May 102008

In the previous part we talked about brainstorming in general: what it means, the technical side and how to address the image (painting). In this part we will discuss how to brainstorm on some of the most basic elements of art: lines and color.

What You See Is… What You See

Before you address your particular topic (if you are a student writing a paper or an artist with the aim to critique or interpret a specific part of your work), it is always helpful to brainstorm on the general elements of art, so as to have a few crazy ideas prepared in advance — they will give you a stable credit of thought that is entirely yours, which in turn would boost your self-confidence and reliance. That way you would be approaching the assignment with a formed opinion; as a result your final interpretation would be opinionated.

 Said credit is also useful in case you decide to jettison the assignment that you were given. Many instructors and artists secretly wish their opponents defied and confronted them — not the least because it brings out the best in both parties. But even if you stick to the given task, it is helpful to compare your ideas with what the instructor demands: how far are you from his or her vision, or how close. The credit endows you with control and gives you some power over the whole intellectual process.

 So let’s get to the practical details. Here are instructions in a stream-like form, similar to what you will experience when brainstorming. Remember to just scrape the surface, just uncover the upper layer in order to reveal what’s beneath. If you discover a gold vein — that’s wonderful, you are going to get rich on ideas, if it’s fool’s gold — never mind, just move on.


  • Follow the lines with your eyes. Notice where they begin and where they end; quickly try to establish what that might mean: a (mental) distance passed by an actor inside the painting, a relationship between a subject on one end and an object on another (or vice versa). Move on if there is no obvious meaning.
  • Assess the thickness of the line, see if it grows thicker or thinner as it covers more distance. From this you may infer symbolical implications (to be determined according with the context of the piece itself). But it may also mean simply a cue, as the artist may want you to increase attention towards the part of the canvas where the line thickens.
  • Think objects: arrows, pikes, spears; ropes, branches; roads, boundaries, limits. Think abstract: vanishing points, horizon, skyline,sea-line. If you notice that certain objects recur in your mind while studying different parts of the image, you may be on to something.
  • Assess curves, turns and angles. Literally try to go with the flow: if it is possible, it may mean that the artist intended it that way — try to realize why (but don’t dwell on it for too long) — does he want to instill a certain mood, to convey a feeling, to create an atmosphere?
  • Compare and contrast horizontal and vertical lines. Of which kind there is more? What is the ratio between them? What that might mean?

 Remember to keep your mind open about how all of these traits may lose or gain relevance and significance in accordance with other features. We will talk about interpreting lines more extensively in the future, for now it is important to stay aware and not to lock in on to something definite and finite.


Once again, avoid in depth analysis, you will have more time for it in the future. Trust you intuitive reaction to the colors you see before you. Often the simplest comparisons and ideas that will pop up in your head are also the most powerful and effective ones.

  • Draw from your personal experience: blue can allude to the sky and sea (but so can black), to the background of your screen, the binding of your notebook, “the blues.” Pick up everything trying to start with the biggest objects and concepts (sea), descending to smaller things (screen).
  • Assess how color divides the painting. How patches of color generate their own rhythm and underlying meaning. Do the colors dance, walk or run? Are they asleep or awake? Try to find your own examples of personalization and apply them to the colors.
  • Try to outline roughly the emotional map of the used palette. Colors can be aggressive, submissive, neutral, passive, acerbic, friendly, sharp, warm, cold, hot and so on. Some of these traits characterize palette inherently (temperature signifiers), others are more loose and adjustable to the context.
  • Assess the significance of value: do some colors grow weaker or stronger? What is the artistic purpose or logic behind changes in value, what symbolical meanings can you infer.

    Finally, don’t shun modern technology. If you feel that using image manipulation programs may help you in understanding the image better, do it. Art historians perform x-rays on their favorite works of art in order to learn how they were composed and painted — you would be conducting a similar experiment. Decolorization, desaturation, black and white rendering are all fair game in your search for understanding palette.

    Stay Tuned for Brainstorming Part 3!

Leave a Reply