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How to interpret art

A guide to interpret contemporary art for Art collectors

While there’s no right or wrong way to view art, particular pieces can draw up different feelings in us. But how do you go about interpreting a piece of art, knowing that it’s so subjective?

With art-related topics on the rise over the past 12 months1, we spoke to our Head Curator, Marion Sailhen, who shared her expert tips on how to interpret your favorite pieces.

1.Understand the Artist

When it comes to understanding the artist, you should delve into their background and other pieces of work they’ve created, by taking these four aspects into consideration:


Many schools are famous for specific movements. For example, Goldsmith is known for its alumni of young British artists and was the place of study for Damian Hirst; and the Royal Academy is often referred to as one of the elite schools, with very strong formal training.

By looking into which school the artist went to, you can learn a lot about the environment they practiced in, and their foundations.


Once emerging artists have finished school, they often head off to a residency. Find out the name of the residency if you can, including which artists went there before them.


More often than not, group exhibitions are centered around a specific topic or theme, which in turn can provide a hint to what movements the artist is interested in, associated with, or inspired by.


If an artist’s work is more established, they’re likely to have their work featured in a local – or even national – museum. Take a look at the exhibition their work was featured in, to understand where their practice is situated in the art historical context.

2.Consider the Concept Behind the Piece

Without basic knowledge of art history, it can be hard to understand the context or meaning of a specific piece of art. The more you read into different themes or movements, the more you learn about it, and you’ll learn your own personal tastes too.

Once you’ve read into the different types of movements, you’ll be able to see what type a particular piece is from (although it’s important to remember that movements are becoming less important in contemporary art).

If the piece of art is conceptual, it might be harder to read, but you can still determine the movement it’s from – you just need to remove the objects depicted and see them as ideas instead.

Situate the artwork into a series and rework the idea and over and over to test the limits of what your idea can do.

3.Ask Questions about the artwork

When asking questions about the artwork, it’s easy to break it down section-by-section. As a guide, the first things you should be questioning are the medium and the method (e.g. by palette knife or airbrush). To find your answer, you’ll need to get as close to the piece of art as possible.

The second thing to consider and question is the size – sometimes it’s an intentional choice of the artists, but it may not be that considered if they’re more focused on the theme. The same goes for color: have they created a piece of artwork that’s as big as possible so it can be absorbed by the color?

4.Consider the steps the artist took

The next thing to consider when interpreting art, is to think about what may have inspired the artist to create their masterpiece – particularly if there was a cultural movement occurring around the time of creation.

Not all artists respond to current or historic events, but the ones that do tend to be more well-known. Just three examples of movements that inspired pieces of art are:

  • Futurism: This is an Italian art movement that responded to the spirit of revolution and the progression of tech.
  • Pop Art: This was a response to consumerism, the production of work and the rise of capitalism in the mid-20th century – Andy Warhol is particularly well-known in this movement.
  • Black Lives Matter: More recently, the BLM movement saw a huge increase in artists of color; and the African art market is still continuing to grow, with more grants and investments on offer.

5.Think about how it makes you feel

Art can be influential, so by taking the time to think about how looking at a particular piece makes you feel, it could help you to understand what it means.

Whether you love it, hate it, or find it disgusting, good art makes you feel something. By feeling these emotions, you’ll think more deeply into the piece of art, which will probably make you want to find out even more about it.

6.Understand that all interpretations are valid

One of the most important things to remember, is that art is subjective, and there’s no right or wrong answer. However, you want to interpret it at a surface or deeper level, remember that all reasonings are relevant and valid.

When an artist releases a piece of art into the world, they are giving up control behind the understanding and interpretation of their work, as everyone can view it as they choose to. 

7.Speak to others

By talking to different people about how they feel and view the piece of work, you can start to build up a bigger picture, and it may even change your feelings towards it. After all, art is available to everyone – anyone can go to a gallery and enjoy and appreciate it. So, when interpreting a piece of art, speak to others who have seen it, to get their views on it.

Whether you’re a seasoned art appreciator or are just beginning to experience a new-found love for it, don’t be afraid to dig a little deeper into that particular piece of work you love, to see how you – and others around you – interpret it. 

For more inspiration – whether it’s for tips on how to start your own art collection, or how to look at artwork online – head on over to our magazine.


  1. Google Search Trends for the topic ‘art guide’ increased by +160% in America over the past 12 months. Data correct as of 15.07.21.