Figure and Ground

You remember the optical illusion of the black and white shapes that can be either a vase or two profiles facing each other, right? This is a simple example of figure and ground. The figure is the subject (not necessarily a person, but the emotional focus), and the ground is the area which that figure occupies. Just think of the figure as the main thing in the painting, and the ground as the background.

Going back to our faces and vases, if you see faces then they are the figures and the vase shape is the ground. If you see a vase, then the vase is the figure and the faces are the ground. But making the figure and ground dance together is one of the main challenges of art. There are exceptions, but this concept will help you fake your way through most of what you'll see in the average (or great) museum.

Different artists (and different art movements) solve the figure/ground problem in different ways. So when you look at a work of art, look closely at where the figure meets the ground. Is it a crisp edge, or does it blur so that it's hard to tell where one begins and the other ends? Is the ground lighter or darker than the figure? Is it darker in some places and lighter in others? Announce what you observe loudly and importantly, and gesture toward the work with fluid flicks of the wrist.

Talking about the figure/ground will impress your companions and cause other museum-goers to follow you, hoping to catch a few crumbs of your obviously exhaustive knowledge of art.

Light and Color

It seems simple, but look at the colors in works of art. Are they bright? Muted? Are they all similar or does it look like Walt Disney threw up? And what about the light? Where is the source light? Is it sunlight? Candlelight? Headlights? How does the light affect the mood? Practice on this work by Jan Vermeer.

The way that color and light come together is a big part of many works of art. The thing to keep in mind as you're looking at this stuff is that it's not a photograph (unless, of course, you're looking at a photograph). Thus, every color, shadow, and highlight had to be put there by hand. Did they do a good job? With experience you'll be able to confidently judge. Or confidently fake it, which is what most art-types do anyway.

Unity and Variety

Each work of art has elements of unity and elements of variety. Some ways of creating unity might be to make everything in a painting a similar color, or to have a series of repeating shapes, or a consistent texture made with brush strokes. Variety balances out unity and keeps things interesting. At times, variety is used to cause the eye to pay particular attention to that object. Ask yourself why the artist would bother trying to single out your attention to that object.