There is no absolute in Art, no one right way of looking at it.

But as in any given language, you have the A,B,C’s. These letters form words, which compose sentences that communicate a message or meaning. In Art, the A,B,C’s are the Elements or Formal Qualities which create the artwork and in turn help communicate meaning. Reading into them helps viewers better understand what they are seeing.

Simply put; a moving dot creates a line. Multiple lines compose a two dimensional shape. The shape then grows into an enclosed three dimensional volume giving it form. The object’s colour has light and dark tones with different values which can change depending on its texture. The object is finally complete taking up its own space in the world.

In a nutshell, the above is basically every artwork ever created.

When you want to understand an artwork, the first step is always to describe what you see. Afterwards let the work pave its own way through your analysis!

Fig. (1) Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid, Oil on Canvas, 46x41cm, 1657-1658, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

In Fig. (1) we have The Milkmaid, by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer– believed to be painted between 1658 and 1661 and is found in the The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Although the title states a milkmaid, yet we are actually looking at an indoor servant who is cautiously pouring milk into a container. As the maid appears to be making bread porridge; our eyes directly flow with the direction of the natural light coming from the window on the left. The light illuminates the robust female figure; her side face is heightened showing her gaze that passes through her thick arms and into the pouring milk. The pouring milk becomes the focal point via a compositional trick; that is the built up of two imaginary diagonal lines which meet by the woman’s wrist. Hence, leading the eye all the way to the pouring milk as in Fig. (2).

Fig. (2) Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid with sectional lines

Additionally, the hierarchical arrangement of the forms from the left foreground to the head of the servant create a pyramidal buildup; giving the milkmaid a sense of grace and status. The figure is given a further serene appearance via the “thin stroke of white paint, contouring the maid’s body on the right side” . Nevertheless, contrary to this “elevated effect”; in Dutch literature and Dutch genre painting, maids had a direct link to sexual availability. Such theme is further elaborated on through Cupid -in Fig. (3)- that is painted next to the foot warmer on the bottom right side of the painting. The foot warmer is also is a symbol for the feminine desire as it was used to provide heat under the skirt of a woman.

Fig. (3) Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid (detail)

Moving on to colors, the painting has a palette reduced to the primary colors of Red, Blue and Yellow. Though the palette is limited, vibrancy is still achieved through the complementary juxtaposition of the warm Yellow-Ochre (top of the dress) with the Blue; giving radiance to the figure. Finally the bread and stoneware is given a lifelike feel via the texture Vermeer has brought about using the “pointillés” technique; that is painting details through pointillism. Below is a close-up for you to see how the texture of the bread is made.

Fig. (4) Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid with sectional lines

In general, the use of complementary color schemes is quite common among painters. Such approach is used as a mean to achieve high luminosity for the subject matter. For example, while looking at Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, you are directly engaged with the figure via the strong contrast between the Blue and the golden bust of the young girl. Her bust is given a further form and a sense of glow by being positioned against a dark background. Another example could be painting Café Terrace At Night by Van Gogh. Again notice the complementary arrangement of the warm and cold colors that create a radiant pulse against the dark blue sky. You can also observe how the eyes flow from the yellow ochre cobblestone in the foreground, along through the center and all the way to the dark blue sky in the background

Fig. (5) Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Oil on Canvas, 44.5x39cm, 1665, Mauritshuis, The Hague, Netherlands
Fig. (6) Van Gogh, Café Terrace At Night, Oil on Canvas, 80.7×65.3cm, 1888,  Kröller-Müller Museum, Netherlands

Finally, to keep you engaged I will pass on a more challenging visual analysis. Although I have spent most of my article talking about the classical approach of observing the visual elements and the flow that leads to a focal point; I will paradoxically leave you with a painting that defies it all. Your challenge will be the “Third Class Passengers”; a painting by Fahrelnissa Zeid.

While contemplating this painting, do consider Fahrelnissa’s use for the complimentary colors (Green and Reds, Oranges and Blues). Take your time to think how such an approach has created a dynamic and animated composition to serve the atmosphere of the subject matter (a point of travel).

Fig. (7) Fahrelnissa Zeid, Third Class Passengers, Oil on Plywood, 130x100cm, 1943, Istanbul Modern Collection

While looking at a painting; give yourself the space to pay attention to the details that move your eyes throughout the composition. These details are the lines, shapes, form, colour, value, texture and the space the artwork entails. Also curiosity for finding meanings and reflecting on the subject matter come in handy to serve your journey! Not to forget patience; as as an art enthusiast, you are not required to be as skilled as an art critic who has devoted all his/her life studying details.