How to 'read' a painting

Paintings can capture a child's imagination and inspire great English or drama work

Ali Mawle, Head of Schools at the National Gallery, suggests ways of helping your pupils discuss and interpret a painting.

If you plan to use a painting as the focus for a class project, learning to 'read' a painting is a good place to start. There are certain techniques that can help your class look at, and engage with a painting.

Reading a painting is similar to reading a book:

  • The reader decodes symbols to establish meaning
  • The reader uses inference and deduction (e.g. body language) to deepen understanding
  • A reader's previous knowledge and experience affects their personal response

You could take the connection further:

  • The reader refers back to what they've read to explain their opinions
  • As understanding grows, the subject comes to life in the reader's imagination, in a way that reaches beyond the page or frame

However, there are two important differences between reading a book and reading a painting. With a book we have to imagine the scene, whereas with a painting it is created for us (as it is with a film). Secondly – and this is where a painting differs from both a film and a book – the artist has only one frame through which to communicate.

So when we read a book, we convert, via our imaginations, what is black and white on the page into multicolour images. When we read a painting, the potential barrier of text is removed and we can leap straight into multicolour.

In this way, the visual image is immediately accessible and engaging. Secondly, due to the artist's distillation of the subject matter into a single image, a painting requires a longer look than is usual in our digital culture.

By looking closely and then exploring what is seen together as a group, we can make a raft of shared and personal connections.

Spending time looking and exploring with pupils is rewarded by a depth of engagement and a sophisticated level of understanding about a painting's context, which provides a platform for confident and committed oral and written work.

Next: Developing ways of looking

 
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