Writing a Critical Analysis of a Painting
If you are assigned to write about a painting remember that it is not necessary to write a highly technical analysis. You only need to look carefully at the painting then analyze and classify what you see. If you have never written about a painting before, it may be helpful for you to consider the following list when studying the painting.
- How old is the painting you are writing about?
- What is its size and proportions?
- Is it a landscape, a portrait, or a still life?
- Look at the artist's use of space.
- Is there a center of interest?
- Look at the artist's use of color and shape.
- Look at the movement of the forms.
- Write down your impression of the mood.
- Does the painting have narrative content (tell a story)?
- How do you know?
- What do you think the story is?
- Who is the artist?
- Do you think the artist used symbols?
- Look at the brushwork.
- Is the paint applied thickly or thinly?
- Is it transparent or opaque? Is it mixed media?
If the work you are studying is an abstraction you will need to focus on:
- Paint handling
- Direction and flow
- Color use
- Researching the artist
Begin The Essay
Just like all other essays, your first paragraph serves as your introduction. This section should identify the title of the painting, the artist, what year the painting was created, and where the painting is located. You should also introduce your thesis in this paragraph. Your thesis could be about one specific aspect of the painting, or it could be a broad statement about the painting as a whole.
Your next several paragraphs should analyze the painting. For example, if your thesis is that the painting is a "startling piece of work," then the body of your paper should describe why you find it to be startling. Within your analysis you should include specific descriptions of the piece itself. However, do not focus only on describing the painting; presumably your audience is familiar with the work. You should describe aspects of the painting only as they relate to your thesis. For example, if your thesis is that the painting is "startling," perhaps it is the subject's body language that makes it startling. You may want to include a description of that figure's body language and explain the impact the body language has on the audience.
In an informal essay about art it is acceptable to include your own feelings and behavior as you looked at the painting. You can include information like how long you studied the painting, whether you compared it to other paintings in the gallery, whether or not you made a sketch of the work, how the painting made you feel, etc. If the painting makes you feel sad, then explain what evokes that feeling. Is it the colors the artist used? Is it the figure's pose, or the facial expression, etc.?
It is then important for you to make some conclusions about why you think the artist made the decisions that he/she did. If the painting looks startling or sad, why do you think the artist chose to paint it that way? Is part of the painting dark or dull simply to draw the audience's attention to another part of the canvas? You may also want to research what was happening during that time of the artist's life. Often there will be a correlation between the mood of the painting and the events in the artist's life during that time.
The end of your essay should reiterate the important points that you made, yet leave the reader with something more to think about.
Sample Critical Essay of a Painting
This is a very brief essay, and as a result, the introduction is concise. The thesis is in the first sentence.
Rembrandt's Self Portrait in the National Gallery
By M. Lewinski
November 1, 2001
Submitted for Art History 101
Rembrandt's "Self Portrait" in the East Wing of the National Gallery is a startling painting. Rembrandt placed his face in the upper two thirds of the canvas which is 33¼" by 26". It was painted in 1656.
Now you can begin to explain why you find this painting to be startling.
Artists usually paint themselves well dressed, happy, sitting at an easel, working. In this painting, however, Rembrandt looks inexpressibly sad, timeworn, and defeated. While everything else is in shadow, the face is illuminated as if it attracts all the light. His face is softening with age; his unruly hair is tinged with gray. His eyes look out, capturing and pinning me the moment I enter the gallery. I feel as if I had disturbed him while he was painting.
What about this painting has given the impression that Rembrandt looks sad or defeated? Is it the colors the artist used? Is it the pose, or the facial expression? You should describe some specific parts of the painting in order to support your thesis. You may also wish to compare this work to other paintings by the same artist.
His coat looks dull, nondescript. In contrast to other self-portraits where Rembrandt painted himself in finery, in this painting he looks like he is wearing an old coat, and an old hat. The color and quality of his clothing adds to the somber mood of the painting.
His hands are not visible. In fact, no skin other than his face is visible. Perhaps his hands would have taken some of the light away from his face, and he wanted to draw the audience's attention immediately to his face. It is as though he meant to emphasize the importance of his facial expression and the lines in his face, and de-emphasize the importance of everything else. It looks like he's just turned around to see who entered the room-- and he'd rather not have been interrupted from his thoughts. The only other form that captures any light is the curved form in the lower portion of the painting. It is possible that shape is his palette.
You should attempt to explain why you think the artist painted himself in this way.
Rembrandt made a self-portrait almost every year of his life, beginning about age twenty. The early portraits depict a smiling, self-confident, prosperous Rembrandt. These were probably intended to be advertisements of his skill to attract commissions. Clearly this painting was not designed to attract commissions. Perhaps this painting's intent was to capture a more honest, uncensored truth of the artist's life. He could have made himself look however he wanted, but he chose this somber pose.
Reiterate your thesis and the important points you made, and leave the reader with something more to think about.
Though we do not absolutely know why he depicted himself in this dark way, we must assume that Rembrandt was certainly trying to both evoke and express a feeling of uncomfortable defeat. Perhaps Rembrandt has painted the reality of his life-- a dimly lit, cold room; worn, dark clothes; a pensive, tired expression-- and his current emotional state without hiding behind flashy clothes and bright colors.
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