How To Analyze a Painting

In a recent post I analyzed a work of art by Barry McGee, identifying the elements and principles of design. Today I want to look at a painting by Kerry James Marshall.

As a reminder I’ve included a list of the elements and principles of design. For more detailed information refer to our book Design: A Beginner’s Handbook.

The elements are dot/point; line; shape; space; texture; value; color.

The principles are unity/variety; balance; grid; emphasis/focal point; scale and proportion; pattern; rhythm; motion and time.

Some compositions will have all of these at work, while others will employ some elements and principles but not others.

"Club Couple," a painting by Kerry James Marshall

In his 30 year career as an artist Kerry James Marshall has explored black identity. Noting the lack of black faces throughout historical accounts he creates art that is an affirmation of black history and black daily life, making a “declaration that the subject is worthy…” of our attention.

This painting, Untitled (Club Couple), is part of a series called Look See. Of this series Marshall says, “What I’m trying to do with these is to allow the figure, the subject in the picture, to have a kind of self-possessed quality. They’re sort of indifferent to the spectator, sometimes totally indifferent, but at the same time I try to create this aura of desire around the figure.” In an ArtNews article about the series Andrew Russeth writes that “The works ask questions, with a quiet but unveiled directness, about who is allowed to view another person, and about who is allowed—or simply is good enough—to be viewed, praised, and adored, and how race and class shape those discussions… he (Marshall) conjures a wide and nuanced range of emotions from what at first appear to be relatively straightforward domestic scenes. Once you start looking, his warm, sincere devotion to detail makes you feel at home there, like you are visiting places where you would like to spend some time.”

The question becomes how does Marshall use the elements and principles of design to achieve his aims?

First, what do we see? A happy couple smiling for an unknown spectator, while the man sneaks his hand around the woman’s back to reveal a box holding an engagement ring. This is a joyous moment. Marshall wants no confusion here and uses a unified composition with strong and clear shape relationships contained in a square canvas. This square shape compacts and simplifies the scene while focusing our attention directly on the couple. The stability of the composition reinforces the stability of the couple’s relationship.

Scale is an important aspect of this work.The painting is 5ft x 5ft. The size is not accidental. In an interview with Martin Coomer in TimeOut Marshall said “I’m making a declaration that the subject is worthy of that kind of monumental treatment. Too often if you look back through the history of representation and you take the work of African-American artists, the work is on such a modest scale that it becomes sort of inconsequential.

Working with unity and variety Marshall creates an extremely balanced artwork. He uses a full range of lines, shapes and colors but unifies the painting by repeating them throughout the piece.

In structuring the painting Marshall employs bold vertical and horizontal lines. There is the salmon colored horizontal band of wallpaper in the upper part of the canvas, the white line of the edge of the table top, the edge of the woman’s seat cushion, all of which are balanced by the vertical steel pole supporting the table and the vertical uprights of the chair. These create a loose grid that adds even more balance to the painting.

The background of the piece uses geometric shapes – squares, rectangles, and circles which balance the organic forms of the couple. These geometric shapes also establish the rhythm of the painting, the small shapes part of a melodic passage contained in the movement of the larger bands of color.

Pattern is a major component of this painting. There is the overall grid pattern that is in dialogue with the patterned wallpaper, the loose patterning found on the woman’s dress and what looks to be ovals of reflected light in the background. All of these patterns add to the sense of joy in the painting, creating movement and a light sensibility.

The patterning in the painting makes a shallow pictorial space that pushes the couple forward toward the viewer, fairly screaming Here We Are, Look at Us, and yes, we are good enough to be viewed, praised and adored.

Marshall has talked about his symbolic use of color, which is found in this painting. “The blackness of my figures is supposed to be unequivocal, absolute and unmediated. They are a response to the tendency in the culture to privilege lightness. The lighter the skin, the more acceptable you are. The darker the skin, the more marginalized you become. I want to demonstrate that you can produce beauty in the context of a figure that has that kind of velvety blackness. It can be done.

In addition to this symbolic use of color Marshall uses color and value to emphasize the rhythm and balance of the composition. The lighter pastel shapes catch our attention, our eyes jumping from one to another. This enlivens the composition.

All of the elements and principles at use in this piece, Club Couple, are used in service to Marshall’s larger intent. Nothing is arbitrary.

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