Art Appreciation, The Fundamentals

Going to the local art museum is a good, warming experience. Before getting out the car keys and whipping over to the art parking lot, you will find the trip much more enjoyable if you know a few basic artsy kind of terms.


1. Line — The visual element of Line is the foundation of all drawing. It is the first and most versatile of the visual elements. Line in an artwork can be used in many different ways. It can be used to suggest shape, pattern, form, structure, growth, depth, distance, rhythm, movement and a range of emotions. Quite often vertical lines suggest strength and leadership (as well as height). Horizontal lines try to tell you about distance and calm. Diagonal lines usually mean action of some sort will be happening.

2. Shape — Natural or man-made, regular or irregular, flat or solid, positive or negative. Etcetera.

3. Color and Value — The visual element of Color has the strongest effect on our emotions. It is the element we use to create the mood or atmosphere of an artwork.


1. Balance

2. Proportion

3. Pattern and Movement

If what you see is either off center, or leans in a direction (especially if the background trees do not lean), then movement or action is indicated. Note that portraits typically do not lean. All these three things might be summed up by the word “composition.”

A very smart English museum-tour bus driver told us that if you fold a picture of a painting into sixteenths, then unfold it, each of the sixteenths should more or less make the painting “happen.” For example, look at a picture of Rembrandt’s “Jeremiah.” Each sixteenth pretty much goes with Jeremiah. The fact that he’s off-center and leaning diagonally means he’s an action figure. Probably he’s worried about getting his “Lamentations” into the editor by the deadline. Perhaps he’s forgotten where he lost his shoes. Again.

I won’t fold Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” into sixteenths, though you can easily see that each piece “fits.” Note the diagonals on every figure but the central one: muskets and pikes, persons, dogs and chickens are going or looking somewhere, as a night watch crew should. The gent in the middle is clearly the watch commander – vertical lines and central position connoting strength.

Rembrandt’s picture of this old geezer, a Rembrandt self-portrait, though, veers from the rules. He’s off center and pointing diagonally, meaning he’s into action. Cripes, he’s older than I am, and clearly going nowhere because of his arthritis or leg cramps. This goes to prove that there sometimes is no point in the rules.

You should also do some research, or at least half-useful Google-clicking to take an intellectual trip through art history before heading out to the museum:

1. The Ancient World

2. The Art of India, China, Africa, the Americas and Japan

3. Western Art: The Middle Ages Through the Renaissance

4. Western Art: The Baroque Through the Nineteenth Century

5. Twentieth Century Art

Okay. After grinding out the fundamental intellectual groundings of art, we are now primed for that important art gallery appreciation visit. Once I found myself in the Albright-Knox Museum in Buffalo, New York, sitting on a bench in a placid atrium facing this acrylic-on-aluminum plate painting, which was completely white. I believe that painting’s title was, “Acrylic on Aluminum, White.” Maybe not. I don’t remember, and neither does the curator. Composition ought to be easy as dump cake, and the artist needn’t have shown motion, because there isn’t any. The professional critic might call the composition “perfect.” It would be hard to argue that the proportion is out of whack. As for balance, unless the night crew smacks the thing during cleanup, one could hardly fault the work for fouls in this area.

At this point I had this burning wish to do a brilliant thing, the most meaningful action in this hallowed spot that I could think of. Since eating lunch inside the museum was forbidden, I wanted to do the next best thing — put on a beret, pull out my pad and begin sketching “Acrylic on Aluminum, White” for my next art class. Every now and then I would look up at the original to make sure my interpretation matched. I would never hold up my thumb over the pencil for proportioning, as that would clearly mark me as a crude amateur and bumpkin. Using peripheral vision to see if other museum visitors reacted to my art-student art appreciation, I would see that most would pass by quickly, probably so’s not to interrupt my view. I believe a small, but fanatic number would truly believe me and appreciate my appreciation. I would plan to get up and leave quickly, though, if either the actual artist, or a happy kibitzer wanted to sit down beside me and adjust my sketching with pointers.

Alas, in my haste to get out for an actual lunch, I forgot to stop by the museum store. My best intentions were to purchase a postcard of “Acrylic on Aluminum, White.” Maybe a half-useful Google search will turn one up.