Analysing a picture

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Pictures are meant to be looked at, to attract people’s attention and to strike their imagination or to give a message. Their aim may be information, protest, ideology or personal representation. They require a specific language that needs deciphering so as to understand the artist’s message. In order to decipher a picture, various steps are necessary.

I. Identifying and describing

1) Nature and origin

First identify the nature of the picture: it can be a painting, a photograph, a caricature, a cartoon or an ad (= an advert or advertisement), etc. Pick up all relevant information you can find: title, artist’s name, date. If the picture is coupled with a caption, read it carefully, as it will help you define the main topic of the picture and its social and historical context.


caption: title or brief explanation or comment accompanying an illustration

2) Structure and content

You can then pay attention to the layout (disposition), then the setting and characters of your document.

The layout is very important as it gives clues: the number of parts, the positioning (find out the focal point), the colours, light and shading, contrasts, the arrangements of volumes and shapes are key features that help understand the overall effect.

Before describing what takes place, it is necessary to locate the scene so as to avoid misinterpreting the picture under study. When describing the characters always examine carefully their gestures, actions, body language, gaze and facial expressions.

All these elements provide the general atmosphere conveyed by the picture.

II. Construing and interpreting the intentions

1) Emotions and Symbols

To analyse the artist’s intentions, first concentrate on the emotions the picture arouses when you look at it. Try to describe what the image spontaneously evokes in you both positively and negatively, and what it is in the picture that makes you feel that way.

Secondly identify the symbolic elements the picture contains. For example you can wonder if the doves represented in your picture stand for peace or if the colour red means danger, love or prohibition?


A symbol is a thing that stands for something else. Usually, it consists of a real object used to represent something more abstract or complex.

2) The artist’s goals

To fully understand the artist’s message, focus on the cultural, historical or artistic context as it may give further significant information. Relate them to all your findings so as to stress the artist’s intentions.

You should consider the purpose for which the image was created. Attempts to influence? To sell something? To denounce a situation? Who is the picture aimed at?


How to situate the various elements in a picture

So as to describe what you can see as precisely as possible, use these prepositions.