How to read pictures


(Udarbejdet på grundlag af Merete Bjørn & Gitte Ingerslev, “Is that what people do”, Systime 1985)


In many respects pictures carry messages in the same way as literature. The artist communicates by choosing an object to describe, by organizing an impression into colours, by showing one aspect of reality, etc.

When analysing a picture you have to consider various points:


  1. a) Which genre does it belong to?

(is it an ‘art’ picture (painting, sketch, print, etc.)? an illustration, an advertisement, a photo (from a film, a portrait, news illustration etc.))?

  1. b) Which style has the artist chosen? (is it e.g. realistic, non-figurative?)
  2. c) What does the picture show?

(Describe the physical room (the different elements showing something about time, culture,

landscape). Describe the persons (their actions, gestures, relations, basic feelings, looks, clothes, age, sex).

  1. d) How is the picture composed? Consider the following:

The composition of the picture (where are the different objects placed? Can the picture be divided into different parts/sections?)

Look for lines (horizontal, vertical, diagonal, straight, curved. Do you find any lines to express a sense of movement?)

Any geometric figures? (triangle, square, circle, cylinder, spiral; is the picture divided according to ‘the golden section’?) (The ‘Golden Section’ is basically found by dividing the horizontal line into eight parts and drawing a vertical line through the third point on the line. The section can be placed on either side of the picture. The ‘Golden Section’ is known to create associations of harmony and beauty in the majority of people.)

Perspective and point of view (do you find great depth in the picture? From which point do you view the motive (normal perspective, bird’s eye, worm’s eye view?). Any intended distortion (= forvrængning?))

Light (where does the source of light come from? (front light, back light, chiaroscuro (= clair obscure) light from below)? Any contrasts (use of light and shade?))

Colours (which colours are distinctive (= fremtrædende)? Any contrasts? Have some of the colours been chosen for their symbolic value?) For what purpose?

  1. e) In what context does the picture belong? (When was it made? By whom? Who is it meant for? (any special purpose?)
  2. f) What is the theme/motif of the picture? (Is it idealizing? Is it a social comment? Does it reveal any standards, values?)
  3. g) Your personal opinion (What effect does the picture have on you? Do you like it?)
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