How to Sound Like a Pro When Talking About Art


Do you get tongue-tied when talking about art? Even the most articulate of us can stammer and stutter when it comes to describing what we think about the imagery and material of a painting. But fear not! We’ll set you up for oratorical success with our five step guide to chatting about art:


Step 1 – What are your first impressions?

banner2a Images (From Left to Right): Lee Lufkin Kaula, Reading Woman, oil on canvas, Kunstgewerbliche Schmuckformen Fr Die Flche Hardback loose leaf portfolio with set of 30 pochoirs (stencils), ca. 1920s, Edward Chalmers Leavitt,Still Life, 1886

It may seem obvious, but the best way to start a discussion about a work of art is to describe what you see first. Is it a figure? A unique background? A pattern? Start the conversation by noting which element or material first catches your eye. Dialogue will flow naturally if you start from a place of interest and excitement. Keep the preliminary comments simple and once you’ve engaged a conversation, discuss…


Step 2 – The Subject

banner1 Image Left: Francesco Vinea,Reclining Nude, 1879 Image Right: Harold Christopher Davies, Untitled, oil on paper

What is the subject of the painting? Is it a figurative scene or an abstract work? Either way, take a quick glance at the given title of the piece. It may offer a clue into the composition or it may open up an even greater mystery. How does the subject matter make you feel? Is it anxious, amusing, calming? Does the subject provoke a memory? Talk about representational and abstract forms, as well as the choices you think the artist made to represent the subject. Once you’ve covered the basics of subject matter, it’s time to address style, content, and…


Step 3 – Art History

banner3 Image Left: Dennis Hopper, Untitled (Graffiti Series), 1991 Image Right: Joan Miro, Untitled, plate 8 from Le l├ęzard aux plumes d’or, (Mourlot 520), 1967

A huge confidence builder for anyone wishing to lead or contribute to discussions on art is a keen knowledge of major art movements and styles. The challenge should be to gather brief but important facts about anything and everything from the Stone Age to Surrealism. You don’t need to be a scholar, but the more interest you take in learning the history behind the art, the more confident you’ll feel when it comes to discussing artwork.

With some handy art historical knowledge, describe what art movements could have influenced the style of the work. It’s also important to note the date and discuss what historical events could have played a role in influencing the composition of the piece. Discussing art history will inevitably lead to a conversation on…


Step 4 – Color and Materiality

banner4 Image Left: Radcliffe Bailey To be Titled, 2012/13 Image Right: Stokely Webster, La Guingette, 1991

When discussing a work of art, it’s important to comment on the surface treatment and texture. What materials did the artist use? Acrylic paint? Oil paint? Watercolor? Are the brushstrokes flat or textural? If the artist has decided to mix other materials such as paper or wire, discuss whether you think it adds complexity to the work of if it distracts from the painting technique. Talk about the use of light and movement in the painting. Does the artist successfully convey shadow and depth through lighting techniques? Or, in the spirit of the Fauvists, was color used to create a harsh, flat surface?

When commenting on color, avoid using basic descriptions and try to qualify your observations. For example, if you admire the blue detailing of a dress, speak about the blue in terms of light and shading – is it dark like the deepest ocean or light like the hue of a cornflower?


Step 5 – Final Thoughts

banner5 Images (From Left to Right): Edmond van Coppenolle, Floral Still Life, oil on canvas, Charles Levier, Floral Still Life, oil on canvas, David Avisar, Still Life, acrylic on board

Finally, after your insightful analysis, do you like or dislike the work? This is a more complex question than you may imagine – perhaps you like the techniques employed, but dislike the subject matter. Your final thoughts should sum up your overall appreciation – or lack thereof – of the painting. When you walk away, you should feel as if you’ve given the composition it’s due and respect.


Featured Image: European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, Source: Wikimedia Commons