How To “Read” A Painting & Open up A Whole New World

Patricia Cherry Artist

Can you recall learning to read? Struggling with the sounds-one-letter at a time. Then moving into inference and comprehension. Learning symbols to establish meaning, deduction to deepen understanding.   Learning what you agreed or disagreed with or what you liked or disliked, came only after you learned discernment and critical thinking skills. Was learning to read valuable to you?


I contend learning to “read” a painting can bring you the same value.


All art; film, music, performing, literature are ways to share the very human need to communicate, express emotions and ideas as well as to connect with others. There is one big deviation with visual art; the visual artist has only one frame through which to communicate his/her idea. And once committed to a 2D format the artist must then let go. Now it becomes strictly up to the viewer to interpret. Here is the paradox, what the viewer sees or interprets may or may not have anything at all to do with what the artist intended. The viewer is in charge, and the more open the viewer the more exciting the viewing.


A painting can challenge you, lift your spirit, call you to play, open a new world, change your perspective, delight, or annoy or any other possible human emotion imaginable. There is no ‘should’ in your reaction to a painting nor is there a ‘should’ in what one will like or dislike. But learning to look will enrich one’s life.


So….. how do you read a painting?


  • A fine art gallery is part of the art world on a mission to show you why looking is worth it. But to do so, one must first slow down. Looking is not a drive by sport. Now does one have to talk art or know about art to truly read a painting? No, no and no.


  • O.k. you’ve slowed down, now what?   Pay moderate attention to detail, and offer up a willingness to reflect on your own feelings.


  • What do you see? Consider style or technique. There are periods of time in history when well-established styles were in vogue. Consider Renaissance portraits which looked almost exactly alike to the casual viewer. We are not living in such a time. All bets are off and all styles are relevant. Some artists create closely detailed, finely controlled works while others slap paint around almost haphazardly.



Of course this is an incomplete introduction to art. It’s just a little nudge to get you thinking about art appreciation. The better you can read art the better the experience will become. Slow Down. What are you seeing, what are you feeling? What is the style, subject matter, story of the piece? Most importantly what did you learn about yourself?