How to Describe Artwork

how to describe artwork

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. They don’t tell you that those thousand words only come to a select few. When an average person looks at a painting, they see colors and shapes. Maybe some figures, but that’s about it.

But, for an artist or art seller, the task is notoriously difficult because their livelihood depends on translating value out of artworks. But how can they sell to a population that doesn’t know anything about how to describe artwork?

An important thing to remember is that unless you can articulate the value of your artwork, no one will buy it. Most people often purchase something because they feel emotional about it, not because they always see the value.

So how do you show an average person that your artwork has value in it? That’s what I’m going to talk about in this article. Let’s dive in.

How to Describe Artwork?

landscape colorful tree

When you give a verbal description of visual art, you should make sure your description has every aspect of this artwork in check. So, what does an artwork have?


Every artwork has a name. So talk about the artwork’s name.

Every artwork had an artist and a date when it was unveiled. Share that with your audience. Keep these formal details checked.

Now, let’s dive deeper into the artwork again. First, let’s talk about the artwork’s genre.

Type of Art

The artwork can be a landscape portrait. It can be a still-life painting, a portrait of a person, or a sculpture. Introduce that. The type/genre of artwork will determine its mediums and materials.

Type of Materials

Any artwork/painting requires two basic elements: a canvas to paint on and ink/color. The materials vary due to artists’ preferences in style. An artwork can use oil color on canvas. It may use watercolor and paper. It may use charcoal/ink or a pencil sketch. Talk about what materials it uses to create the artwork.

Content of the Artwork

Now you should talk about the physical dimensions of the artwork. Mention the size of it. Is it a big painting, or is it a small painting? That is a defining trait of any painting.

Every artwork has different styles of color, tone, and texture. These are the technical aspects of the artwork. An artwork may use vibrant, bright colors, or it may use dim flat tones. Each will have a different mood and ambiance.

Talk about the texture of the artwork. How are the colors spread over the paper? Are they smooth, or do they have rough edges? Do the colors have a dramatic effect or do they blend inharmoniously?

Talk about the shapes used in the artwork. Artists like Picasso used hard-edged geometric shapes to incorporate cubism in his paintings. Talk about the style incorporated in the artwork. Is it Modern/Post Modern?

Does it incorporate elements of impressionism/cubism/surrealism/abstract/realistic art? Does the artist have their own style? Is it comparable to something familiar? Go into details and talk about this. Learn as much as possible about the artwork before you get to this part.

The message of the Artwork

After you’ve talked about all the technical aspects of the artwork, please describe what the artist was trying to say through it. Most artworks nowadays are very personal and are often open to interpretation. In that case, talk about what this artwork made you think/feel. Ask them what they feel about it. Does it incite any memories in them? Try to make it as human as possible.

Descriptive Words to Critique Art

To critique art, you must identify the elements of a specific work of art, how they are related to one another, and how they are relevant. To be able to identify anything, you must first learn the vocabulary. The same is true for art. It’s critical to use the right words to express what you’re trying to say.

However, the goal of an art vocabulary is not to memorize it. The more terms you know, the better you’ll be able to elucidate your thoughts.

Here’s a list of descriptive words to critique art. They’re organized by topic. A painting has several aspects, like color or composition. Decide which aspect you want to talk about. Then see which words fit best with what you’re trying to convey. For example, ‘the colors are vibrant,’ or ‘the composition is muddled.’ With practice, you’ll become more natural at it.

Words to Describe Color

Color plays an important role in setting the overall mood of an artwork. When looking at an artwork, think about how the colors look and feel and whether they complement each other or not. Think about if the colors look gloomy or cheerful.

  • Natural Colors: Natural, sympathetic, stimulating, subtle, compatible, distinctive, lively, cheerful.
  • Artificial/Negative Colors: Artificial, discordant, violent, clashing, garish, depressing, gaudy, jarring, unfriendly.
  • Positive Colors: Bright, vibrant, brilliant, saturated, deep, intense, vivid, earthy, rich, strong.
  • Flat Colors: Dull, quiet, flat, weak, insipid, subdued, pale, mellow, muted.
  • Saturation of Colors: Cool, cold, dark, warm, hot, light.
  • Composition of Colors: Blended, broken, mixed, muddled, muddied, pure.
  • The juxtaposition of Colors: Complementary, contrasting, harmonious.

Words to Describe Tone

Color and Tone may seem the same thing, but they’re not. The tone is a measurement of the mood of an artwork, whereas color is an element to implement mood, along with other elements.

  • The brightness of Tone: Dark, light, mid (middle)
  • The flatness of Tone: Flat, uniform, unvarying, smooth, plain.
  • Variation of Tone: Varied, broken
  • State of Tone: Changing, contrasting, constant, graduated
  • Color of Tone: Monochromatic, colored

Words to Describe Composition

Composition is how different shapes in the artwork are created and arranged. The underlying shapes and styles of objects are the subject here.

  • Structure of Composition: Layout, position, arrangement, structure
  • Shapes in Composition: Portrait format, landscape format, square format, triangular, circular
  • Levels in Composition: Vertical, angled, horizontal, diagonal
  • Places in Composition: Foreground, Middle ground, background
  • Positions in Composition: Asymmetrical, centered, symmetrical, unbalanced, balanced, off-center, lopsided
  • Association of Subjects in Composition: Cluttered, flowing, spacious, free, fragmented, overlapping, chaotic, separate, empty
  • Form in Composition: Rigid, upright, formal, confined
  • Space in Composition: Negative space, middle space, positive space

Words to Describe Texture

The texture is associated with color and light. When you use different colors, like oil or charcoal, it creates a different effect. These paintings behave and look different under the light. Not all artworks have texture (especially digital art), and it is hard to determine the texture without seeing an artwork up close.

  • Plain Texture: Smooth, polished flat
  • Rough Texture: Coarse, rough
  • Asymmetrical Texture: Uneven, incised, cut, scratched, pitted
  • Softness/Hardness in Texture: Sticky, soft, hairy, hard
  • Shine in Texture: Reflective, glossy
  • Smoothness in Texture: Semigloss, satin, silk, frosted, matte

Words to Describe Brushwork

The brushwork is the technique of the artist. Depending on their style, s/he may use different brush strokes to create their signature style. Many artists meticulously eliminate the signs of brush strokes to make their artwork look as lifelike as possible.

  • Bold Brushstrokes: Visible, impasto, blended, smooth
  • Thickness in Brushstrokes: Thin, thick
  • Statement of Brushstrokes: Timid, bold
  • The intensity of Brushstrokes: Light, medium, heavy
  • The surface of Brushstrokes: Edgy, smooth
  • The technique of Brushstrokes: Splatters, washes, exhibiting glazes, hatching, dry brushing, scumbling, stippling
  • Layers in Brushstrokes: Layered, flat
  • Accuracy of Brushstrokes: Precise, refined, regular, straight, systematic
  • Arrangement of Brushstrokes:  Irregular, quick, vigorous, sketchy, patterned, uneven, regular

Words to Describe Form and Shape

There are different geometric shapes and forms that an artist may use to create their style. These shapes might reflect or distort the reality they portray in their artwork. Some descriptive words to understand them are –

2-D, realistic, detailed, obscured, stylized, simplified, abstracted, flat, 3-D, overlapping, sharp, indistinct,  geometric, blurred, distorted, narrow, soft-edged, long, exaggerated, linear, hard-edged.

Words to Describe Subject Matter

The subject is the main attraction of an artwork. There are different types of artworks where subjects are different and unusual. Many artworks are abstract, which makes it harder to determine the existence of a subject.

Landscape, cityscape, industrial, fantasy, domestic, figurative, buildings, portraits, mythological, man-made, invented, urban, imaginary, seascape, still life.

Best Practices While Describing Artwork To an Average Person

wild meadow flowers artwork

An important part of describing anything is to understand it properly. Before you can describe an art piece to another person, you need to study it first.

Now, you may be an art student or just an art seller. You may even be an artist. Whichever one you are, it doesn’t matter. Because the average person doesn’t understand art as well as you do, they won’t understand what an impressionistic mix is. Nor will they understand the muddled compositions of Monet.

So how do you make an average person understand an artwork without art terms?

The basic thing to do is Translate. I don’t mean translating like speaking in another language. Use words that will translate feelings to them. And people don’t feel emotions towards words they don’t understand.

Here are some tips on how to describe the artwork.

1. Pretend You’re Talking To A Blind Person

When a person can’t see, what do you usually do? You describe things in more detail so that they can grasp them better. In the same way, an average person is essentially blind about the artwork. They may see it, but they don’t understand its significance.

But even a blind person has 4 other senses. So, when you describe an artwork to an average person, try to use as many descriptive words as possible. Instead of using complex art terms, try to evoke your audience’s imagination.

Suppose you have a portrait of a seaman amid a raging ocean. Instead of going into what kind of style or texture the artist used, describe how the waves are crashing onto the boat how the oars may snap at any moment.

Evoke an emotional response in your audience. An average person will remember an emotional response far better than any information. They will later connect it to this portrait. In this way, you can very easily intrigue a person.

2. Describe What You See

The description is a verbal task. It is the best way to understand a work of art. Since words are more accessible, use that to your advantage.

When describing a painting, describe its elements. The first thing to do is identify the subject. Ask yourself, What is in focus here? What are its visual characteristics? Is it a landscape or a portrait?

Once you’ve described the subject, describe the background. The background of an image or art usually sets the mood of the painting. Ask yourself, how does the background connect with the subject? How does the setting make sense of the reality the subject is in? It’ll help an average person connect with the artist.

3. Describe The Mood of the Artwork

If we were to break up a painting, it would consist of lines, colors, shapes, size, and characters. However, an average person sees familiar things, like trees, faces, houses, or places. So, instead of describing the visual characteristics of artwork, try to use more descriptive adjectives.

  • Artists use mood to convey messages through their artwork. Describe that particular mood. To make it easier, ask yourself these questions.
  • What kind of ambiance does this artwork create?
  • Does this artwork have a dark undertone or a light undertone?
  • Does this artwork have a secret message? If so, then what is it
  • What is the essence of this artwork?
  • Include the answers to these questions when describing the mood of an artwork. The average person will become enchanted with this knowledge.

4. Associate Feelings with Colors and Shapes

This is an effective tool to help an average person connect with an artwork. Instead of describing a shade of green, compare it with grass or tree leaves. Green is the color of nature.

It is synonymous with earth. Red is the color of blood. Red is synonymous with passion and rage. Instead of using art terms, create a simile. Always mention the colors in a way that has an emotional effect on a person.

Use familiar shapes to describe the shapes in an artwork. ‘Round like an orange’ ‘Tall like an Oak tree’ are typical examples. Like I’ve said before, people usually see things they’re familiar with.

Also, use vibrant words. Lighter words are less intimidating and more familiar, so people better understand them. Use words like shadowy, radiant, humongous, passionate, raging, etc. Assign these adjectives to colors and shapes incorrect conditions.

Example of a Perfect Artwork Description

Now I’m going to demonstrate a perfect artwork description for an average person. It’s called ‘Starry Nights.’ Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh created it.

It is an oil painting on canvas. Van Gogh uses 3 dominant colors in this artwork – Blue, Yellow, and Black. The first thing we notice is a big night sky. It’s filled with stars and a big yellow moon on the upper right side of the canvas. There’s a big Cypress tree on the left.

The tree has a rather ominous-looking black shape and stands out from the rest of the painting. In the forefront, we can see a small village in a valley of hills. Some houses from the village have lights coming out of them. Everything in the village looks normal.

Yet, the painting has a very dream-like ambiance. Everything seems to be in motion, almost like a living thing. The hills seem to be rolling down like a waterfall. The stars in the sky are in a flowing motion, looking like a river in the sky. The moon, like a sun, radiates dazzling yellow.

Even the Cypress tree has the appearance of a massive Black flame. It is one of the most renowned and well-known paintings of all time. The painting has had several interpretations. Many say it’s a visualization of conflict, where the barriers between dream and reality are melting into one another.

Final Words

How people see art is very subjective. I believe art is very easy to misunderstand. That’s why what you may find as life-changing, someone else might dismiss it as derivative. Besides, art is a very diverse topic, and everyone can’t get an art degree or just become an art enthusiast.

But we can make art accessible for ordinary people. Art can become easier to understand with proper articulation and ease of description. It’s good news for both artists and people who want to support them or want to buy some artwork for themselves. I hope you found how to describe artwork in this article was helpful. Thanks for reading.

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