Looking at Art

Looking at Art, Step 2: Describing

David C. Driskell admiring artwork at the David C. Driskell Center (2020)

What's going on in this work of art?

After examining the title, artist, and year the artwork was created, observing and describing the composition of a work of art is the next step in fully understanding what’s in front of you. 

Helpful term: the composition is the different parts of an artwork and the way they are arranged or organized. 

Examining the elements of an artwork’s composition is something you already do naturally. It’s everyone’s first instinct when they encounter something visual in front of them. However, taking the time to think about what you’re observing, and to do it intentionally and methodically, will not only help you understand a work of art, but will help you become a keen observer of the world around you. 

Let’s start with the following object.

Title: Harbor, Maine / Artist: David C. Driskell / Year: n.d. (no date)

What do we see in this drawing? Although the lines aren’t always clear, we can see two houses, some trees, a road that’s curving, and boats floating on water in the distance. It looks like there may be a town or some other houses near the water as well. 

Remember to add this information to what you’ve already learned through the title, artist, and year. With this in mind, what do we now know about Harbor, Maine? Well, we know this is by David C. Driskell, and Driskell liked to paint nature. That makes sense, because we’re seeing lots of trees and a body of water in this drawing. Based on the title, we know that this is meant to show a harbor in Maine, which also makes sense, because we can see the boats floating in a body of water near land. Combining an artwork’s basic information with a description of a composition can be a very straightforward process. 

Test Yourself

Try it for yourself, with the following painting.

Title: Landscape at Falmouth / Artist: David C. Driskell / Year: 1963

What can you piece together about this painting using what you’ve learned so far? 

Artists create the composition of their artwork very intentionally. If you notice something, it’s because the artist put it there on purpose. You can also use this skill for yourself in your own art to create meaning!

More Practice

You can practice this skill with the activity below. In this exercise, you will think of a family member, choose three words to describe that family member, and sketch a portrait of that family member that conveys those three description words to the viewer.