How to Read a Painting

Yesterday, we took a field trip to an art museum for a special class on “How to Read a Painting.” The program, which lasted just under an hour, went very well; I learned a lot, and apparently, my children did too. Even my shy six-year-old raised his hand and answered questions correctly.

The class focused on two of the main elements in art: line and color. The teacher presented some good ways to remember what each one symbolized. As she spoke, examples of several famous paintings were presented and discussed.

Wide, vertical lines, the children learned, are like a tall, straight soldier; they demonstrate strength and stability.

  • Horizontal lines remind us of someone sleeping or laying down; they represent peace or rest.
  • Diagonal lines are the lines formed by a body moving quickly, such as when someone is running. Diagonal lines, then, represent action.
  • Curved lines are similar to those formed by a ballerina when she dances, so those lines show movement and warmth.
  • The instructor then told the children about another line they can’t see — an implied line that is formed when a person in the painting is looking at something or when light is streaming down on an object.

After discussing lines and figuring out what the artists were trying to express, the instructor then told the children about color and what the colors often represent. She pointed out that the meanings of some colors have changed over time, even to the point of representing complete opposites. Yellow, for example, used to convey betrayal; today, however, it depicts friendship. Some of the others discussed included:

  • Blue – for loyalty or sadness
  • White – for purity or mourning
  • Red – for strong emotions
  • Green – for growth

The instructor also made a point of stating that not every artist follows these painting “clues” — some depict things exactly as they see them, some choose lines and colors just because they like them, while still others make up their own meanings for line and color.

The talk concluded with a self-portrait a student had created using only lines and color — a piece that, though it didn’t look like her, represented who she was and how she viewed herself. It was a fun way to apply what we learned, so I know what we’ll be working on today… 🙂

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