Entering The Conversation That Is Art.

Understanding the visual language of artists.

Article on the Visual Language of Art

Georges Seurat, The Circus. 1891 Musee d’Orsay

Every discipline has it’s tools. Writer’s craft with words to stimulate the senses, rouse the emotions, and spark our ideas. Construction workers use tools to make an architect’s drawings a physical reality. Teachers use books, imagination, and dialog to inspire their students to learn.

When we want to know more about art, how to read it, understand it, and enjoy it…we need to know more about the tools that the artist uses. While artists educate themselves about color, line, shadow, and perspective to create their works, we, the viewers, educate ourselves about these same things so that we can engage with art works intelligently.

Art is a visual language, and to appreciate art fully we must learn its language. In this next series of blog posts I’ll explore the tools that artists use to help decode the visual language of art.

Article on how to understand the Visual Language of Art

Sandro Botticelli, Primavera, around 1480, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

Everyone has the potential to respond to and find enrichment in art, but often that potential is untapped. When we lack experience and knowledge at decoding the visual language of art we are quite literally, toddlers. Walking in a museum we look at a work, we decide if we like it and move on to the next…normally feeling out of our element and not understanding what all the fuss is about or what we were ‘supposed’ to see.

We are held back from enjoying art due to ignorance and our fear that we appear ignorant. Unless we grew up in a household of artists, this feeling of being ‘out of our depth’ in a museum is pretty much the norm. All of us start in that place, we don’t know the language. It’s like me sitting with the Russian side of my family and only getting snippets of the conversation.  The solution to this discomfort is simple enough, learn a bit more of the visual language of art, and exponentially our enjoyment of art will grow.

Love and knowledge go hand in hand. When we love we want to know more, as our knowledge base grows our love and appreciation for what we see will deepen. As we learn more of the language of art we begin to be able to enter the dialog and we learn even more, which deepens our dialog…and so it goes.

Art is a two way conversation between the artist and the viewer. Normally when we interact with art the artist isn’t standing next to the work guiding us through his part of the conversation. We must allow the work itself to speak. The key to all good conversation is the ability to listen, to really hear what is being said.

Article on the Visual Language of Art

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VII, 1913. The State Gallery, Moscow, Russia.

In order to ‘hear’ what art is saying we need to speak at least some of the language of the art we are viewing. Otherwise we are like tourist in a foreign country helplessly gesturing and repeating ourselves while being hopelessly misunderstood…no fun for anyone. This is why many people dismiss abstract or modern art. They haven’t taken the time to learn the language of that style and so they cannot hear what is being said. They miss the deeply spiritual experience an artist like Kandinsky felt when creating his abstract works because they lack the ‘visual language’ skills to decode his meaning.

Instead of learning the language of unfamiliar styles we decide we only like art that looks like what it should look like…because we are at least speaking the same language, even it it’s another dialect. Again, love and knowledge go hand in hand, and we won’t really appreciate what we can’t understand.

Article on Visual Language in Art

Melencolia I by Albrecht Dürer, 1514

Of course, all good conversations go two ways. The artist brings their viewpoint to the conversation and we bring ours. Just as we don’t enter conversations with friends without our own opinions, we don’t approach art in a vacuum. Part of what makes conversation interesting is the give and take, the areas of disagreement that challenge us.

Some artwork that we encounter will be a conversation between two close friends, other encounters will resemble the conversation between political opponents, filled with tension, and a few conversations will be those between lovers, a communion of souls. All of these diverse conversations come together to form the complex, intricate exchange that is art.

In my upcoming blog posts I’m going to be exploring the tools that we need to have at our disposal when we approach a work of art. If you are interested in learning more be sure to subscribe to my email list. You’ll get a quick email when a new post goes up.

If you want to get a taste for the language of paintings you could check out this post on Fra Angelica’s Annunciation which was painted in the Late Gothic/Early Renaissance era. Colors and symbolism gives the painting layers of meaning if we speak the language.

In Giorgione’s Adoration of the Shepherd, at first glance we have a simple pastoral scene with the central figures of a typical nativity…when we understand the visual language of art, and particularly Christian art during the Renaissance we are able to understand a great deal more, both about the painting and about the world of Renaissance Italy. It’s a fascinating study

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  • Julie Dodson

    I am so happy to continue being tutored by you. I truly enjoyed your posts during Advent. Honestly, I am not sure I have ever embraced the season so well as having viewed it through the eyes of great artists and your analysis. Years ago I began to save nativity Christmas cards, tucking them into the pages of my daily Advent reading. I was delighted to find your digital version of the same idea but with the artistic perspectives. I learned much and have found it has whet my appetite for continued study of great works. We live outside Washington DC which provides access to museums and galleries with a lifetime of masterpieces to peruse. I carve out bits of time for Artists Dates, as suggested by Julia Cameron, to sit and absorb a great work of art. Without the skill you refer to in the above post I often feel like I am merely gazing at brush strokes and sketching blindly at what I am viewing. (it is amusing how people will step aside leaving an unobstructed view when they see you with a sketch pad and pencil in hand looking at a painting) All that to say, I am looking forward to this series of posts on the visual language of artists. As a retired homeschool mother I am always looking for new learning and challenge. It seems you have opened a new door for me and I thank you, Julie Dodson

    • kbagdanov

      Julie, I really can’t express how much your words mean to me. I had a friend tell me as I have had some tough times recently, that I should look for the places God is showing grace. Knowing I could contribute to your Christmas and that you are continuing to enjoy the blog is a bit of grace for me. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. Oh, and us retired homeschool moms need to start a club, we are a unique bunch.