What can we say about a painting?

Ode to a Texas Bluebonnet, gouache painting on handmade paper, by Julia O'Reilly

15 March 2023

On the essential elements of painting, and how we can talk about them.

What else can we say about a painting besides “I like it” or “I don’t like it”?

What are the basic elements of a painting?  What makes the difference between a 'successful' painting and one that's less inspiring?

Is it the particular medium or the technique used? The drafting skill of the artist? How much the work “looks like” a place or person or thing or a moment in time? Is it an aesthetic experience?

Before I launch into it - a caveat: 'like' is subjective. I like chocolate. You might not. You might like lima beans more. When we want to discuss a painting, evaluating from a question of 'what's at work here?' is much more useful, meaningful and informative than whether we like the painting or not.

Technique.  Let’s break it down some.

There are elements at work in a painting regardless of its subject or content. These apply if a painting is abstract or based on observation. I explore each of these in upcoming posts, but as a summary, we have these building-blocks:

  1. Color
  2. Shape
  3. Light
  4. Line
  5. Time, Movement, Direction
  6. Space
  7. Texture
  8. Mass

(As a side note - these elements evolved in our western European culture. There are different evolutions and aesthetics in other cultures. That's a subject for another time.)

To learn how to handle any medium takes practice and many hours of trying. Finding and developing your technique requires practice. 

Beyond Technique

Beyond technique is a whole new landscape. To travel there as a painter also takes practice. Practice to open your mind (or ask it to be quiet), open your heart, your emotions. Learn to feel what's right, to let intuition take over. Practice listening to your gut and let your hand(s) do the work. Technique will come. And so will the deeper reasons we want to create or view art in the first place.

Then We Can Ask

Does the finished work move us or inspire us in some way? Is the work about creating beauty as an aesthetic experience for ourselves or others? Is something revealed in the process of painting itself? Is the work an exploration of new or previous directions? Does the work lead to personal or social transformation for either the viewer or the artist? All answers are valid. Going within to answer them can bring us ever deeper into the land beyond technique.

Feature image:  'Ode to a Texas Bluebonnet', gouache painting on handmade paper, Julia O'Reilly

Julia O'Reilly