructed. This usually occupies three to five sentences.

Consider colour, composition, style, texture, paint quality (if it is a painting), use of light, dramatic contrasts (perhaps between light and dark), subtle harmonies of colour, tonal qualities, use of line, scale, texture, materials or media. Consider any of these elements that are appropriate to the artwork in relation to the subject matter.

*** It’s important to note: Don’t go through these elements as if they are a supermarket checklist. You SELECT what is appropriate to your discussion – WHAT aspects of the artwork will best allow the reader an insight into the visual construction of the artwork? This is the most important thing to remember.

  1. Interpretation – This is dealing more with the psychology behind the subject matter in the artwork. You could consider responding to any of the following:
  • What feelings \ sensations \ emotions does the artwork evoke in you?
  • How does the artist achieve this using both the image and the way that the artwork has been constructed/created?
  • Are there any clearer indications of the artwork’s meaning after considering how the artwork has been constructed? (look back to your Analysis section to find any connections)
  • What of the title of the artwork? Does this offer any indication of its meaning?

***It sometimes feels like you should invent stories, scenarios, or narratives to explain the artwork. Try not to do this – you are only concerned with what you see before you, what the artwork tells you visually. Keep your interpretation concise, plausible, and linked solidly to elements that you have highlighted in the artwork.

*** If you are responding to an artwork where you have access to research about the meaning of the artwork, then you can refer to this as part of the interpretation.

This is usually three to four sentences.

  1. Evaluation– It’s so tempting to offer your personal opinion, but this is not advisable in formal writing. Instead, discuss the artwork’s success or failure as a visual product, and as a means to convey an emotion, or a message, or the communication of an idea. You could evaluate the artist’s intention in relation to the way the artist used media or technique to express that intention.

This is usually two to four sentences.

  1. Connections – This is in relation to how or why the artwork connects with you. What is it about the work that draws you in? What connections can you discuss? Do the connections relate to ideas, subject matter, composition, materials, media, technique, or any combination of these? This is usually two to four sentences, and in many ways, offers the reader the best connection between you and the artwork.

If you were to discuss this artwork in conversation with someone, then Evaluation and Connections become the go-to points. This is how you move on from our initial “I just like it, it’s pretty cool” comment. Let’s assume that the artwork is a painting:

“I think that it’s a powerful painting. The colours are really central to understanding that the subject is emotion-charged, because they are so unrelentingly dark and dense, and this draw me into the composition. The title also helps me to place an emotion into the artwork.  (That’s Evaluation). “The artist’s idea of sorrow seems really compassionate.  She relates sadness to colour, and linework to expressing grief. Even though the work is very abstract, I feel that I’m able to empathise with her intense feelings. (That’s Connection)

Sure, this can sound a bit formalised, but we’re thinking of conversations where it’s important to be articulate about the artwork you’ve viewed – for instance as part of a class presentation, or if home schooled, as part of the verbal assessment of your appraisal of an artwork. If you’re interested in an aspect of the visual arts as a career, being confident and articulate about what you see is important. This becomes most evident when you’re exposed to the “realness” of an artwork in an exhibition situation. You’ll be surprised in a gallery or museum setting how much an artwork can actually connect with you, and you to it.

Language, whether oral or written, can be a pretty powerful tool. When associated with the visual arts, it opens up a world that is exciting, inspirational and immersive.

Try it and see!


Wendy Muir

Art Eye Deer Teacher