Writer’s Toolbox: Describe and Critique Art

Mona Lisa - Leonard Da Vinci - Wikipedia.Your characters head for the local museum or art gallery. Their eyes are filled with wondrous sights. Colors, patterns, shapes, textures, renewing their spirit, giving them the beauty they crave in their life. Or boring them to tears as they’ve just been dragged to another thing-they-don’t-wish-they-had-to-do-in-order-to-save-a-realtionship-or-get-sex.

Either way, it helps to have words to describe and critique that art.

Describing artwork is one of the fascinating uses of language, in any language. How does the writer capture a painted expression, a twisted sculpture, an abstract painting? Could you describe the Mona Lisa with the right words to make the magic of Leonardo Da Vinci’s portrait explain why it continues to attract millions of visitors eager for a glimpse of the woman’s face with a lack of expression?

Interior with Girl Drawing - Pablo Picasso.Artwork is encountered in most books in some way, a photograph of a suspect, a painting on a wall, a quilt, lacework, or arts and crafts item that tells us more about the character, place, or solves a mystery. How do you describe it to not only let the reader see see it, but also choose words that match the tone, scene, time, and owner?

In general, use the following tips for presenting a work of art, though how you choose to describe it and use it in your writing is your personal, creative decision.

  1. Identify the artwork type and medium (canvas, photograph, painting, sculpture, drawing, etc.).
  2. Identify the artist (if possible or relevant).
  3. If a well-known piece, name it.
  4. Describe the objects in or subject matter of the artwork (field, flowers, sunset, ocean, person, portrait, sky, furniture).
  5. Describe the colors, lines, patterns, shapes, and textures.
  6. Describe the first impression of the artwork, what your character or your reader would see at first glance.
  7. Where is the light source? Is the source from the sky, electric, natural light, artificial light, and light direction (top, under, side, backlit (behind)).
  8. What are the sensory qualities, the mood and visual effect, of the work?
  9. Why is it placed in this this particular spot?
  10. Why did the owner buy it?
  11. If the artwork has sentimental value, what is it? How does that help with the character development and backstory?
  12. If the artwork has financial value, what is it and why is that important to your story and character? Did they buy it only for investment? Or to support an artist they found interesting? Or maybe a relative trying to be an artist? Or is it part of their nest egg, saving for the future, betting on the artist? Would they sell it? When? Why?
  13. How does it fit into the rest of the room, building, or scene? Would the character seeing this, if they didn’t own it, think it fits perfectly there or not?
  14. What does this artwork tell the reader about the character or place?
  15. Many people interpret and respond to artwork differently, some with contrasting viewpoints. How would your characters respond? The same, differently? Would they each have a different reaction to the artwork? Does that add to the conflict?
  16. If important to the story, interpret the artwork from the perspective of the artist. Why did they create this? What was their inspiration, motivation, and goals to do so? This might reflect back on the personalities and backstory of your characters.

To help you learn more about learning how to describe arts and arts and crafts, we’ve put together some resources.

Here is a YouTube video for writers on how to describe art.

The following will help you describe artwork and critiquing it to help you flesh out the experience of your characters.

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