How to Read a Painting

There are two styles of writing about art: looking at a painting and imagining a story based on it, and analyzing a painting and creating a story based on the artist’s process.

What do I mean by this, and what is the difference?  Okay, let’s look at a painting, The Old Guitarist by Picasso (image found at

One way of telling a story about this man would be to simply look at the painting and think, “Here’s an old guy with a guitar.  Hmm…I bet there’s a story in there somewhere.”  Then you start imagining what the man’s name is, and his family’s background.

But I prefer another approach.  I referenced this earlier by calling it “reading a painting.”  We can read a painting as surely as we read a book.  I should add that I am no expert, just someone who would eat art if allowed.  This is how I do it, anyway.

First, you stare at the painting.  Then you let it stare at you.  There is no room for the coy stuff here.  You open yourself to feel everything the artist means for you to feel and more.  If you are weak, forget about it.  You may even need to plant your feet wide apart.  (I have been known to faint in the presence of art.  No kidding.)

Then stare some more.  This only works if the painting calls to you.  I know it sounds over the top but I believe there is something about looking at a painting that reveals more than a little part of someone’s soul (both the observer’s and the artist’s). I know that I would likely have disliked many artists had I known them, but by seeing art rather than the artist, the man or woman does not get in the way.

Just as one does when reading a novel, one can read in many different ways.  I love color, and I will often trace the colors.  Obviously blue is an important color in this painting.  Starting at the top there is a strata of blues that seem to weigh on the character’s head which we quickly notice is cocked at an unnatural angle, suggesting perhaps that the character is dead.  That he looks like a saint adds to this thought.

The blue of the wall behind the guitarist is in a couple of wide bands of the same color that his gown is.  Everything is blue.  Of course blue immediately suggests sadness.  But it could also mean dusk.  Again, his age also suggests the setting of the sun of his life.

The man is folded in upon himself in a protective way.  He is in his own world and wants to stay there.  The cut of his clothing hints at poverty, but he is clueless of it since he is lost in his world of music. The guitar, a light brown to beige with a normally somber brown neck actually looks like a light source compared to the shadows of the blue.

Now, this is only one way to read the painting.  Of course I wouldn’t use what I just actually wrote in a piece of fiction based on the painting, but I would use what it has told me about the painting to build the story.

I would go further and study the brushstrokes, the shapes, the light source.  I would speculate on why there are both patches of blue and light on his forehead and legs and I would make much of it!  Picasso has told us more than enough to understand this man.  But had I not studied the painting, my story might have begun with this:

“The old man was cold, but on he played.”

AFTER studying the painting, I would be more likely to say something like:

“He didn’t much mind that he was dying, since he found his fingers played almost as well as they always had.  The closer he approached the place of blue the faster he played, as if redeeming something of his bloodstream.”

Getting INSIDE of the painting is vital to understanding it and allowing it to suggest a story.

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