How can I write a description of an oil painting? What elements should I mention?

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 It is important to know the date of the work, the era of the work will aid you in researching the piece. Is it oil on canvas or something else, panel, frescoe, etc. Is it representational (something that looks like the object represented) or abstract? There are different painting techniques...

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 It is important to know the date of the work, the era of the work will aid you in researching the piece. Is it oil on canvas or something else, panel, frescoe, etc. Is it representational (something that looks like the object represented) or abstract? There are different painting techniques depending on the era and style. Is the paint thick or smooth and clean like a glaze? Be aware of the play of light, is it dark and shadowy or bright and colorful. The size of the painting is also relevant, some works may cover a whole wall while others are more intimate. words to look up that will be helpful; Fauvism, narrative painting, Impressionism, compositional content, chiaroscuro, vanishing point, provenance.  Also a few artists from different times and styles: Vermeer, Goya,  Matisse, El Greco, De Koonig, Thomas Hart Benton, these  are a few painters of a wide range of  historical times and styles. The museum will have a brief history of the work posted with the picture that will aid you in your research. Youmight also point out the changes in emphasis in images and technique compared to earlier works.

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Here are a few suggestions. 

  • Certainly look intensely at the real painting that you choose to describe. Stand there until this painting evokes some kind of response from you.  Otherwise, move on to another painting.
  • Return repeatedly to painting after looking at others and look at it again, then again..then some more.
  • Explore what strikes you most.  Is it color, shapes, line, medium, or color?
  • Do some research on the painter.
  • After having read about the painter, describe this person to your audience, and, if possible, point to techniques in the painting that are typical of this painter. 
  • Study the painting again, imagining the painter at work.
  • Find something of the painter in this painting.
  • Describe what the painter is communicating and how (through color, use of light, etc.)
  • Go to the library and read professional descriptions in art books, paying attention to repeated words in different descriptions.  These phrases will, then, assist your descriptions.
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