GUIDELINES FOR USING ART IN AN ENGLISH CLASS
The purpose of this resource is twofold. First, it is designed to help your students acquire the knowledge and understanding they will need to make and support their personal decisions about works of art. Second, it will introduce you to how to relate art to literature. Only a few examples of art are included in this curriculum guide. If your students enjoy this type of activity and are able to communicate their viewpoints successfully in both oral and written form, you may want to consider adding more activities such as this.
Art criticism is an orderly way of looking at and talking about art. It helps to direct your students to information found within works of art. To gain information from a work of art, they must know two things: what to look for and how to look for it. Students must learn the criteria or standards for judgment. These are the four-steps to accomplish this task:
Step 1 – Description: Through which they find out what is in the work.
Step 2 – Analysis: Through which they discover how the work is
organized or put together.
Step 3 – Interpretation: Through which they try to determine the
feelings, moods or ideas communicated by the work.
Step 4 – Judgment – Through which they make their own decisions
about the artistic merit of the work.
Once students have been guided through the four steps, they should then focus on relating the piece of art to the literature that they are studying. They will most often draw parallels (find similarities) or see contrasts. In most cases, they will consider the theme of the literary piece and see if it is similar to or different from the art that they are using in the activity.
The most effective method for helping students to move through the steps of art criticism with success is through questioning. The comprehensive list of questions is much too extensive to be used for each art/literature activity. Instead, the art should be studied by the teacher to determine which questions are most appropriate and would lead to a deep analysis and subsequently to a comparison of the artwork and the literary piece. When questioning, never allow students to stop at “Yes” or “No.” Ask them, “Why did you say that?” or “How can you tell?” or “What else made you say that?” In addition, encourage students to either agree or disagree with the viewpoint of a classmate. Always require that they provide evidence.
1. What is happening in this picture? (Tell the story of the painting.)
2. FOCAL POINT – The place where your eyes come to rest is known as the
focal point. Typically this will be the most important part of the
painting, the key area that is the heart of the painting.
- What is the focal point?
- Why do your eyes rest on this place? What path or paths direct your eyes to it? What keeps your eye there?
- If the focal point is a person, he or she is called the central figure.
Describe the central figure in detail.
- Describe the body language and/or posture of the central figure.
- What attitude does the central figure have?
- What about his or her facial expression? What does it show?
- Based on the body language and facial expression, how does this
- Study the person’s clothing and accessories. What do they indicate about the person? (rank in society, occupation, self-image, etc.)
- What might this person say? Why? What might he or she do?
- If you met this person, what might you discuss?
- Is he or she like anyone you know? Explain.
- If there is more than one person in the painting, who are they? How do they feel about each other? How do you know that? Is one more powerful? How can you tell?
- If the central figure is an object, describe it in detail.
3. COLOR - What is the effect of the colors?
- Light or dark?
- Bright and intense or dull and grayed?
- Are they pastel? (soft, delicate color)
- Do they contrast highly with each other or are they closely related?
- Do they have sharp, clear edges? Rough edges? Soft edges?
- Do they merge into each other?
- Do they overlap one another or do they blend?
- Are the colors opaque (thick) or transparent (see through; clear)?
- Are they glossy (shiny) or matte (dull; flat)?
- How are they distributed?
- What colors are grouped together?
- Which colors draw attention to themselves?
- Which colors seem to move toward you? Which recede?
- Consider the answers to the about questions on color. What effect
do these colors have on your perception (the way you see) the
4. LIGHT - What is the effect of light?
- Is the color bright or dim?
- Is it even or contrasting?
- Is it direct or reflected or a combination of these?
- Does the light sparkle, shine or glow?
- Can you tell its color? How is it used?
- Does it direct your attention to something?
- Does it suppress something?
5. TEXTURE - The texture of a painting is determined primarily be the
kind of paint used and how it is applied. What is the effect of the
- Does the paint look thick or thin?
- Dense or watery?
- Look at the brushstrokes. They define the objects that you see.
Are the objects sharp and clear or soft and indistinct?
- Do the brushstrokes simplify the objects or show things in
- Are the objects loosely painted or carefully rendered?
- Did the painter use long, wavy strokes, or short, choppy ones?
- Can you see the strokes at all? Or do they blend into each other
and become invisible?
- Does the paint create blobs? Ridges? Flat patches? Stains?
- What kind of paint was used? (oil, acrylic, tempera, watercolor or
something else) What particular effect was achieved by the kind
of paint used?
- How was the paint applied? By brush? By palette knife? By
airbrush? Was it poured on? Sponged on? Rolled on?
- Based on the texture, what feeling does it bring to the painting?
6. SHAPES - How does the artist use shapes? Shapes are flat, self-
contained areas made up of objects or clusters of objects. The areas
around or between the objects may also be identified as shapes. These
so-called negative shapes can be just as important to the composition of
the painting as the objects themselves. Try to identity the shapes you
- Do the shapes have curves or straight edges?
- Are they geometric or free form?
- Are they simple or fussy?
- Are they graceful?
- Are they choppy?
- Are they regular in size and similar in shape, or are they varied?
- Are they few or many?
- Are their edges hard or soft?
- Are they easy to identify and define, or do you have difficulty seeing them?
- What feeling do the shapes bring to the painting?
7. LINES – Lines define shapes and enclosed spaces. Study the lines and
use evidence to support your responses.
- Are the lines straight or curved? Long or short?
- Are they choppy? Smooth? Wobbly? Thick or fine?
- If sharp, do they make a sharp angle?
- If curved, are the curves busy or simple?
- Do the lines bring movement to the painting?
- Are the lines clear and well-defined or soft and blurry?
- Are there no lines at all?
- What is the effect of the lines?
8. COMPOSITION – Composition refers to how a piece of art is put
together, or organized. Shapes, lines, colors and/or texture are
important elements of composition. They help you see the work of art in
an organized way by first emphasizing the most important and by
subordinating the less important. The purpose of composition is to give
form to an idea as clearly and forcefully as possible.
- Look at the focal point again. Which elements (shapes, lines, colors and texture) draw your eyes to this point?
- What else is used to focus your attention?
- Check to see if there is another focal point by determining whether two places hold your eye. If there are two focal points, does that add to the effect of the painting, or does it detract from it?
- What the painter selects to paint is important, but where that element is placed in the picture can be just as important. For example, a central figure that is close up will be imposing or sometimes even threatening; a figure in the distance will be less so. A figure placed at the edge of a picture will have a different feeling from a figure located in the center. Do you look up, down, or across at the figure in a portrait?
- Is the still-life landscape high or low?
- Do you get a bird’s-eye view?
- Are you near or far?
- Do you seem to be standing at the center of things or off to one side?
- Your distance from the subject, and the point of view that you are given, establishes a psychological relationship with what is in the painting. What psychological relationship is established between you and this painting?
- What is the relationship of the main figure to the background?
- How important is the setting?
- How much of the background do you see?
- How much detail is given around the figure?
- Is the painting evenly balanced (symmetrical)? Is it asymmetrical? Does it build up gradually? Are the figures crowded?
- Consider the space. How are you carried back into the picture? Gradually? Predictably? Or are you snapped back suddenly into the distance? Is the space orderly? Measurable? Ambiguous (confusing; unclear)? Is it deep or shallow? Is it flat?
9. Are there any symbols? What are they?
10. What is the artist’s tone? Mood? Atmosphere?
11. What message is the artist sending? What is the artist’s purpose?
12. How does this piece of art reflect the artist’s personality? Is there
evidence of a political or social viewpoint?
13. How does this piece of art reflect the artist’s life? (only if students
have knowledge of the artist’s life)
14. How does the art reflect the historical time in which it was created?
15. Do you like the painting? Why?
16. What would you say to the artist about this piece of art?
Discussing Artistic Elements
These are several suggestions for discussing artistic elements:
Ø Colors can be warm or cool. It can be sweet, sour, luscious, luminous, velvety, harsh or gentle.
Ø A mixing of the senses may be evident—colors can scream, whisper, etc.
Ø Light can be warm and cool, hot or cold; it can be harsh, gentle, cheerful or eerie (strange; weird; creepy).
Ø Texture can be rough or polished, heavy or light, turbulent (stormy) or serene.
Ø Brushstrokes can be deft (skillful), dashing, turbulent, coarse or refined.
Ø Shapes can be gentle, graceful, robust, eccentric or harsh.
Ø Lines can be graceful, nervous, gentle, violent, soft, strong, elegant or crude.
Ø The surface arrangement can be balanced, stately, harmonious, simple, complex or chaotic.
Ø Rhythms can be quick, graceful, regular, off-beat, solemn or monotonous.
Ø Space can be tense, serene, constricting, ample, logical or dreamlike.
Ask students to think of a painting as having a personality. Can you see it as happy, gentle, vigorous, ferocious, pompous (pretentious; snobby; show-off), honest, polished, coarse, loud, quiet, elegant or sensuous? Or, can you think if it as having a certain taste or flavor or fragrance?
Relating Art to Literature
The first step in relating art to literature is to have students go through the art criticism process by using appropriate questions from the list. The next step is to ask students to look for relationships between the selected piece of art and the literature being studied. These are several examples:
Ø Compare the central figure in the art to the protagonist or antagonist.
Ø Compare the settings.
Ø Compare the artist’s purpose with the writer’s purpose.
Ø Discuss how the theme of the literary work is also found in the art work.
Ø Compare the mood, tone and atmosphere.
Ø Compare the conflict, both internal and external.
Ø Discuss similar historical, political and/or social references.
Ø Discuss whether the theme(s) of in the literature is reflected in the art.
The final step in art/literature activities should be to have students
complete a written response based on their viewpoint. The evidence
should include both artistic elements and literary elements.
Horowitz, Frederick A. More Than You See. New York: Harcourt
Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1992.
Mittler, Gene A. Art in Focus. New York: Glencoe, 1989