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Art History: A Preliminary Handbook

by Dr. Robert J. Belton

Beginning the Assignment

Try this process of elimination. Don't feel obliged to go about it in so mechanical a way.

We know that the basic elements of a work of art are form, content and context. You can begin by taking each category and exploring whether or not its subcategories are applicable to the image at hand. As an example, turn to van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding (1434) in the textbook.

Form might be started along these lines:

medium: Is it really important to note that it is oil on panel, or is this question really more useful for works which depart from the norm for some expressive purpose? How would it be different if it were in some other material? Ask yourself these questions and decide later if you can throw out the answers.

scale: This is a fairly small painting. Is it worth mentioning?

line: Of the various subcategories of line, which are useful in this instance? What do they do in the image? Are there any directional movements created by line?

shape: Are the shapes organic or geometric? Do they give the impression of mass (density) or volume (openness)? Do they overlap one another? Do they simply meet along some edge?

space: Let's jump right to perspective to see what sort of space we're dealing with. Is there any atmospheric perspective, or is it linear? Do the orthogonals lead anywhere?

colour: First of all, what is the general impression of the colour? Is it inviting, warm and decorative or cold, blandly descriptive and unappealing? Are the hues local or environmental?

light: Does light add anything dramatic, like spotlighting? Does it simply describe form by casting shadows?

texture: Is the texture fairly impersonal or highly individualised? How are little details picked out?

unity: What holds the image together as a whole? Do the formal elements above work together, by and large, or do they fight with one another? Is there a general characteristic, like a majority of lines along the vertical or horizontal axes? Are the shapes similar or dissimilar over all?

variety: Are there various elements mixed in here and there, or is the picture really pretty "empty?"

balance: Is the picture balanced or not? How? What does this imply about the content?

contrast: Remember that contrast is always "of" something. Are there contrasting lines, shapes, spaces, colours, etc.?

focus: Things are starting to fall into place now. What ends up drawing most of your attention? Why? Is it because it falls along certain lines? Is it because the arrangement of certain shapes leads us to it? Is it because it contains the most detail or the brightest colour? Is it because it is the biggest shape, the littlest one, the most organic one in a field mostly of geometrical shapes, or the most geometrical one in a field mostly of organic shapes?

You could start content in a similar manner:

primary: Take inventory of everything you see, including things and actions: a man, a woman, a dog, a room, a window, some sandals, a chandelier, a mirror, a raised hand, a tilted head, etc.

secondary: In our culture, certain gestures and things have conventional significances. What does a dog symbolize? Sandals? Are there any tropes? Consideration of this may lead you to deeper exploitation of the formal features you have sketched out above, and it will certainly tell you which answers you can safely discard.

context: The relationship between form and content may be given further meaning by allusion to the work's context. In the textbook, for example, considerable emphasis is given to the patrons of the work and their value-system. Knowing where this picture is now (the National Gallery in London) would seem to add relatively little to an understanding of its content. What if it originally were in the collection of a home for wayward teenagers?

© Copyright 1996 Robert J. Belton

Last reviewed shim12/19/2012 11:12:48 PM