“What Does It Mean?”: Beginner’s Guide to Interpreting Art

“I don’t get it. What Does It Mean?” A Beginner’s Guide to Interpreting Artwork

by Daric Gill

“monument” for V. Tatlin by Dan Flavin. 1969

You’ve always considered yourself an art lover, but there are times when you find yourself scratching your head in a desperate attempt to understand exactly what an artist was getting at.

Viewers make snap-decisions about their fondness for a piece in the first few seconds. It’s pretty unavoidable. In these moments, it’s easy to forego any further investigation into meaning once we make that decision. Liking or not liking the piece is ok. Skipping the reasons why… that’s a different story. Before gliding over the meaning of the work, the following article suggests a couple of tips that can help you approach the artwork in real-time with new mindfulness.

Things To Consider

Subject environment, presentation, & materials
Composition, size, mood, & color
2-D or 3-D
Why & why not
Artist’s name
Genres & possible history

You’ve got to start somewhere. If you’re stuck, try looking at the formal elements first. Is there an obvious subject of the work? Consider the environment, presentation, & materials. Does it seem that the artist wanted you to look at a specific spot first in the composition? What about the size, mood, and color? As a loose rule: bright colors can signify fun or aggressive emotions while dulled colors speak of calmness, sadness, or mysteriousness. Is it 2-D or 3-D? If it’s viewable from different angles like a sculpture, try looking at it from different vantage points. If there’s a title card, what’s the title?

…those things are surprisingly overlooked once we make that first snap-decision. They can already point you into a really amazing direction.

“Che faro senza Euydice”, by Mark di Suvero. 1959.

Why do you think the artist chose to do what they did and avoided what they didn’t do? Why did they choose those materials and composition over all the other combinations?

Do you know the artist’s name or when they lived (maybe on the label)? Just like with music, art has genres and history. Most artwork isn’t made for everyone in every demographic. If you can, try imagining what that artist might have been witness to during that time. Who do you think the artwork is geared towards? Do you fit that genre? Perhaps–perhaps not. Remember, this is your interpretation. Don’t feel like you have to prove anything to anyone.

It’s ok if you don’t like it. Equally understandable, it’s also ok to change your mind once you think about the work and find a new interest in it. If you’re struggling to see the work as “art” in the first place, let me suggest an easy read called, “That’s Not Art!”–And How I Realized It Doesn’t Matter”.


You can find more free articles like this on my Artist Resource page. My mission is to provide free and accessible tools for artists, educators, and enthusiasts. I encourage you to share and refer people here as often as you wish. Naturally, these articles take many hours to thoroughly research and write. If you’d like to support me as an artist and advocate, please consider donating whatever you can. Thank you!

3 thoughts on ““What Does It Mean?”: Beginner’s Guide to Interpreting Art

  1. I like your suggestion to ask ourselves why the artist did what they did as far as materials and compositions. I’ve been thinking about going to a local Nigerian art exhibition because I want to become more cultured. The tips you shared here provided a great starting point for art interpretation, so thanks for sharing!


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