Art Appreciation

Art Appreciation – a step-by-step guide

Many people struggle with ‘appreciating’ art, particularly when they find they don’t actually like what they’re looking at! This guide is a suggestion of a possible method to follow, whether you like the artwork or not. It may help if you’re uncertain of how to approach the paintings in the Ovid Block.

This applies to general art appreciation (without a specific question) but can be adapted to suit most purposes.


Critical appreciation:  first be critical (by picking out a feature), then be appreciative (by commenting on its effect).





Look through the image in question, and identify an artistic feature from the list below.


Composition (design)

  • Juxtaposition – grouping objects/figures next to each other for effect.
  • Lines – where and how they direct our attention.
  • Surface patterns.
  • Distance – how far the subject is from the picture plane.


Tone (balance of light and dark)

  • Narrow or wide range.
  • Use of contrast to make things stand out.
  • Depth, created through layers.
  • Directional (spotlight) lighting.
  • Diffuse (like daylight) lighting.


Colour effects

  • Mood (blues for quietness or sadness, reds for confidence, energy or anger).
  • Absence of colour.
  • Flat or unrealistic colour.


Three-dimensional representation

  • Accuracy.
  • Deliberate distortion.
  • Perspective and vanishing point.
  • Representation through tone or other means (like cubist multiple viewpoint technique).


Technique (how the paint is applied)

  • Brushstrokes – detailed or sketchy (painterly).
  • Brushes or fingers/ palette knife/ drip technique etc.
  • Medium (oil, acrylic, watercolour, pencil, pen and ink etc.) and its appropriateness.



These are just a selection – please use more if you can think of them. But let me assure you that you do not need the technical terms! As long as you can describe a feature, you don’t need to know its name.






Comment on the effect and effectiveness of the feature you identified in Step One. This is crucial – you should never mention a feature without going on to discuss its effect. Points to mention here include:


  • Attention: How does your feature attract the viewer’s attention, and where does it encourage us to look? Why do you think this was important to the artist?



  • Movement: Does it give the painting a feeling of stability and peacefulness, or a feeling of movement and energy?



  • Awareness: Does it make the viewer more aware of the artist, or less? How does this affect our involvement with the subject?



  • Engagement with the viewer: Does it draw the reader in, or project into the viewer’s space? Does it distance us from the scene? Do we feel like we are looking down, or up?


Don’t forget that every art-work has an artist and an intended audience. Always think about the CONTEXT – who the intended audience might have been, and what the artist might have been trying to say to them.







Repeat Steps One and Two as many times as you can.







Tying it all together.


  • Look at the main themes of the image (often suggested in its title), and state how the features you’ve mentioned contribute to the expression of these themes.


  • Conclude with some remarks on the overall effectiveness of the image. This has nothing to do with whether you like it or not – it’s about whether the image achieves what it was meant to achieve.