The Skill of Describing

“Informing gives objective factual information. Explaining gives reasons for how or why something happens. Describing tries to paint a vivid picture in the reader’s head.”
Writing to inform, explain and describe (BBC)

One of the essential skills you will learn in this class is how to describe a work of art.  A good description requires descriptive detail, thoughtful analysis, and a sense of purpose about the work’s meaning or function.  A good description will enable your reader to see the work more fully, and to understand its meaning.

The Skill of Describing – Smarthistory

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Describing works of art can be challenging, but you will be practicing this skill throughout the semester.  Class discussions will help you become more observant of details, and how to describe them, and you will have ample opportunity to listen to others describe works of art in the assigned Smarthistory conversations.

ConradDescriptive Detail
To begin, a good description must have descriptive detail:

“Descriptive details allow sensory recreations of experiences, objects, or imaginings. In other words, description encourages a more concrete or sensory experience of a subject, one which allows the reader to transport himself or herself into a scene. Writing that lacks description is in danger of being plain or overly general.”
A Definition of Descriptive Detail (Colorado State University)

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When describing a work of art, imagine that you are talking to someone on the phone, or that your reader has their eyes closed.  Your job is to bring the image to life so they can “see” it, without looking at the picture.

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Writing Persuasively
But too much detail can be boring, if it doesn’t have a clear purpose.  A good description must also reveal something about the “personality” of the work; otherwise the description will read like a laundry list of random details:

“There is a significant difference between choosing details simply to describe something and selecting details that not only describe, but also reveal . . . . That details can be used to describe is essential and true, but they should also go beyond that. Sheer description bogged down with details lacks energy, verve. The details must carry weight, reveal something beyond just the surface they have been describing.”
Pursuasive Writing, Colorado State University

So your description must have a purpose, or point of view — similar to a “thesis.” It should persuade your reader to see  and understand the work the way you do; however, your opinion can’t be just a personal response:  it must be informed by art historical knowledge, and supported by examples and facts.

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Telling versus Showing
When composing a description, it is important to be mindful of the difference between “telling” and “showing.”  If you think a figure in a work of art looks “sad,” it is not enough to just “tell” your reader that the figure is sad: you must show this by describing the specific details that led you to this conclusion.

“Showing vs. telling is an important aspect of creating effective description . . .  An example of a “telling” sentence would be, “Kathy was sad.” This sentence tells the reader what judgment needs to be made about Kathy, yet does not provide the evidence to support that judgment. For example, how do we know that Kathy is sad? How is she behaving? What does she look like? Writing which “shows” generally incorporates vivid descriptive detail in order to help the reader evaluate evidence in order to make the appropriate judgments.
Showing Versus Telling, Colorado State University

How to Look at Paintings
Often, “reading” a work of art is like reading a story that unfolds through time.  This video, from the Getty Museum, provides guidelines about how to “read” a picture, taking cues from the way the artist arranges the composition.

Looking at Paintings (Getty Museum)

The Power of Description
To get a taste of how wonderful a good description can be (the best can literally bring a tear to your eye!), watch the following videos from the Metropolitan Museum’s new 82nd & Fifth series, featuring descriptions of works in the collection by members of the museum’s curatorial staff.

82nd & Fifth: “Faith” by Luke Syson

82nd & Fifth: “Protective” by Alison Manges Nogueira

82nd & Fifth: “Noise” by Maryan Ainsworth

Understanding Formal Analysis
Discover how to analyze the formal aspects of a work of art by learning about the elements of art and principles of design that are used by artists working in various media. Click on the link:

Video Version
This is a narrated video version of this lecture