Tools for understanding art

Why does a work of art look the way it does? Who made it and why? What does it mean? These questions and others like them lie at the heart of art historical inquiry.

videos + essays

We're adding new content all the time!

Light and shadow
Light and shadow

Whether setting the mood or celebrating the divine, artists play with light. Sometimes, they even sculpt with it.

Surface and Depth
Surface and Depth

What makes paintings feel as deep as the view from a window or as flat as a wall?

The Power to Look
The Power to Look

Artists use various strategies to set up a dynamic relationship between artwork, maker, and viewer.

Introduction to art historical analysis
Introduction to art historical analysis

We can approach an artwork as a physical object, a visual experience, a cultural artifact—or as all three.

How to do visual (formal) analysis
How to do visual (formal) analysis

Start by looking closely—really closely. Now let’s talk about scale, composition, space, form, line, color, tone…

The Case for Copying
The Case for Copying

Artists don’t just imitate the world around them—they copy each other, reworking old images and revising history.

Atmospheric perspective explained
Atmospheric perspective explained

As we look into the distance, we lose visual clarity. The specificity of color also decreases.

Foreshortening explained
Foreshortening explained

Renaissance artists relied upon this strategy to render the natural world. Get a tutorial at the School of Athens.

Contrapposto explained
Contrapposto explained

Don’t stand so straight! Relax. Shift your weight. Bend a knee. Just respond to the world, like this spear-bearer.

Classical orders of architecture explained
Classical orders of architecture explained

These decorative systems once adorned Greek temples. It’s an ancient language, but we still speak it today.

Linear perspective explained
Linear perspective explained

No Photoshop! Just a vanishing point, a horizon line, and some orthogonals—that’s the magic formula for reality.

Chiaroscuro explained
Chiaroscuro explained

This technique captures transitions from light to dark. As Titian knew, it creates the illusion of volume and mass.

Selected Contributors | Tools for understanding art