Describe. Analyse. Interpret. Judge. As educators, you would be well acquainted with this process for analysing works of art. However, where does observe, look or see enter into this process? Every aspect of our world is visual, so, first of all, before trying to describe or analyse, let’s look closely, and for longer.

Tip 1: Look and look again

Allow your students timeto look – it might be thirty seconds; it could be a minute. Children may eventually develop their looking skills, for up to two minutes per work of art. Slow down and take time. After the looking time, remove the visual aid and ask students to draw, write or describe what they saw. What did they notice? Look again at the same work of art. Did the children notice anything new? What important details did they miss the first time? A simple activity such as this reinforces the importance of looking intently and looking again.

Tip 2: Finding a way in

Before providing any contextual information about a work of art, ask students to brainstorm (for one minute only) all the words they think of when they look at this work. Ask students to share their words with the class – this is their opportunity to make a ‘mark on the page’ and make a personal connection to the work in front of them. You might like to collate all of the words on a large sheet of paper; these words usually constitute a great starting point to describe the work of art.

Although it might be tempting to reach for Google to locate details about a work of art immediately, a great deal of information is already present in front of you. Resist the urge to impart too much knowledge too soon, as it can limit your students’ ‘way in’ or willingness to share their ideas and opinions.

Tip 3: Unpicking the pieces

What is going on in this work of art? What can you see? How does the work make you feel? What can you see that makes you feel that way? Imagine the work of art is a completed jigsaw puzzle, so let’s take the jigsaw pieces apart so that we can look at each piece closely. What colours, lines, shapes, textures have been used? How has the artist used these elements and principles? These discussion questions begin to form the basis of a description and analysis of a work of art.

Tip 4: Putting the pieces back together

Based on what you have observed, what might the artist be communicating? Have you read the wall label? Does the title, where or when the work was created support any assumptions you made?Having this information can at the very least add another layer of understanding, but often it can complete the picture. Sometimes, though, the artist’s intention will never be revealed to us, and that is ok – we can still appreciate a work of art and make our own connection to it while learning about an artist, composition of a work of art, and the way artists use elements, principles and materials.

Eunice Napanangka Jack, Luritja/Ngaanyatjarra/Pintupi people, Northern Territory, born 1939, Lupul, Sir Frederick Range, Northern Territory, Kuruyultu, 2017, Haasts Bluff, Northern Territory, synthetic polymer paint on linen, 152.0 x 183.0 cm; Gift of the Members of the Art Gallery of South Australia to celebrate 50 years since their establishment 2019, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, © Eunice Napanangka Jack/Copyright Agency.

How to read a wall label

Find out important information about the artist.

Plan your school visit

Pre and post visit activities