Comments for Images

schoolboy by Van GoghA reader wrote to me saying she is never quite sure how to comment on an image. I realized that my many years of art training helps me comment on photography and art. So I’m hoping that with this post we can help those who would like help with imagery commenting ideas. If you have suggestions to offer, please leave some in the comments. I may add to the post with some of your ideas.

Using a list of formal elements I learned from an art teacher, here are some ideas:

  • Medium and materials: what did the artist/photographer use to create the image? One could ask a question or comment about the camera, the lighting, the photo editing software.
  • Composition: what is placed where in the composition? How is the rectangle (if it is one, and it usually is) broken up? Example: “An expected composition, with a diagonal going down one side where one would expect a vertical”
  • Color: is it one color? Many colors? Bright colors? Contrasting colors? Do they colors appeal to you? Example: “Love the combination of purples with reds and greens”
  • Light: What is the light source of the subject? How does it effect the overall presentation? Is it warm, cool, natural, artificial?
  • Style: Does it remind you of a certain style or school of artists? Is it realistic or fantasy-like? Pop art? Classical?
  • Depth: How far back does the photo/painting take you? Are you close to the subject or far away? How did the artist achieve those results? Example: “Wow, that field is vast” or “the dog looks like he’s going to jump right out of the picture and unto me!”
  • Motion: Did the artist/photographer create motion in the image? Does that feel good or make you dizzy?
  • Theme, Mood: Is there a basic theme to the image? Loneliness? Glee? Serenity? Chaos? Disconnect? Family bonding? If you think a photo has a certain theme, you can ask if that’s what the photographer intended. Or just say, “serene”, if you are staring at a calm lake surrounded by colorful fall trees.

For further reading:
 Formal Visual Analysis
 Composition and Design Principles

If you would like to test out some of these descriptive ideas, you may comment on the painting in the upper right corner by Van Gogh. Click on it to see a larger version and more information.

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9 thoughts on “Comments for Images

  • I very much appreciate this tutorial. I was never a student of art so I know very little about commenting on it. I’ll give it a try – I like the color choices – the contrast of the denim blue against the red and orange. And what is up with that hand?!? OOps, I strayed a bit. The red/orange background makes his blue eyes stand out, they capture the light somehow. And the dark hat, again, striking against the dark wall behind him.

    How’s that?

  • My browser just crashed on me while I was in middle of making a comment, so I’ll try to remember what I said before.

    When I look at the pictures and ask myself those questions I feel like I’m taking a test! 🙂

    But those are great ideas of things to look out for, actually when I took art, my professor said some of those same things. I only went to class a few days and I remember we were always analyzing these kind of paintings.

    When I look at this painting, the first thing I notice is that the person is sad and forlorn, next I notice that his face looks greenish.

    So I went to my notes archive and found the different terms my prof used. A lot of it is extra and really doesn’t apply to commenting on images, but once I’m typing it up…

    He used:
    Content– the meaning, message and/or feeling imparted by a work of art.
    Value– Which is what you said about light.
    Ariel Perspective– synonymous with atmosphere perspective. Sorta like what you wrote about depth, just he mentioned that because air exists between our eye and what we see, both contrast and intensity of color diminish as distance increases.
    Fluctuating ground– images which allow us to see the figure as the background, and vice-versa…High contrast images and closely cropped pictures tend to encourage fluctuating ground.
    Gestalt– Gestalt psychology refers to the study of perception. Also called Configuration.
    Chiaroscuro-refers to the use of strong light and dark values to produce the illusion of solid form.
    Medium this one you mentioned too.
    Collage– a 2 dimensional work that’s made from cut and pasted scraps of various materials.
    Trompe l’oeil– meaning “trick the eye”, This art counterfeits the precise appearance of one’s model so carefully that viewers mistake the painting for what the painting represents. Exactitude about local colors and shadows is necessary to fool the eye.
    Mimesis-Imitating natural appearances.
    Photorealism-art derived from photographs of objects rather than from the models themselves.
    Iconography-the symbolic meaning of images and details in art.
    Dionysian– encompasses passion, imagination, energy, and chaos. The opposite, Apollonian refers to reason, logic and order.

    Then there was a bunch of stuff about different perspectives…

  • Phd in yogurt, great.
    Ilana-Davita, sure, take it, I’m flattered
    Babysitter, those are great. Maybe I’ll add those to a new post on this topic next week (it’s Friday, you know, I gotta get ready for Shabbat…)

  • I have never learned the art of art criticism, yet I know what I like right away. It isn’t one thing, but many things that appeal to me in regards to art. Yet I can’t explain why I like something.

    I’m fond of viewing the work of Impressionists. Years ago we went to the Small museum of American Art in New Britain, CT. they had an exhibit works of Impressionists from CT. I never considered that such artists weren’t exclusively from France. But it was a pleasant and far too short a day…

  • What a great tutorial! I might add to it that there are no “wrong” answers for what a work of art evokes for you. Even if it isn’t what the artist intended, you own your own feelings. If it makes YOU feel a certain way, it’s legitimate :).

  • Ralph, some people have a natural instinct toward certain images. Learning the vocabulary of art can enrich one’s experience.

    Robin, agreed, no right or wrong answers. And how freeing that can be.

    Batya, I would think telling the truth would go without saying, although there are times when one wants to be complimentary (especially to a fellow blogger), even if the image doesn’t appeal as much as one might say. It’s a touchy point. Most of the time if an image on a blog doesn’t strike me, I don’t say anything.

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