How to Look at Paintings More Effectively

A guide to understanding composition in art

Christopher P Jones
10 min readFeb 21, 2024

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Arlésiennes (Mistral) (1888) by Paul Gauguin. Oil on jute canvas. 73 × 92 cm. Art Institute of Chicago, U.S. Image source Art Institute of Chicago (open access)

For a long time, I’ve maintained the idea that understanding art is largely about taking the time to look.

Artists lay out many of the “answers” to their works before us, right there in the images, if only we can see them for ourselves.

Paintings are not like words on a page. They largely show their meaning through their visual arrangements. The key is to look more closely and thoughtfully.

So here are a few pointers about composition that might help…

Form

Form is how shapes are put to use, how we perceive them and what they make us think of. As an example, take this simple rectangle:

What could we say about its shape beyond the fact that it’s a rectangle?

We might say it is broad and short. Or stretched. If we imagine the rectangle is the outline of a building, then the building would be wide and thick-set, and perhaps we might say it looks stout and durable. Or flat and wide.

But what happens when we take the same rectangle and turn it on its end?

Hopefully you will see that despite the shape still being a rectangle its form is much changed. Its effect is different. This time we might say it is tall, narrow, and so on. Again, if it were a building it would be high-rise, like a skyscraper, soaring, impressive, or perhaps we might think of it as teetering or unstable depending on the context.

Now let’s move to a real example in art…

The Avenue, Middelharnis (1689) by Meyndert Hobbema. Oil on canvas. 104 × 141 cm. The National Gallery, London, UK. Image source Wikimedia Commons

In Meyndert Hobbema’s painting of The Avenue, Middelharnis, one of the most important compositional devices is the interaction between the tall trees that stretch into the…

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