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How to Describe a Painting: 10+ Phrases to Talk About Art

Words to describe art

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Art is eternal. Many paintings created hundreds of years ago still inspire and excite us. But it’s also a great topic for conversation with friends or strangers. So, knowing how to describe a painting in your native language and English is essential. And, of course, we are here to help!

In this article, you will learn the best tips for describing a piece of art and understand the importance of such a process. So whether you need it for school or you are going to visit a museum, keep reading! You will find everything you need below. 

How to describe a piece of art: General tips

You probably think describing art is effortless. Just say some adjectives, explain the colors and composition, and you’re done. Well, it might be enough for art classes. Yet, in real life, we want you to be more prepared. Here is one of our favorite examples of describing a painting. In the Theory of Everything movie, Eddie Redmayne, a.k.a. Stephen Hawking, says that Turner’s paintings usually look like they’ve been left out in the rain. It is not the description we used to hear, but it is still valid. 

As you can see, you have genuinely enough ways to describe a painting. But since it might be hard to navigate at first, we created a step-by-step guide to help you understand what details need more attention and what to talk about during your next visit to the gallery. So, how to describe paintings properly? 

Describe your impressions

When discussing a particular painting at the gallery, express your feelings about it. Do you like it or not? Does the picture make you happy or sad? And why does it give you such a mood – because of the colors, composition, or maybe its background history? 

For example, you can say that the picture makes you sentimental because the woman in the foreground reminds you of your granny, whom you haven’t seen for a while. Or, for example, it makes you calm because you enjoy the sea view. You can use many adjectives to describe your feeling regarding any piece of art. Here are some of them: 

  • Positive emotions: inspired, joyful, satisfied, interested, happy, serene, nostalgic, sentimental, excited, impressed, powerful, fascinated, etc.
  • Negative emotions: disappointed, sad, moody, gloomy, unsatisfied, scared, nervous, angry, depressing, disgusted, etc. 

Don’t be afraid of telling the truth about your feeling regarding any art. Of course, there is no need to be rude – you don’t have to offend an artist and their work. But you shouldn’t tell untruth as well. If you don’t like something, pay attention to your feelings, and try to explain what exactly makes you feel that way. The excellent hack is to share your first thoughts when you see a particular picture for the first time. And when you are finished with this step, you can proceed to the next one. 

Describe the composition 

You can now talk more particularly about the chosen work of art after conveying your feeling from the picture. And the best thing to start describing it is to explain the composition. In layperson’s terms, you need to tell what is depicted on the canvas. You can use these common expressions and words to describe art composition: 

  • in the foreground/background, in the middle, on the right/left side, next to, in front of;
  • asymmetrical, symmetrical, centered; 
  • urban landscape, suburban landscape, rural landscape; 
  • a historic site, domestic setting, intact nature; 
  • horizontal, vertical, circular, triangular.

For example, let’s look at the Mona Lisa (we are confident you’ve seen this one before). What can you see in this famous painting? There is a beautiful woman in the foreground. She has long black hair and wears a black dress. In the background is a natural landscape – a river, mountains, and a road. 

You can be more general when talking about the painting’s composition. Just describe what you can see in the foreground and background, the main shapes of the picture, what is in the center and what is in the distance, etc. The best advice for this step is to tell everything you see, even the smallest details. 

Describe the colors

Colors are integral when you need to describe a painting. Of course, we are not telling you to go to the gallery and stand in front of pieces of art saying they are red or yellow. It would be a little bizarre. You can try some other things instead. Here are some adjectives you can use to explain the color palette of the painting:

  • bright, vibrant, vivid;
  • hot, cold, warm, cool;
  • natural, artificial, earthy, rich, intense; 
  • deep, flat, weak, pale, muted; 
  • complementary, quiet, contrasting; 
  • dark, light, monochromatic.

Take a look at the painting and try to identify your impression of the colors used. Are they good together? Do they fit the overall idea and composition? Can you identify the primary color palette and what it is? Are there any specific colors you can notice? The more details your eye can catch, the better your description will be. Try to feel the atmosphere the artist created using a specific color and explain it. 

Describe the scene

When describing a composition, you explain only the things pictured in the painting. But when discussing the scene, you create your own story based on the painting. Of course, it would be harder to describe the landscape scene because you can only guess the place’s location, city, or country here. 

But if there are any actions, and you feel a little creative, you can imagine the story behind this picture and add it to your description. Let’s get back to the legendary Mona Lisa. You probably know there are many stories about this masterpiece. So, why don’t we create another one? 

Take a look at this painting once again, and try to guess a few things. Who do you think this woman is? Maybe she is the wife of the artist. Perhaps she is his mistress. Or possibly, she is just the famous lady of that time, and it’s a custom painting. Where does she live? We know that Da Vinci was born in Italy but spent his last days in France. Hence, maybe it is one of those countries? The number of options is countless. You can choose any picture and make your own vision of it. 

Describe the history

Generally, four previous steps would be enough to describe a painting. But if you have a bit more spare time and want to impress whoever you will discuss the art with, you need to do some research. 

Start with the information about the artist. Find out their date and place of birth, the genres they were working with, and some major events in their life. When you know something about the artist, it will be easier for you to keep the conversation going. Moreover, it will significantly simplify the painting-describing process. 

After learning some basics about the author, research the information about the painting. Try to learn as much as possible about the events or people pictured on the piece of art. It may be a famous historical event or figure. Maybe, it is the sibling of the artist. The more you find, the better you will understand the painting. 

Of course, if you’ve decided to do this research, you should skip step four. It won’t be easy to guess and create your versions when you know exactly what the picture is about. But to mention the painting’s history, you need to be sure that you’ve found only relevant information. So pay attention to the smallest details to avoid misunderstandings and confusion. 

Why is it important to learn how to describe a piece of art?

You might think that describing a painting can be useful only at the museum or in your art class. But we can show you that it is not entirely true. This simple process can bring you more benefits than you can imagine. Here are only a few of them: 

  • Improving your speaking and writing skills. Of course, since we are here to study English, the first benefit is connected to our learning process. When you learn words to describe the painting, you expand your vocabulary, understand how to build sentences, and use them in your speech and writing. 
  • Learning to understand yourself. Yes, you’ve read it correctly. As we mentioned earlier, one of the best ways to describe art is to start with your feelings. And when you realize what you feel regarding some painting, you will learn how to listen to yourself in other situations. 
  • Imagination development. You probably remember that in step four of describing a painting, we offered to define a scene using your imagination – guess what is going on, and create your version of events. It will help you develop your fantasy and imagination and become even more creative. 
  • Increasing knowledge. You already know that to describe a piece of art better, you need to find some information about the artist and the historical background of the painting. It will help you to increase your knowledge of various topics, so you will always be an interesting person to communicate with. 

Only these four benefits can show you how much profit you have from learning how to describe art. You can use them to discuss paintings, even in your native language. And if you want to master this topic in English, we know precisely how to help you reach this goal. 

Learning the best words to describe a painting with Promova

If you are an avid reader of our blog, you probably know our main motto – studying doesn’t have to be boring. And if you still think that describing art in English is tedious, we are ready to prove you wrong. The Promova English studying platform is the best place to learn all the steps mentioned above, but make it easy and fun. There are a few studying options depending on students’ needs. And we will tell you about each one of them. 

Let’s start with those who seek help from professional tutors. If it’s you, we have a perfect solution. Promova offers amazing one-on-one lessons with professional teachers. They will prepare a unique plan according to your experience level, studying goals, and interests. As a result, you will start learning only the information pertinent to you and bypass all the useless details. 

You can join our friendly and exciting group classes if you need company. It is an outstanding opportunity for those who want to practice speaking. Depending on your English proficiency, you can join any group of six students and begin having fun right away. You can talk to people worldwide, discuss interesting topics, and strengthen your language skills. 

Another great option is suitable for those who don’t want to study general information but want to practice speaking and discuss various topics more. Yes, we are talking about our wonderful speaking club. Here, you can discuss art, books, movies, and other amazing topics with students from various countries. And the best thing is that it is free! Go to the Promova website, choose the subject you want to discuss, and book your place. Just as simple as that!

Finally, we have something great for those who prefer to study independently. The Promova app is perfect if you want to practice English alone, anywhere, and anytime. Install the application on your phone or laptop, and enjoy hundreds of lessons and exercises on grammar, vocabulary, speaking, pronunciation, listening, etc. The application is also free, so you can enjoy it immediately. Don’t hesitate, and check one of those opportunities to find the one that suits you best. 

Conclusion

All in all, discussing a particular piece of art might be more tricky than you thought. But with minimal preparation, you can become a personal guide for your friends on your next visit to the gallery. All you need to do is to remember some basic steps for describing a painting.

  1. Find out more about the art and the artist. Scroll through the Internet and visit famous websites like the National Gallery of Art to find information about the chosen painting. Describe the background history of the author and the painting.
  2. Describe your own feelings about the piece of art – what emotions does it evoke? 
  3. Discuss the composition of the painting – what you can see in the foreground, in the background, etc. 
  4. The next step is to mention the colors of the painting – what are they? 
  5. Finally, you can tell the story of the scene. If you’ve done the research mentioned in the first step, you can skip it since you’ve already discussed it. But if you don’t know what is going on, just turn on your imagination and try to guess. 

These five steps are the general plan for describing a picture in English. You can use them for discussing art in your mother tongue as well. And if you need some practice, please describe your favorite painting in our comments section. We will be happy to learn more about the art you like. 

FAQ

How to describe a painting in English?

To describe a piece of art, find out more about the artist and tell the background history of the painting. Then, discuss the composition, color palette, scene, and your impressions of the art. Finally, use many adjectives to show various details of your chosen masterpiece. 

Is it necessary to learn how to describe art?

Although it is not mandatory knowledge, it can benefit your English and general studying. For example, learning to describe a piece of art can help you practice speaking and writing, expand your vocabulary, develop your imagination, and increase your general knowledge. 

How to talk about my impressions of a particular painting?

First, you need to determine what emotions the art evokes. Try to understand whether they are positive or negative. Then. when it’s done, try to specify your feelings. Does the artistic composition make you happy or sad, excited or disappointed, satisfied or disgusted? After you know exactly what emotions the painting evokes, try to find and explain the reason for it. 

How to describe a scene in the painting?

If you don’t know the historical background of the piece of art, you need to appeal to your imagination. First, try to guess the story of this painting – who is painted here, what is this character doing, if they are rich or servants, where are they going, etc. Then, imagine yourself as the artist – what meaning would you put into the painting if you were its author?

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