Writing About Art – a Sample Lesson

Susie Zappia, Kaplan University Faculty, Humanities

An assignment or invitation to write about a work of art can often seem very daunting, but it’s really an opportunity! It’s a chance to practice taking your gut, visceral reaction to something in the arts and then refining and shaping it through the application of specific criteria. These criteria, or formal elements, include line, space, light and color, and texture or pattern, and motion.



Let’s try applying them to a fun example – Picasso’s La Lecture (Woman Reading) from 1932. Try to study the painting casually and sort of converse with it. Notice how it makes you feel, what mood it seems to generate.

Then, you’ll perhaps want to seek out a bit of historical context on the painting. (In the case of this painting, it’s inspired by one of the artist’s most important muses – Marie Therese Walter, who was 17 when they met. Their first meeting is legendary, in that Picasso approached Marie Therese as she stood before a store window-shopping and asked to paint her.)

Then, you’ll likely note and become drawn to the work’s bizarre shapes, beginning with the woman’s heart-shaped head and spectacularly large, wavy arms. She has no neck that the viewer can discern but is comprised instead of a series of rounded and organic shapes – until the eye reaches the book on her lap.

Colors are intriguing, also. The green-and-yellow striped chair on which the woman rests is perhaps the only touch of realism here, with the exception of her blond hair. Her face and arms are pale lavender, and one side of her bosom is a light shade of teal, and there is an obvious lack of symmetry. There are a few very dark areas around her lap and shoulder – providing an intriguing contrast to these pale pastels. Do they suggest a black blanket or sweater? The wall behind the figure seems two-toned, or does it suggest a window?

After hanging out with the work and allowing your first impressions and your questions to flow, you’ll be ready to craft a more formal response and discuss colors, shapes, and lines in the work thoughtfully.

Consider next two aspects of design that art historians call “unity” and “balance.” How do parts of the painting balance each other or work together? Do you gain a sense of completion and satisfaction from it, or does any aspect of it seem abrupt or half-finished to you? Continue jotting down questions that come up for you throughout: does the use of pale lavender suggest light, someone bright and easy-going? What is the artist’s attitude toward his subject?

Let your questions guide your exploration, as other viewers are likely to ask the same questions! Relax, above all, and allow both the work and the artist reveal secrets!

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